'True European' Lennart Meri passes away

  • 2006-03-15
  • By TBT staff
Former President Lennart-Georg Meri, one of the Baltic states' most admired statesmen and cultural figures, passed away on March 14. He was 76. Meri died at 3:40 a.m. at Tallinn's Magdalene Hospital following a prolonged battle with brain cancer.

Last summer, the leader's health took a turn for the worse, and in August he underwent brain surgery. Meri was hospitalized for a blood clot in November and spent the last weeks of his life on a hospital bed.
"The Estonian nation will remember Lennart Meri as a great personality," President Arnold Ruutel told the nation in a televised address. "His work helped to secure and strengthen Estonian identity in times when a hostile, totalitarian regime ruled."
At an emergency meeting on March 14, the government declared March 15 a national day or mourning.
Born on March 29, 1929 in Tallinn, Meri was the son of a diplomat. His life mirrored Estonia's struggle, from a young boy enjoying the freedoms of an independent nation, to a Siberian exile after Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. By the time he was a young adult Meri had studied in nine European schools.
Gifted with an ear for languages, Meri became a leading translator and intellectual. He travelled extensively in the Soviet Union and Finland, and his books and documentaries on his journeys were widely regarded.
Later, he became an active member in the nation's struggle for re-independence, finally reorienting his country back toward the West. Meri served as Estonia's president from 1992-2001 and was one of the most prominent leaders in all three Baltic states.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga described Meri as, "a great Estonian, a great statesman and a true European."
"Everywhere that he went, he impressed people by the depth and sincerity of his convictions and by the authenticity of his testimony against the crimes and absurdities of communist totalitarianism," she said.
Meri's father, Shakespeare translator and diplomat Georg Meri, was both an inspiration and influence to the young boy growing up. It was primarily because of him that Lennart Meri had the opportunity to study abroad at an early age.
His father, who held a great appreciation for academia and world cultures, encouraged Lennart's international education. The former president's warmest memories are from his time at Lycee Janson de Sailly in Paris.
When Estonia was occupied by Soviet armed forces in 1940, Meri was living with his family in Tallinn. In 1941, they were deported to Siberia along with thousands of other Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians.

At the age of 12, Lennart Meri worked as a lumberjack. He also worked as a potato peeler and a rafter. Eventually the Meri family survived life in the Gulag, and found their way back to Estonia, where Meri graduated cum laude from Tartu University's faculty of history and languages in 1953.
However, given his family's past deportation, the Soviet administration snuffed out any hopes Meri had to work as a historian. He settled for work as an actor in the Vanemuine Theater, the oldest in Estonia, and later on produced plays on national broadcast radio.

After returning to school to study anthropology, Meri travelled across the upper periphery of the Soviet Union, Central Asia and the Far East. Fascinated by the Finno-Ugric tribal peoples that populate the northern perimeter of Russia, whose languages are distantly related to Estonian and Finnish, Meri wrote prolifically on their culture.
During his travels, the young man bloomed as a writer and cultural anthropologist. He wrote several acclaimed books and even made a few films. His work penetrated the Iron Curtain and earned much acclaim abroad. The film "The Winds of the Milky Way," produced with the help of Finland and Hungary, won a silver medal at the New York Film Festival. It was, however, banned in the Soviet Union.
Meri also worked as a translator, rendering well-known works by England's Graham Greene and Germany's Erich Maria Remarque into the Estonian language.

In 1986, Lennart Meri, already a member of the Estonian Writers' Union, was awarded an honorary doctorate by Helsinki University. In the 1970s, he was elected honorary member of the Finnish Literary Society.
Meri's most acclaimed publication is most likely "Silverwhite," an extensive reconstruction of Estonia's history and the Baltic Sea region. The book paints Estonians as free people in Northern Europe, and active members of the open world.
On April 12, 1990 's during the final days of Estonia's struggle for independence 's Meri was appointed minister of foreign affairs by Popular Front leader Edgar Savisaar.
Meri's first task as minister was to create the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, employ a staff mainly comprised of young people, and establish a steady communication channel to the West. At the same time, he would represent Estonia during international conferences.

After a brief period as ambassador of Estonia to Finland, Meri was elected President of the Republic of Estonia on Oct. 6, 1992.
During his presidency, Meri quickly became the most prominent leader in the Baltics. His proficiency in five languages and astute negotiating skills were instrumental in securing a withdrawal of Russian troops and later EU and NATO membership.
For some, it will be Meri's warm humor and wit that will be remembered the most.
"It is a wonderful map, but I always try to stand in front of it when the Russian ambassador comes to visit," he once said about a map depicting Swedish dominance in the Baltics during the 17th century, which stood above his presidential desk.
Meri, who married twice, is survived by his wife Helle Meri and three children: sons Mart and Kristjan and daughter Tuule.