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by Norwegian Chef
Sun Mar 19th, 2006 at 06:10:05 AM EST
There are few real statesmen left today, but Estonia lost one of the best this week in Lennart Meri. He was the first President of Estonia after more than 50 years of illegal Soviet occupation. Acclaimed author, adventurer, linguist, historian, and statesman, he typified a lost generation of renaissance men, of great learned and intrepid European individuals who went on to become elder statesmen. A great maverick and a man of conscience. In this current Golden Age of Dogmatic Idiots led by Bush, Chirac, Berlusconi, Ahmadinejad, Putin and the like, what agreat loss for Estonia and the world.
Here are a few good eulogies:
From the diaries ~ whataboutbob
Lennart Meri (1929 -2006)
Estonian statesman, film director, and writer, acknowledged for his unique skill to make history vivid and exciting. Meri published a number of books based on his expeditions to Siberia, the Soviet Far East, and the Arctic. In these works Meri combined historical facts and a deep knowledge of folk poetry with subjective, poetic insight. His books have been translated into about a dozen languages. Meri's films in the 1970s and 1980s won international renown: The Winds of the Milky Way received a silver medal at the New York film festival. He also translated into Estonian works by Erich Maria Remarque, Graham Greene, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Pierre Boulle. In 1992 Meri was elected President of Estonia.
"In the past, when I still shot films about fishermen and hunters, I always had to admire their ability to perceive time in its entirety. They moved freely between the past and the future. For them, the present was not exactly secondary, but always temporary - like the hole in the ice for the seal, who surfaces there to breathe. Unfortunately, our civilisation has lost this bond between times, and tends to measure time with a yardstick, bit by bit, from one point to another..." (from Meri's speech on New Year's Eve 1999)
Lennart Meri was born in Tallinn, the son of the Estonian diplomat and translator Georg-Peeter Meri, and Alice-Brigitta (Engmann) Meri. The family spent many years abroad: in Paris, Georg Meri studied at the Sorbonne; in Berlin, where Lennart entered a Catholic school, and again in Paris. During World War II Estonia was occupied by the Red Army. The Meri family was deported to Siberia in 1941, Georg Meri was imprisoned at Lubyanka, but the family survived the hard conditions, and returned after the war to Estonia. Georg Meri worked as a translator but in 1950 he was again imprisoned - he was released after Stalin's death in 1953. In the same year Meri graduated from the University of Tartu, where he had studied history, and married Regina Ojavere, who studied medicine. His fellow-students remember his self-assured behavior and knowledge of languages - he spoke German, French, Russian. English he learned from listening to the BBC, and he had Winston Churchill's picture on the wall of his room. During this period he also wrote articles for magazines to earn extra money. Meri's father worked as a driver and at a construction firm. Later he began to translate Shakespeare's works into Estonian. He was never allowed to travel abroad, except to the DDR.
From 1953 to 1955 Meri worked as a dramatist at the Vanemuine theater and later as a producer of radio plays in Estonian broadcasting. He traveled in the Ukraine and made his first long expedition, exploring Samarkand and Tashkent. From 1963 to the late 1980s he worked for Tallinnfilm as a screenwriter and producer. During these decades Meri made the acquaintance of a number of cultural figures in Estonia and abroad, among others such poets such as Jaan Kaplinski, Paul Erik Rummo, Hando Runnel, and Viivi Luik. Meri's marriage to Regina Ojavere ended in the early 1980s and he later married the actress Helle Pihlak.
Literature in the Soviet period was subjected to the strict control of the regime, and it was not possible to publish works which openly criticized the Communist rule. Meri's first book was based on his travels in the Central Asia and the Islamic centres in the Kara-Kum Desert in 1958. In 1963 Meri joined the Estonian Writers' Union. Like a number of other intellectuals, Meri had created good contacts in Finland, Among his close friends was the writer Paavo Rintala, who was leftist but did not especially admire the Soviet System. In the 1970s, Meri was elected the Honorary Member of the Finnish Literary Society.
