Gustav Adolph Oldekop



Gustav Adolph Oldekop (2. XII / 21. XI 1755 – 8. V / 26. IV 1838) was a Baltic-German man of letters, a poet in the South Estonian language and the founder of the first Estonian newspaper.

He was born in Haapsalu, the son of the rector of the town school. He studied at Tallinn Dome school, and from 1774 to 1780 the University of Halle. In 1780 he passed the examination of Candidate in Theology in Riga. He worked as a pastor in Põlva from 1781 to 1820. After the death of his first spouse in 1804, he began living with the Estonian housekeeper and nanny of the motherless children on the church estates, with whom he evidently got to practice Tartu dialect. Oldekop married her in 1820, but he had to give up his pastoral position because of his marriage to an Estonian in Livonia, with its strict class distinctions, and after falling into disgrace with the Germans and church circles, he left Põlva the same year. Thereafter he moved with his large family (18 children from two marriages, according to some sources 19) to Tartu, where his economic straits worsened.

In Tartu Oldekop worked as a translator, among other things translating into South Estonian the Livonian law on the peasantry of 1819, which abolished serfdom. He entered into close and polemical relations with the defender of the North Estonian language, O.W.Masing. Oldekop also adapted from German a book of natural history in the vein of the Enlightenment, Mötlemisse Jummala teggude päle ('Thoughts on the Works of God', 1822), which was intended as a textbook for peasant schools. Oldekop was unable to feed his family by his writing; he sustained them by other means, such as accommodating students and selling lunches. Oldekop died in Tartu, but was buried by his own wish in Põlva cemetery.
Oldekop compiled eight numbers of the South Estonian almanac called the Eesti-Ma Rahwa Kalender ('Estonian Land Folk’s Calendar', later called the Tarto-Ma Rahwa Kalender, 'Tartumaa Land Folk’s Calendar') starting from the first number in 1796 and ending with the almanac for 1833. Oldekop is known in Estonian culture primarily as the founder and editor of the first Estonian-language newspaper, Tarto maa rahwa Näddala-Leht ('Tartumaa Land Folk’s Weekly'). This paper was published by Oldekop and his first wife’s brother, Johann Philipp von Roth, pastor of Kanepi, who was an active promoter of popular education and the founder of the first parish school in Livonia and Estonia, at Kanepi, and the latter’s son, George Philipp August von Roth, later to be the first lecturer in Estonian language at the University of Tartu. Over 40 issues of the Tarto maa rahwa Näddala-Leht in the South Estonian language appeared in 1806-1807, until it was closed by order of the Tsar for publishing unsuitable reading matter for the peasantry (many items of foreign news appeared in it). The paper has been acknowledged as one of the world’s first regularly appearing newspapers for peasants.

In the first issue of Eesti-Ma Rahwa Kalender there appeared Oldekop’s first known translation of poetry; however, the 1796 almanac has not been preserved. The first poem by Oldekop to be preserved was dedicated to Tsar Aleksandr I: Ütte vanna moistlikko maa mihhe laul. Keisrille ('A Prudent Old Countryman’s Song to the Tsar'), in the first issue of Tarto maa rahwa Näddali-Leht in 1806. This poem appeared anonymously, however, as did several other poems by Oldekop, including perhaps his best-known poem Poisikesse rõõm talwe perrast ('A Little Boy’s Joy over Winter'). During his lifetime, only four poems appeared under Oldekop’s name, in the 16th issue of J.H. Rosenplänter’s journal Beiträge (1823). In 1965 the literary scholar Aarne Vinkel demonstrated that several more anonymous poems which later appeared under another name can be attributed to Oldekop. All of Oldekop’s known poems appeared for the first time in print in 1985 in the compilation Suve õdang ('Summer evening'), containing 19 original and 22 translated poems as well as 7 poems probably from Oldekop’s pen. The marginalization of Oldekop as a dialect poet may have been abetted by the diminished position of the South Estonian language in Estonian culture. In the early 19th century the victory of North Estonian as the basis of the national literary language was not yet assured. One well-known enthusiast for the language of Tartu was Oldekop’s brother-in-law, Johann Philipp von Roth.

Oldekop was one of the first consistent cultivators of secular poetry. His poems were primarily intended for singing in school lessons (and they were sung, at the Kanepi parish school established by J.P. von Roth), and in joyous tones they describe farm work, peasant life, and nature. Oldekop’s style is fluent, and the texts are often humorous. His knowledge of the Estonian language was much better than that of many other Baltic-German poets.

S. V. (Translated by C. M.)

Books in Estonian

Mötlemisse Jummala teggude päle. Saksa kelest om omma mele perra ümberkirjotanu G. A. Oldekop, kirriko oppetaja. Tartu, 1822, 130 lk.
Suve õdang. Ette valmistanud Aarne Vinkel. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1985, 135 lk.
Tarto maa rahwa näddali-lehe säilinud numbrid. koostanud Tõnu Tannberg. Tartu: Eesti Ajalooarhiiv; Kirjandusmuuseum, 1998, 40 lk. [Kättesaadav: