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Estonia's Double Date With History


The two Meris: Arnold, left, with Soviet medals, and ex-president Lennart

The two Meris: Arnold, left, with Soviet medals, and ex-president Lennart

Karl Marx is often quoted as saying that history repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Sometimes events are not all that clear, however.

Consider Estonia. Last week, three events converged, with a twist.

Two were anniversaries: 60 years after the deportation to Siberia of 20,577 residents of Estonia (most of whom never returned), and 80 years after the birth of a beloved, recently departed former president.

Then fate forced a change in perspective. At the height of the commemorations, news came of the death of Estonia's highest-profile indictee for crimes against humanity.

The twist? Late ex-president Lennart Meri, a deportee in 1941, became a leader of the Estonian independence movement in the late 1980s. His first cousin was the late genocide suspect, Arnold Meri, who had been accused of overseeing the forced resettlement of 251 Estonians in 1949.

Arnold Meri volunteered for the Red Army in 1940, then was wounded and honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1941. In post-war Estonia he quickly ascended through the ranks of the Soviet occupation authorities and received the highest Soviet distinction, the Order of Lenin, in 1948.

Lennart Meri was the son of a pre-war Estonian diplomat and went to school in Berlin and Paris before finding work as a lumberjack in Siberia at the age of 12. After returning to Estonia in the early 1950s (possibly with Arnold's help), he became an author and filmmaker. As president of Estonia (1992-2001), Meri cut a distinguished figure on the international scene. Fluent in French, German, and English, as well as Russian, he sported an eccentric streak, among other things twice marking in ballpoint pen the location of a good fishing spot in Siberia on a globe in the office of President George H. W. Bush. This did nothing to lessen his appeal.

Arnold Meri's trial drew vehement protests from Russia. On March 28, President Dmitry Medvedev posthumously gave Arnold Meri the Order of Honor for his "unrelenting struggle against Nazism and active resistance to attempts to rewrite history."

Arnold Meri never repented, saying the deportations were necessary. He claimed he resigned in protest over local abuses. Records show he was stripped of all honors in 1951, then rehabilitated in 1956.

On March 29, the Estonian government renamed the Tallinn airport as the Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport. The move is a tongue-in-cheek commemoration of an impromptu press conference Meri once gave in a dilapidated men's room of the airport after returning from a trip abroad, intended to highlight the importance of first impressions.

-- Ahto Lobjakas

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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