Meri's travel book of his journey to the North-east passage, VIRMALISTE VÄRAVAL (1974), won him huge success in the Soviet Union. It was translated into Finnish in 1977 in the Soviet Writers series, which also introduced to Finnish readers works by the Estonian writers Mats Traat, Lilli Promet, and Ülo Tuulik. Meri combined the present moment with a perspective into history, and uses much material from such explorers as Cook, Forster, Wrangel, Dahl, Sauer, Middendorff, Cochran, and others. When he sees a mountain rising against the stormy sky of the Bering Strait, he realizes that Vitus Bering (1681-1741) and James Cook (1728) have looked at the same mountain, but from the other side of the strait. HÕBEVALGEM, an interpretation of myths and history of the Finno-Ugrians and Baltic countries, was translated into Finnish in 1983. Its 32 000 copies were sold in two days.
TULEMÄGEDE MAALE (1964, To the Land of Fiery Mountains) was about Meri's journey to Kamchatka in the 1960s. Other members of the expedition group included geologists, botanists, a photographer, and the artists Kalju Polli. "Traveling is the only passion that doesn't need to feel shy in front of intellect," wrote Meri, and concluded that urban people still have an inner urge to see the world, hunger for nature. Meri did underestimate the drawbacks of mass tourism but saw optimistically that "science will liberate us from the chains of big cities and lead us back to nature."
Meri founded the non-governmental Estonian Institute in 1988 to promote cultural contacts with the West and to send Estonian students to study abroad. In the same year the "Singing revolution", the singing mass demonstrations, collected 300 000 people in Tallinn. In 1991, Meri became a founding member of the Popular Front, which cooperated with its counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania. After the first non-communist-style election, Meri was appointed in 1990 Foreign Minister, and in 1992 he became Ambassador of Estonia to Finland. On October 6, 1992 he became the 28th President of the Republic of Estonia. Meri was the candidate of the Fatherland Alliance. However, at the first ballot, Arnold Rüütel, a former leader of the Estonoan Communist Party, had won with 42 per cent of the total vote, but the final choice for the nomination was made by parliament, dominated by the Pro Patria Alliance. Four years later Meri was elected for his second term. During the campaing, the nationalist right again brought up questions about Meri's former links with the KGB. The allegations did not hurt Meri's reputation and public image, which was not based on dissident background.
Between 1992 and 1999, Estonia had four prime ministers. The Russian residents were disturbed by a proposed law that would have denied them Estonian citizenship. Meri vetoed the Law on Aliens and it was amended before it was passed. In 1995 Meri's government was brought down by the disclosure, that the minister of the interior, Edgar Savisaar, had illegally tapped the phones of political opponents. In 1998, Meri created the Commission to Investigate Crimes Against Humanity Perpetrated in Estonia.
In his office Meri strengthened his country's contacts with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. These two goals - the EU and NATO membership - were his most important foreign policy priorities. In 1993 Meri declared: "It is precisely in the name of European values that Estonia needs a secure border... Our border is the border of European values."
In his own country Meri was criticized by former communist for his independent handling of the foreign affairs. In 1994, after Meri's visit to the Kremlin, the Russian troops withdrew from Estonia. Again Meri was attacked by his political opponents for not consulting the political parties and the Riigikogu (the parliament), but generally Estonians celebrated the departure as the final end of World War II. Meri was followed in his office in 2001 by Arnold Rüütel, who had played a major role in the early 1990s when Estonia struggled for independence. Meri died on March 14, 2006, in Tallinn.
In spite of the fact that Estonia is a small country, Meri gained during his presidency the position of one of the most respected political leaders in Europe. Sometimes he found the success discomfiting. "I must confess I am not always happy with the compliments Estonia has dutifully received. It reminds me of an upside-down picture of Robinson Crusoe: Estonia, emerging from the dark forest of the Soviet oppression, is applauded as an unexpected Friday, who surprises everyone with talents and skills attributed only to Robinson Crusoe." (from Meri's lecture on his promotion to Honorary Doctor St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota April 6, 2000)
Meri's best known work is perhaps Hõbevalgem. It reconstructs the history of Estonia and the Baltic Sea region. (Estonian belongs to the Baltic-Finnic group of the Finno-Ugric languages and Estonian is closely related to Finnish and distantly related to Hungaria.) As in his other works, Meri combined documentary sources and scientific research with creative imagination. "If geography is prose, maps are iconography," Meri said. Hõbevalgem is based on a wide material of ancient seafaring, and carefully unveils the secret of the legendary Ultima Thule. The name was given in classical times to the most northerly land, reputedly six days' voyage from Britain. Several alternative places for its location have been suggested, among them the Shetland Islands, Iceland, and Norway. According to Meri, it is possible that Thule derives from the old folk poetry of Estonia, which depicts the birth of the crater lake in Kaali, Saaremaa. In the essay 'Tacituse tahtel' (2000) Meri examined ancient contacts between Estonia and the Roman empire and notes that furs, amber, and especially Livonian kiln-dried, infection free grain may have been Estonia's biggest contribution to the common culture of Europe - in lean years, it provided seed grain for Europe.
