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Estonia: The 'Managed Indiscretions' Of Lennart Meri

  • Paul Goble --> Lennart Meri (epa) Every world leader aspires to leave his mark on the world. But one who surely did so not only figuratively but in a most literal sense was former Estonian President Lennart Meri, who died yesterday in Tallinn from brain cancer at the age of 76.

He left his mark literally 15 years ago during two visits to the White House in Washington. At that time, Lennart -- and he was on a first name basis with virtually everyone he came into contact with after only a few minutes -- was foreign minister of a country still occupied by the Soviet Union. Ushered into the Oval Office, he immediately found a common language with President George H.W. Bush, speaking perfect English and finding a connection with a leader who was invariably treading cautiously in his dealings with the three Baltic countries.

After a few minutes of diplomatic niceties, the Estonian foreign minister told the U.S. president, in a way that suggested they had been friends for years, that he knew just where President Bush could go fishing and catch "a really big salmon." Bush, intrigued, asked Lennart to show him precisely where on the magnificent antique globe standing nearby.

Meri promptly got up, walked over to the globe, took out his ink pen, and placed an X on the spot designating a river in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. Most of those in the room were aghast at this breach of protocol -- not to speak of their fears about possible damage to an incredibly valuable object. And many Estonians who heard about this later were horrified that their foreign minister would point out a river not in their own country but somewhere else. But if the diplomats and some Estonians were disturbed, the American president was clearly entranced and said with a smile that he would be pleased to go with his new Estonian friend and try his luck in that faraway river.

Five months later, Meri returned to the Oval Office, this time as the representative of an Estonia that had recovered its independence. When he came into the room, President Bush lost no time in asking his "old friend" to show him again just where that river with the salmon was. And again, Lennart got up, walked to the globe -- which had been repaired in the meantime -- took out his pen and placed an X just where he had before. The president laughed, and the friendship was sealed.

In recalling this sequence of events, Meri always referred to it as one of his "managed indiscretions," his carefully thought-out crossing of lines others had laid down be they in politics, literature, film, or friendships in the pursuit of his greater purposes. And throughout his life, he always acted in this way, whether he was an exile picking potatoes near Sverdlovsk as a child during World War II, a novelist exploring his nation's history, or a filmmaker seeking to bring attention to endangered peoples of the Russian north.

Son Of A Diplomat

Born on March 29, 1929, Meri was the son of one of the most distinguished of Estonia's pre-war diplomats. He grew up in the Estonian missions in Paris and Berlin, learning French so well that several French presidents went out of their way and in clear violation of protocol to have him seated next to them at dinners in Paris. His German was reputedly so good that several Baltic German families said they were sure that somehow, somewhere there was German in his background.

But his father, who at the end of the 1930s was serving as Estonia's deputy foreign minister, insisted from the start that his oldest son learn English and corresponded with him in that language both whenever he was away from home and even, on several occasions, from a cell in the Lubyanka. And possibly as a result of his perfect command of English and his father's enthusiasm, Meri was to the end of his life the most consistent supporter of an Atlanticist perspective for Estonia and her neighbors.

Soviet Occupation

When Soviet forces occupied Estonia in 1940, the Meris were among those arrested and deported to a village near Sverdlovsk, in the Urals region. There, the 12-year-old Lennart learned Russian as he made friends with local children and picked potatoes to help feed his family. And he and they might have remained there for many years -- as did other Estonians -- had it not been for the German invasion of the USSR a little over a year later.

Initially hard pressed by the Germans, Stalin began to explore the possibility of a separate peace with Berlin. Meri's father, Georg, decided that he might be able to save his family by offering his services to Moscow in such an effort. The former deputy foreign minister told the police overseeing those Estonians deported into Russia that he knew all the prominent German officials and could serve as a communications link with them if Moscow would agree to send the members of his family -- his wife and their two children -- to a neutral Scandinavian country.

Intrigued by this possibility, more senior Soviet officials brought him and his family to Moscow, placing him in the Lubyanka prison and his wife and two sons in a hotel. But when the tide of battle turned, all of them were sent back to the Sverdlovsk region and were only able to return to Estonia after the end of the war. Because the family was able to return to their homeland when they did, and because Meri was able to enroll at the University of Tartu earlier and subsequently rise through the various bureaucracies and travel abroad when he did, many in Estonia still maintain a more sinister reading of his father's efforts to save his family -- an interpretation that dogged and infuriated Meri to the end of his life.

After graduating from Tartu, Meri himself worked as a broadcaster and an official in the Soviet copyright agency. He also began his career as a writer and filmmaker, authoring a novel, "Silvery White," which traces the links between the Baltic and the Black Sea in medieval times -- numerous travel books, and many ethnographic films.


Meri was among those who took part in Estonia's struggle to recover its independence. Because of his gift for languages -- and perhaps even more his gift for friendship -- he became foreign minister in the first Estonian government since World War II to aspire to the recovery of independence.

In 1991, he and his two Baltic colleagues, Janis Jurkans of Latvia and Algirdas Saudargas of Lithuania, traveled the world, pressing sometimes reluctant world leaders to support Baltic aspirations.

After Estonia regained its independence and after a very brief stint as Estonian ambassador in Finland -- another country whose language he spoke to perfection -- Meri was elected and then reelected president of Estonia. In that capacity, he helped negotiate Russian troop withdrawal, famously holding a very drunk Russian President Boris Yeltsin's arm when the agreement had to be signed, and he laid the groundwork for Estonia's inclusion in the European Union and NATO.

After leaving the presidency, Meri moved to his house on the Viimsi Peninsula near the Estonian capital. From there, he said, he could "watch" over those Estonians who had followed him in the corridors of power.

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