Noor-Tartu (Young-Tartu) was founded by students at the Tartu State University in 1979, with the aim of doing something useful but not being related to the Komsomol organisation. The core of the movement was made up of Mart Laar, Lauri Vahtre, Heiki Valk, Mart Kalm and Tõnis Lukas. Most of the activists were history students, although the movement was open to other students too. Noor-Tartu had no permanent membership. There were ten to 15 more active members, but on the work days about 100 people altogether contributed to the movement. The exact number of people is not known, because they were never counted. Much more people took part in the open cultural events organised under the name of Noor-Tartu, including many writers and dissidents.
The movement was based on the example of the school student movement Kodulinn (Hometown), which was active in Tallinn. The idea was brought to Tartu by Mart Laar. Until the spring of 1981, the movement used the name Kodulinn, but it was forced to abandon it because the Komsomol organisation in Tartu formed a school student organisation under the same name to counteract and generate confusion (this organisation became unpopular and disappeared quickly). The new name Noor-Tartu came from the name of the writers' group Noor-Eesti (Young-Estonia), which existed in the first half of the 20th century.
Noor-Tartu carried out work in Tartu and its surroundings, especially in the Old St John’s Cemetery (part of the Raadi Cemetery). During the winter, its members collected antiquities from old suburbs for the City Museum. The point of these activities was to unite people through cooperation. The movement obtained a basement room in the city centre from the city administration, which they used to begin and end their work days, and for entertainment and cultural events (such as literary trials to judge figures in the national revival in the 19th century). These experiences were also used by members of the movement in later life.
As a movement without a legal status, Noor-Tartu was soon discredited by the authorities. It was particularly suspected of having connections with dissidents, which was an easier charge to make. Direct assaults begun in February 1983, after a work day under the announcement ‘Don't be afraid of anybody or anything!’ In the same spring, Lauri Vahtre was expelled from the university, and afterwards other activists in the movement were interrogated by the KGB. They avoided direct repressions, though. However, younger students, potential new members, were successfully influenced by the scare tactics of the Party organisation at the university and the dean’s office. Under these conditions, the movement attempted to ‘legalise’ itself, but it was unsuccessful. There was no organisation ready to take on responsibility for Noor-Tartu and risk new problems. The movement gave in to the pressure, and decided to halt its activities at the end of 1984.