For further reading: Meie Lennart, ed. by Pekka Erelt and Tarmo Vahter (1999); Lennart Meri - Eestile elatud elu by Andreas Oplatka (2000); Sateenkaaren värit: Lennart Meren elämä by Kulle Raig (2001); The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, by David J. Smith, et al (2002) - See other writer/statesmen: Václac Havel, Léopold Senghor -
SELECTED WORKS / BOOKS AND FILMS:
translator: Graham Greene's Our Man in Havanna; Marcel Aymé's La Tête des autres; Pierre Boulle's La Planète des singes; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
KOBRADE JA KARAKURTIDE JÄLGEDES, 1959 - Following the Trails of Cobras and Black Widows
LAEVAPOISID ROHELISEL OOKEANIL, 1961 - Shipmates on the Green Ocean
TULEMÄGEDE MAALE, 1964 - Kamsatka - tulivuorten maa - To the Land of Fiery Mountains
VEELINNUNRAHVA, 1970 (documentary film) - Vesilinnun kansa - The Waterfowl People
VIRMALISTE VÄRAVAL, 1974 - Revontulten porteilla
HÕBEVALGE, 1976 - Silverwhite
LÄHENEVAD RANNAD, 1977 - (enlarged edition of To the Land of Fiery Mountains)
LINNUTEE TUULED, 1977 (documentary film) - Linnunradan tuulet - The Winds of the Milky Way - silver medal on the New York Film Festival
HÕBEVALGEM, 1984 - Hopeanvalkea
KALEVA HÄÄLED, 1986 (documentary film) - Kalevalan äänet - The Sounds of Kalevala
TOORUMI POJAD, 1989 (documentary film) - The Sons of Thorum
1940 EESTIS. DOKUMENTE JA MATERJALE, 1989 (with others)
Tulen maasta, jonka nimi on Viro, 1995 (a collection of speeches, ed. by Piret Saluri, trans. into Finnish by Juhani Salokannel)
AMAAN, 1997 (documentary film)
'Tacituse tahtel', 2000 (in Mare Nostrum - Mare Balticum, ed. by Paul Raudsepp)
Portrait of a President
By Michael Tarm
In the dark, dreary days of Stalin, when the threat of arbitrary arrest and deportation still loomed large, young Lennart Meri went to bed every night tuned in to the world.
More often than not he drifted to sleep with headphones from his tattered homemade radio still clamped over his head and the BBC or some other Western broadcast still buzzing into his ears.
"That radio was very important for me," said Meri, now 69 and Estonia's president since 1992. "It meant I always knew what was going on in the world."
Sitting on a striped Biedermeier sofa during an interview at his palace residence, the lanky, white-haired president speaks in a slow, whispery voice--pausing for long, silent seconds between sentences, draws on a cigarette, and continues where he left off.
In university, he explains, he used to hole himself up in his student hostel for hours on end, scribbling down different BBC broadcasts word for word, including a lecture on the theory of the expanding universe and speeches by Winston Churchill.
"You see, with that radio I was always swimming with the current political streams in the West," said Meri, his fingers fumbling with a red and white pack of Marlboros. "It meant I was never stranded. Throughout Soviet times, I understood what was really happening in the world around me."
Staying current and absorbing as many ideas and as much information as possible seems to have been a life-long quest.
"You could say he's spent his whole life preparing to be president," said one former aide, who worked with Meri when he was foreign minister from 1990 to 1992. "There isn't a better informed person in Estonia. When he makes a decision, it's a very well informed decision. That's the secret to his political success."
Before the Soviet takeover in 1940, the young Lennart Meri was already learning French and German at primary schools in Berlin and Paris, where his father served as a ranking Estonian diplomat.
He and his family were deported by Soviet secret police in 1941 and spent four years in Siberia. Even in the harsh conditions of exile, Meri delighted in learning what he could about obscure Finno-Ugric peoples in the region who spoke languages related to Estonian.
