The Courland (Kurzeme) Society for Literature and Art (1815–1939) – the first point of reference for the later Latvian Academy of Sciences


The Courland (Kurzeme) Society for Literature and Art (1815–1939) – the first point of reference for the later Latvian Academy of Sciences

Jānis Stradiņš

The numerals representing six years are embroidered on the standard of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, years which mark important moments in the history of the Academy of Sciences and characterize a certain succession: 1815, 1869, 1932, 1936, 1946, and 1992. The first of the years is 1815, the year in which the Courland (Kurzeme) Society for Literature and Art was founded.

The Courland Society for Literature and Art (Kurländische Gesellschaft für Literatur und Kunst, Курляндское Общество любителей словесности и художеств) was born in 1815, it was a construct of the enlightenment, which emerged soon after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars at the time when, in the climate of the liberal reforms of Czar Alexander I, serfdom was abolished in the three Baltic “German” provinces:1817 in Kurzeme (Courland) province, 1819 in Vidzeme (Livland) province and even earlier in the province of Estonia (Estland).

The founders of the society, on 23 November 1815, were eight well–known public figures of Mitau (Courland) – 6 liberal members of nobility and functionaries of the province (incl. Ulrich von Schlippenbach, Alexander Medem, Georg von Fölkersahm), the history professor of the Mitau Gymnasium Illustre and freemason Karl Wilhelm Cruse (1765–1834) and the well–known historian, former archivist of the last duke of Courland and founder of the Mitau museum Johann Friedrich von Recke (1764–1846). Their aim was to form a local forum for exchange of views on topical scientific and social problems, to build a bridge between East and West (between Russia and Germany) and to create an intellectual link among the three Baltic provinces, first of all for the native German–speaking Literaten, though not forgetting the inhabitants of Latvian descent, who were to be soon released from the yoke of serfdom. An outline of the future perspectives for the free Latvians and Estonians was discussed.

Courland was incorporated as a province in the Russian Empire comparatively late (1795), considerably later than Livland, and intellectually it was much closer to the West and to Germany, especially the Kingdom of Prussia. Memories of the Duchy of Courland and its cultural and educational centre, the Academia Petrina, which had functioned here 1775, and its years of glory were still alive and bright. Formally, for 109 days in the beginning of the year 1801, University of Mitau was in existence (only the assassination of Czar Paul I and coronation of Alexander I transferred the university for the Baltic provinces to Dorpat – Tartu). The representatives of Courland were offended by the fact that the University had been founded in Dorpat, not in Mitau (Jelgava), and they presumed to have compensated for this by founding the new Society. After General–governor Philip Paulucci had validated the statutes of the Society in 1816, the founders held the first constituent session and elected 127 more members representing all three provinces, other towns of the Russian Empire and foreign countries, regarding the Society as a sort of complement of Dorpat University. The new Society was created after the example of the scientific societies of the German and Italian ministates, which operated under the protectorate of a ruler or high–standing person (in the opening speech by K. W. Cruse, made mention of even the Royal Society of London). On that score, election of the last duchess of Courland Dorothea Biron to the status of the first honorary member of the CSLA was significant; 1000 silver thalers were donated by her for the Society on condition that it had to be located in Courland – this means that there had been a possibility of its transfer to Dorpat or Riga.

The Society tried to attract as wide circle of prominent persons as possible by electing as its members people of a broad range of intellectual interests, such as scientists, artists and writers, as well as pastors and public servants from all of the Baltic provinces – Riga, Dorpat and Estonia included.

In a scientific sense, the most creative and productive was the first decade of the Society’s existence during the reign of Alexander I, but no longer during that of Nikolai I. Although the Society kept on functioning up until the repatriation of the Baltic Germans in 1939 and experiencing both ups and downs, in later years it gradually turned its attention to local history studies, as well as to studies of historic and artistic assets of Courland, and became the main support for the formation of the Courland Province Museum (founded by J. F. von Recke in 1818). In essence the Society became a group of friends and trustees of the Museum. Socially challenging and large–scale scientific projects are associated mainly with the initial period of the Society.

By 1915, 1124 people, including such world–famous figures in science as F. Gauss (mathematician), N. Karamzin (historian), K. E. von Baer (biologist), V. Struve (astronomer), T. Grotthuss (chemist), J. Krusenstern (world traveler), J. Engelhardt (founder of the Czarskoje Selo Lyceum, Pushkin’s educator), J. Grimm (linguist), G. Schweinfurt (explorer of Africa), F. Wiedemann (linguist), K. Schirren (historian), L. Resa (theology professor at the Königsberg University, researcher of Lithuanian culture), A. Betzenberger (linguist), A. J. Sjögren (academician of St. Petersburg), H. Rose (chemist, discoverer of niobium) a.o., were elected members or honorary members of the Society.

Among the members of the Society, such Baltic scientists and workers in the arts as D. H. Grindel, G. Merkel, J. Ch. Brotze, A. Hupel, K. G. Sonntag, O. Huhn, K. Schiemann, K. Watson, A. Bielenstein, K. Grewing, G. Bergmann, I. Brennsohn should be mentioned.

The dowager duchess Dorothea, Marquis F. Paulucci, Grand Duke Karl Friedrich of Saxe–Weimar–Eisenach and President of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences S. Uvarov were among the honorary members of the Society.

Certainly only a small group, a few tens of people, played an active part, the others of those elected contributed to the reputation and image of the Society.

The main aims of the Society, as defined in the initial statutes, were:

1) to create a place for association for those wishing to become acquainted with the progress of literature and arts as well as to become involved in it;

2) for the local friends of literature and art – to facilitate their familiarization with foreign experience in these fields, and, for the foreigners, to help to learn what has been done in the Russian Empire;

3) to acquaint people with inventions and discoveries, useful in the everyday life, and to resist harmful preconceptions.

Soon afterwards (28 March 1817) the first supplemented version of the Statutes (Erste Beilage zu den Statuten), which provided a much wider interpretation of the functions of the Society, was endorsed:

“Its aim in the fields of 1) history and literature, 2) pure science and 3) schooling of the people is to create a place of mental base and cohesion, a closer scientific link and a possibility of cooperation among the Baltic German provinces of Russia [die deutsche Ostseeprovinzen Russlands – at the time, this was the title of provinces of Courland, Livland and Estland – J.S.].

The first scientific literary aim of the Society is to make use of the advantageous geographical position of Courland, in order to, by means of correspondence with its members, unite the activities in the field of science and arts, and create a position for interchange of knowledge, in the various provinces of Russia, especially the Baltic German provinces, and abroad [..]. It.. assumes all care in order to supply information not only on the cultural situation of the German inhabitants of the Baltic provinces, but also on the Latvian and Estonian peoples, their language, poetry, religion [..].

On the second, purely scientific plane, the Society will endeavor not only to collect the diffused works of science and art of its members in the Baltic provinces as well as to join their forces for a common goal, and amplification of activeness and impetuosity of the motherland’s scientists; it also desires to attract a wide circle of those interested, to broaden understanding and impetuosity in the learned spheres, to spread and popularize important results of science, relevant for the social life.”

Thus, “the first supplemented version of the Statutes” gave a very general interpretation of the term “literature and art”, assigning to it also science, natural sciences included.

1 Excerpt from the Report at the LAS Autumn General Meeting, 24 November 2005

Powered by Elxis - Open Source CMS