Tartu ülikooli hoidja Jaan Sarv

Jaan Sarv, Keeper of the University of Tartu

  • Terje Lõbu


Jaan Sarv (1877–1954), who is primarily known for being a Professor
of Mathematics at the University of Tartu, had an important part in
launching the Estonian-language university at a time when Tartu
was governed by the Commune of the Working People of Estonia. In
December 1918, a stressful time for the Republic of Estonia, when
the Red Army was approaching Tartu, the University’s curator Peeter
Põld was forced to leave the city to save his life. He appointed Jaan
Sarv as his substitute.
Sarv, who had thus far been a teacher, took over the responsibilities
of curator on 20 December 1918 and managed to keep the university
safe. The university had not started Estonian-language instruction
yet, but both economic and personnel issues needed to be solved.
Sarv managed the university’s buildings and assets but also had to
find firewood for heating. To organise all of this, he had to try and
keep the university staff away from political chasms since workers’
councils were also formed within the institution at the behest of the
communist powers.
Managing the university became especially difficult for the honest-
minded Sarv starting from the first days of 1919 when Artur Vallner,
commissary of the Commune of the Working People of Estonia’s
education and culture administration, arrived in Tartu and appointed
Sarv the head of the Commune of the Working People of Estonia’s
university, a command that he could not contradict. Sarv was tasked
with preparing the university’s budget and articles of association. At
a time when red terror held sway over Tartu, the only fulfilling activity
available for Sarv, a humane and independent thinker, was writing
the articles of association for the university. Although he had to
use the term ‘the Commune of the Working People of Estonia’, the
document that Sarv wrote cannot be considered the articles of association
of a communist university. While the University of Tartu never
started functioning with the structure Sarv had planned, several of
his principles found favour with those who directed the university’s work in later periods. One must commend Sarv’s effort and ideas in
preparing a platform for the Estonian-language university, since he
had nothing to emulate in founding a university for a newly created
nation state.
In late January 1919 when Tartu was freed of the red forces and
the university’s curator came back, Sarv could leave the position that
had been so averse to his nature. As a consolation prize for maintaining
and protecting the university under a foreign regime, Sarv was
permitted to go on a study trip to Europe that he had been planning
already the previous year so as to implement the best foreign educational
experiences upon his return to Tartu. Sarv spent his time
in the libraries of Helsinki, Copenhagen and London absorbing new
knowledge from March to August in 1919. When Sarv returned home,
he became Professor of Mathematics and Dean of the Faculty of Natural
Sciences and continued contributing into building the system of
higher education with Estonian as the language of instruction. Sarv
taught mathematics at the University of Tartu until 1951. Sarv was
a person who liked to come up with original ideas but tried to get rid
of supervisory positions as quickly as possible with the pretext that
“the Monomakh’s Cap didn’t fit [him]”.


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