In the `70s and `80s, Meri became an accomplished writer and anthropologist. He traveled throughout unexplored tracks of the Soviet Far East and Siberia, recounting his experiences in books and documentaries that became popular in Estonia during the Soviet era. Meri , who speaks six languages fluently, also translated dozens of books, including the works of Remarque and Solzhenitsyn.
Now pushing 70, Meri's hunger for knowledge is still so great that he can often be found at his desk reading a newspaper, surfing the Net and rifling through the radio dial--virtually all at the same time. When he flies on a plane, aides say Meri frequently heads for a chair in the cockpit, quizzing pilots for hours on end about which button does what.
It's not only that he gathers information: he remembers it.
"He's like a walking encyclopedia," said Mihkel Mutt, an Estonian novelist and once Meri's press secretary, shaking his head in wonder. "His memory is really amazing."
Aides recall Meri spellbinding assorted VIPs by skillfully dropping intricate details about almost any subject broached in conversation, on everything from French history to burial rituals of nomads in Outer Mongolia.
"If he was talking to a French diplomat, he'd know the first Frenchman ever to travel to the Baltics, and if it was a BBC correspondent, he'd recite the life story of some long dead BBC reporter," the former foreign ministry aide explained. "He always had at least one amazing detail up his sleeve. It became hard to believe he could know such details, but he did."
The one-time staffer said that by slipping dazzling, frequently humorous tidbits into discussions, Meri at least partly intended to make a good impression on those it was useful to impress, especially journalists and other world leaders.
And, said the aide, it usually worked.
"Most people walked away from meetings with Meri with a glow on their faces," he said. "This ability to charm has been extremely important in getting so much sympathy for Estonia around the world."
Among those reportedly won over was U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who spend a day with Meri during a visit to Tallinn several years ago. Not coincidentally perhaps, Gore is now considered one of the most ardent Baltic supporters at the White House.
Foreign journalists have also tended to like Meri, usually portraying him and his causes in a sympathetic light. In his book The Baltic Revolution, British journalist Anatol Lieven recalls being swept off his feet by Meri, then foreign minister: "In manner, and in breadth of culture, he is a European gentleman of the old school....In a Baltic panorama in which former Communists and members of the new right often vie with each other in the crude and provincial narrowness of their attitudes, Meri represents a nobler past...though this sometimes leads him to patronize ordinary Estonians."
"Meri quickly overran the fifteen minute appointment allocated by his staff [for an interview]," wrote Lieven. "An hour later, he was cheerfully recounting the story of an expedition to Yakutia [Siberia] in which he ended up eating his own horse. He then whisked me off in his official car to an expedition of Russian culture."
Journalists have also learned to seek Meri out for his ability to encapsulate issues in witty, one-sentence quotes. In the first days of the 1991 Kremlin coup, he told journalists the putsch would fail because the conspirators, which included military brass, didn't know the first thing about running an economy. Said Meri: "I've never met a general yet who could milk a cow." Another time, explaining how any half-way measures--anything short of full NATO membership--would not give the Baltics adequate security, he said that "security is like virginity: you're either a virgin or you're not. You either have security or you don't."
Meri is portrayed in the Estonian media as extremely brilliant on one hand and very quirky on the other. Nevertheless, he has come to be seen, at home and abroad, as one of the most influential and effective leaders on the Baltic political landscape.
Domestically, he has come to be seen as a kind philosopher king, valued for his ability in times of crisis to express the nation's hopes and anxieties with an almost poetic touch. With the same flare, he has also stepped up to scold public officials--to the apparent delight of the public at large.
In a nationally televised speech on Estonia's Independence Day this year, the president blasted politicians who have become rich while in office. "This is scum on the surface of the state cauldron, scum that we will gather with a ladle and throw into the slop pail," Meri said. "We will do it until there is no more scum left to gather."
Supporters say the president's star has shone brightest in international affairs. He has emerged as one of the standard-bearers for Baltic integration into the European Union and NATO. Many observers credit Meri's lobbying skills for helping to secure Estonia a coveted invitation to begin talks on joining the European Union.
With his playful spontaneity, kindly demeanor and contagious, almost childlike curiosity about the world around him, the Estonian president has the air of every college student's favorite professor. One on one anyway, he is hard not to like.
He has not endeared himself to everyone, however.
Anatol Lieven recounts how in 1992, when Meri was serving as ambassador to Finland, he crashed a meeting between Baltic leaders and then U.S. President George Bush.
