Tallinn, March 14 — Lennart Meri, the former president of Estonia who symbolized in his own person the principle of the continuity of that Baltic republic’s statehood, died in his sleep early this morning after a long battle with cancer.
Born on March 29, 1929 —coincidentally the date on which a then-very-junior U.S. diplomat named George F. Kennan arrived in Estonia — Lennart Meri was the son of one of Estonia’s most distinguished pre-war diplomats and grew up in the Estonian missions in Paris and Berlin, learning to perfection not only those languages but English as well.
When the Soviet Union occupied Estonia in 1940 under the terms of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany the year before, the entire Meri family was arrested and then deported to a village near Sverdlovsk. There, the 12 year-old Lennart perfected his Russian as he made friends with local children and picked potatoes to feed his family.
After the war, Lennart Meri returned with his family to Estonia, where he studied at the University of Tartu, subsequently becoming a broadcaster, a film maker and a writer — but in every case using his remarkable talents both for using language and making friends to play what he called “his little games” to present Estonia and Estonians to a broader world.
Like other Estonians living under occupation, Lennart Meri often was put in the position of having to choose between withdrawal from the public sphere — something that was not part of his nature — and other options, most if not all of which entailed risks of being used by the enemies of the Estonian people and the Estonian state.
Because he took those risks, he was regularly accused of having worked for the wrong people. But because he was far more clever than those who sought to exploit him, he invariably succeeded in turning the tables on them, typically in ways that they did not expect and always to the benefit of his country.
When in the 1980s Estonians launched their drive to recover de facto what they had never lost de jure, Lennart Meri was one of the participants in this effort who represented the link between pre-occupation Estonia and this rebirth. Indeed, a consciousness of this link was something that informed both his actions and his statements to the end of his life.
As this effort intensified, Lennart Meri served as Estonia’s foreign minister, regularly travelling to the capitals of the world with his Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues to force the world to focus on what was happening in these countries, and to convince world leaders that they should stand up to Mikhail Gorbachev and support Baltic independence.
After the August 1991 coup in Moscow, which opened the way for Estonia to resume her proper place in the international scene, Lennart Meri continued first as foreign minister and then after a brief spell as Estonia’s ambassador to Finland — yet another country whose language he spoke brilliantly — Lennart Meri was elected and then reelected president of his country.
As a result, Estonia in the 1990s had one of the oldest presidents — symbolizing the continuity of Estonia with the pre-war republic — in Europe, even as it had one of the youngest prime ministers, Mart Laar, who stood for Estonia’s desire to look beyond the Soviet occupation not just to the past but also to the future.
While serving as president, Lennart Meri helped to negotiate the withdrawal of Russian troops, oversaw what many have called Estonia’s economic miracle, and reminded Estonians and the world of why their country and its uninterrupted existence as a state from 1920 is important not only for them as a historical fact but for the world as a guarantee of the future.
Lennart Meri has already been the subject of several biographies and there will be more to come — his achievements in all the various spheres of his activity are simply too important for it to be otherwise.
But there is one aspect of his life which those of us who were privileged to know him personally must make sure is recorded before people have time to forget.
Lennart Meri had an amazing ability to make friends, to reach out to people, be they presidents or the poorest of his countrymen, literary scholars and filmmakers or those who had never read a book in their lives, and to those who began with a basic affection for Estonia and those who had a different set of feelings.
The author of these lines was among those who was privileged to know Lennart, as he was invariably called by his friends regardless of the office he was holding at the moment, for more than 15 years I first met him in Copenhagen on August 15, 1990, when he served as Estonia’s foreign minister and I was director of research at Radio Liberty.
I had flown up to the Danish capital with Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then head of the Estonian Service at Radio Free Europe and later Estonia’s ambassador to Washington and foreign minister, to meet Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar and Lennart Meri.
That is a meeting I will never forget, not so much for its content, as important as that was to be for me when I returned to the State Department several weeks later to work on the desk for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but rather for what happened at the very end of that session.
The two Estonian officials had an earlier flight back to Helsinki, from where they would travel by boat to Estonia, than we did back to Munich. As the two Estonian officials gathered up their things, Lennart scurried about gathering up into his briefcase all the bananas in the bowls of fruit put on on the tables of that elegant room.
As he did so, he grinned at me. I did not fully understand just what that grin meant until I moved to Estonia two years ago. But there I quickly came to understand why Lennart had done as he did. In Soviet times, Estonians could not buy bananas, and unless they were able to travel to Moscow or beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, many of them had never actually held a banana in their hands. Lennart simply wanted to take bananas home to his daughter.
Now, with Estonia a full member of NATO and the European Union, Estonians can get bananas and much else besides. Indeed, one often sees Estonian students eating bananas on the street. But many of them probably have no recollection of the times when that was not possible.
During one of the last times I visited Lennart in his hospital room, I told him that rather than bring him flowers, I would prefer to bring him a banana. He grinned at me and nodded — his illness had already prevented him from speaking. But he knew just what I was referring to and why it was important.
Now Lennart is gone. Along with so many others, I have lost a very dear friend. But I will never look at a banana or indeed many other things without thinking of the man who played such an important role not only in maintaining the continuity of his own country but in the lives of so many others, including my own.
Lennart Meri (1929-2006) — The passing of the symbol of the continuity of Estonia