Lennart Meri

Leader of the Estonian independence movement who became his country's first post-Soviet-era president

Lennart Meri, politician and writer: born Tallinn 29 March 1929; head of the Manuscripts Section, Vanemuine Theatre 1953-55; producer, Estonian Radio 1955-61; scriptwriter, Tallinnfilm 1963-68, producer 1968-71, 1986-88; foreign relations secretary, Estonian Writers' Union 1985-87; founder and director, Estonian Institute 1988-90; minister of foreign affairs 1990-92, ambassador to Finland 1992; president, Republic of Estonia 1992-2001; married first Regina Ojavere (two sons; marriage dissolved), second Helle Pihlak (one daughter); died Tallinn 14 March 2006.

Lennart Meri, who in 1992 became the first president of Estonia after the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union, said, as he handed over the presidency to his successor Arnold Rüütel in 2001, "Estonia is now a normal, boring country."

As with any remark made by an intellectual brought up in the Soviet Union, this could be taken not only at face value. While it was a positive review of what Estonia had achieved in the previous decade, it was also a none-too-subtle dig at the failings Meri perceived in his successor. Earlier in the same speech, he had said that "every country must have a face, a voice and a way of making jokes". Meri was certainly that face and that voice and the jokes would come thick and fast, often at the expense of his political opponents.

Being 6ft 4in and fluent in six languages, he could not fail to stand out at any international function. Whether he talked in English, French, German or Finnish, few would have realised how much of his background knowledge had come from books hidden during Soviet occupation or from listening illegally to short-wave radio stations.

Lennart Meri was born in Tallinn in 1929; his father Georg-Peeter Meri, was a diplomat, so he attended schools in Paris and in Berlin. This background made the family certain victims of the first wave of Soviet deportations to hit Estonia in June 1941 when Georg-Peeter was sent to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow whilst the rest of family were sent to Siberia. They were fortunate all to survive this experience, as so few Estonians did, and also to be allowed to return to Estonia as early as 1945, whereas most of their fellow detainees would languish in gulags for another 10 years.

The family hoped then to escape to Finland, but they could not afford the prices charged by boatmen for this risky journey. Subsequently, neither father nor son would ever be allowed to live a normal life in Soviet times. Georg-Peeter's travels abroad were restricted to East Germany and Lennart was only allowed to visit Finland in the 1970s.

On the basis of his success in the early 1950s as an undergraduate at Tartu, Lennart Meri would normally have been expected to continue in the academic world, but this was impossible given his family background, and his public indifference towards the Soviet regime, not to mention his private contempt for it. As his courses were hardly demanding for someone of his intellect, he spent hours a day clutching his short-wave radio to ensure that he kept up to date with developments abroad.

His first job, which lasted two years, was as a producer at Vanemuise Theatre in Tartu, where he was able to introduce translations of foreign plays. His practical side came to the fore here, just as much as his intellectual breadth. He worked just as easily with electricity, with wood and with fabrics as he did with texts. Forty years later, Meri would still find time for minor DIY at the presidential residence, Kadriorg Palace.

He was then transferred to the Finnish Department of Soviet Radio, presumably in the hope that he would be tamed there. Meri proved that he could be more of a problem within the Soviet system than outside it. He managed to produce a Christmas programme, having checked first that the Italian section had done likewise without objection.

It was hard for a man with such an independent spirit to find suitable work in the Soviet Union. Gradually he was able to make a living in films and through books. He made his first long journey in 1958, to Central Asia; this would be followed over the next 20 years by many others to parts of the Soviet Union inhabited by national minorities. Colleagues joked that he must have been the only Estonian voluntarily to return to Siberia during the Soviet era.

Books and films would follow from every visit, and the instant disappearance from the bookshops of anything he wrote was always assured. Höbevalge (Silver White), published in 1976, which covers the pre-history of the Baltic region, was probably his most famous book from that time and is still in print.

Meri grasped earlier than most the potential that Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika offered to the burgeoning Estonian independence movement. He founded the Estonian Institute in 1988 with "branch" offices across Europe which quickly became de facto embassies. By securing appointment as Foreign Minister in 1990, a year before Estonia would formally regain independence, Meri was able to force his way into international gatherings around Europe, to the anger of the Soviet representatives. His determination, his charm and his perfect command of all the necessary languages ensured he was never thrown out. Yet he was never over-confident. He made careful plans for a government-in-exile, which might well have been necessary had the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow succeeded.

He won the 1992 presidential election convincingly, but not overwhelmingly. Pressing the flesh around the country was never Meri's strong point, nor was small talk, so his opponents such as Rüütel eagerly exploited this weakness. It would never be possible to regard Meri as a "bloke" and he realised that attempts to cultivate such an image would probably have lost him more support than he would have gained.

As president, he enjoyed playing many different roles. He could be regal, happily above the fray of day-to-day political battles. Equally he could be a one-man second chamber, returning to the Riigikogu (parliament) measures with which he strongly disagreed. Whilst others must certainly claim credit for Estonia's immediate economic success, Meri personally negotiated with Boris Yeltsin the withdrawal of Russian troops by the summer of 1994. If not even he could finalise a border treaty with Russia, a problem that still remains today, he at least came up with imaginative solutions for the Russians to consider, such as formally recognising the Tartu Treaty, signed between the two countries in 1920, for a mere five minutes.

Meri was obliged to stand down as president in 2001, after two terms, which enabled his long-term rival Rüütel finally to succeed to this office. Sadly, he never got around to writing his memoirs. If Estonia is now "boring", these certainly would not have been.

Neil Taylor

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