"Addressing him as George, Meri informed [the American president] that his administration possessed neither a Russian nor a Baltic policy. In the words of one diplomat, `before that Bush hardly remembered that the Balts existed. Now, thanks to Meri, he is furious with them.'"
Meri is also said to have an unsettling effect on Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Head-to-head talks on troop withdrawals between the two leaders in Moscow in 1994 were reportedly so lively that by the end of the marathon discussions shattered glass littered the floor beneath their negotiating table. (Meri refused to confirm the reports."I was too busy looking into Yeltsin's eyes to notice what was under the table," he said.)
It's not only some foreign heads of state who have found Meri frustrating--sometimes arrogant and too self-absorbed. A series of Estonian prime ministers have been reduced nearly to tears as Meri appeared to butt his nose into places the constitution says it doesn't belong. The government leaders have been particularly irked, especially in Meri's early years as president, by his refusal to rubber-stamp a number of important laws and by his open bid to become the country's leading foreign policy maker.
Critics also complain that Meri doesn't keep the government and the rest of the country adequately informed about what he is up to. He tends to shun the local media.
Estonia's president isn't supposed to have day to day duties running the government. He plays his most important role as a kind of midwife during the formation of governments. As novelist Mihkel Mutt puts it: "He is somewhere between the French president and the Queen of Denmark."
But since the constitution doesn't clearly spell out the duties of the president and because there are no post-World War II precedents, it has largely been left up to Meri, for better or worse, to define the presidency as he goes along.
Meri's frantic working style, late hours and legendary tardiness have also had a wearing effect on his office staff, which reportedly has a high turnover. Since becoming president, he seems to have gone through press secretaries like some people go through pairs of socks.
"He didn't mean to be a slave-driver," said one former aide. "He just lost perspective and expected people who worked until three in the morning to be there again at nine. That's how he worked so he just took it as natural that everyone else worked that way, too."
"In fact, one got the impression that Meri himself never slept," said the aide. "He also smoked a lot and he didn't eat very much. You started to wonder why he was standing. But when his aides were collapsing around him, he seemed fine. His mind was always fresh and he never got stressed."
But it is his notoriously bad sense of time and the ever-present threat that he is about to miss another big meeting that has really frayed the nerves of his staff.
"His being late was a constant worry," said one aide, who remembers Meri calmly asking him on at least one occasion to call the airport and have them hold the plane.
"But have you ever tried to hold an airplane?," he asked. "It's not as easy as it sounds."
One of Meri's shining moments as president was in October, 1995, during a crisis sparked by revelations that Interior Minister Edgar Savisaar had been bugging conversations of top politicians. While government leaders seemed to be standing around with their hands in their pockets, Meri appeared decisive. His televised call for a quick and thorough accounting of the affair set into motion a series of events that collapsed the government within days. Meri was widely credited for setting the right tone and declaring that there should be no tolerance for such secret surveillance, so reminiscent of the Soviet KGB. He was also credited for brokering the formation of a new government that, by most accounts, was a major improvement over the previous one.
After years bucking for more responsibility as president, Meri has largely got what he wanted, especially in foreign policy. These days, government leaders seem to happily cede to him the role as Estonia's No. 1 envoy to the world.
Partly as a result of his high profile hanging out with world leaders and partly as the perception of him as the nation's moral voice, Meri has seen his popularity rise steadily. In 1992, his approval ratings barely climbed above 30 percent; they now consistently top 60 percent.
Public perceptions are that Meri has tended to take the moral high road while other Estonian politicians have spent too much time bickering or lining their pockets. Many average Estonians simply seem awed by his raw brain power; he's so smart, the reasoning seems to be, he's just got to be a good president.
Meri himself says he doesn't have time to worry about opinion polls.
A compulsive handyman who built the house he lived in before moving to the presidential palace, the president now has so little time he recently gave up the habit of carrying a screw driver around the palace in case a stray light fixture or appliance needed fixing.
Aides say he can still be found bolting for his beloved short-wave radio and spinning through the dials.
But President Meri says he doesn't have much time for that anymore either.
"Even looking in the mirror to check if my tie is straight is a waste of my time," he sighed, leaning into a living room couch. "I only look in the mirror once a day, and that's in the morning when I shave."
Also on this site, see CITY PAPER's interview with Lennart Meri.
--CITY PAPER-The Baltic States
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