Lennart Meri

Born 29 March 1929, Tallinn
Died 14 March 2006, Tallinn


President of the Republic of Estonia
06.10.1992-08.10.2001


Website from time in office:  The President of the Republic of Estonia 1992-2001

Lennart Meri was born into the family of Estonian diplomat and latter-day translator of Shakespeare Georg Meri in Tallinn on 29 March 1929. He would leave Estonia at a young age with his family, changing schools nine times and languages four times. The school years he recalled most fondly were those he spent at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris.

The Meri family was back in Tallinn when Soviet forces occupied Estonia. Along with tens of thousands of their countrymen and neighbours from Latvia and Lithuania, they were deported to Siberia in 1941. Heads of families were separated from their loved ones and placed in concentration camps, from which few emerged alive. Lennart Meri’s first job, at the age of 12, was as a woodcutter. He also served time peeling potatoes and floating felled timber downriver.

The Meri family survived their Siberian ordeal and made it back to Estonia, where Lennart Meri graduated cum laude from the University of Tartu with a degree in history in 1953. However, the Soviet authorities would not allow him to work as an historian. Instead, he found work as a playwright in Estonia’s oldest theatre, the Vanemuine, then as a producer of radio dramas for the country’s national broadcaster.

Lennart Meri wrote his first book, which met with great success, about a trip he took in 1958 to the Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia and to the ancient Islamic centres of the Karakum desert. He had been forced to make a living from writing since his university days, when the Soviet authorities arrested his father for the third time. He and his younger brother, who had dropped out of school to become a taxi driver, managed to support their mother, and the future president would go on to complete his studies. But it was only through the writing of his first book that he found his calling. He would spend a quarter of a century travelling alone or leading expeditions he had organised to the most inaccessible regions of the Soviet Union, where he was drawn to the cultures of the indigenous peoples, the history of the exploration and colonisation of Siberia and the ever-deepening economic and ecological conflict between the needs of locals and the planned economy of Moscow. The books he wrote and the films he produced about his travels even made it beyond the Iron Curtain and have been translated into a dozen languages. One of them, the film Linnutee tuuled or ‘The Winds of the Milky Way’ – a co-production with Finland and Hungary that was banned in the Soviet Union – even won a silver medal at the New York Film Festival. Lennart Meri’s films and texts have been used as teaching material in schools in Finland, where he was named an honorary doctor of the University of Helsinki in 1986. Many years prior to that, in 1963, he had been approved as a member of the Estonian Writers’ Union, and he was inducted as an honorary member of the equivalent Finnish union in the 1980s.

Between travels, Lennart Meri translated the works of Remarque, Graham Greene, Vercors, Boulle and Solzhenitsyn. His books, films and translations made a significant contribution to the preservation of Estonian identity during a time of totalitarian Russification. His most famous work remains the book Hõbevalge or ‘Silverwhite’, a wide-ranging reconstruction of the history of Estonia and the Baltic Sea, which depicted Estonians as active agents of an open world in Northern Europe.

Having waited for more than 20 years to be given permission by the Soviet authorities to travel beyond the Iron Curtain, Lennart Meri made the most of the opportunities that eventually opened up to him in Finland, using them as a platform to remind the free world of Estonia’s existence. He forged trusted relationships with politicians, journalists and Estonians who had fled the Soviet occupation of their homeland. He was the first Estonian to protest outside of the country against the Soviet authorities’ intention to mine phosphorite in Estonia, which would have rendered a third of the country uninhabitable.

The environmental movement in Estonia soon grew into the Singing Revolution, in which the country’s intelligentsia played the leading role. Lennart Meri’s speech “Do Estonians have hopes?” placed the problems of the nation’s existence front and centre and was widely reported on outside of the country. His transition from writer, film-maker and translator to politician was a smooth one and heralded the political sea change to come. In 1988 he founded the Estonian Institute, a non-government organisation, to foster cultural ties with the West and get young people looking abroad. Cultural representations established in Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, Bonn, Paris and Helsinki in the shadow of the Estonian Institute served as de facto deputations before becoming official embassies when the democratic West restored diplomatic relations with the Republic of Estonia in August 1991.

Neither Estonia nor the West considered the Soviet or Nazi occupations to have interrupted the continuity of the Republic of Estonia or to have revoked its international rights and obligations. This is why Estonia is not classed as a ‘new democracy’, since the Republic of Estonia had been an active member of the League of Nations as far back as 1921. Lennart Meri signed acts on the restoration of diplomatic relations as Estonia’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs. He had been appointed to the position on 12 April 1990 by People’s Front leader Edgar Savisaar following the country’s first free elections. Prior to that he and a number of co-authors had managed to publish a collection of documents entitled 1940. Eestis. Dokumente ja materjale (‘Estonia 1940: Documents and Materials’, 1989), which sought, unsuccessfully, to convince Soviet parliament members that the basis of the occupation and Sovietisation of Estonia had been a criminal pact between Hitler and Stalin to divide Europe up between their totalitarian regimes.

Installed as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lennart Meri’s first task was to establish a working ministry. To this end he had to recruit young Estonians eager and able to learn, put in place a reliable channel for communication with the outside world and represent Estonia at important international conferences. This he did on many occasions, attending CSCE conferences in Copenhagen, New York, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Helsinki and the founding conference of the Council of the Baltic Sea States in Copenhagen, meeting repeatedly with European and American foreign ministers and heads of state and speaking as the first guest from Eastern Europe at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Following a short stint as the Estonian ambassador to Finland (23 April-10 October 1992), Lennart Meri was elected President of the Republic of Estonia. He was sworn in on 6 October 1992. He was elected for a second term as head of state on 20 September 1996.

During his periods as a writer and politician, Lennart Meri was named an honorary member of the Kalevala Society and a correspondent member of the Finnish Literature Society, a member of the boards of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and the International Advisory Council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and a member of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism. He was also a member of the Estonian Writers’ Union, the Estonian Filmmakers Association and the Estonian PEN Club, the patron of the University of Tartu Foundation, a winner of the Coudenhove-Kalergi European prize and Liberal International Prize for Freedom and the recipient of orders from a variety of countries, and in 1998 he was awarded the title of European of the Year. He was elected to the post of academic at the Estonian Academy of Sciences in 2001 and represented the Estonian government at the Convention on the Future of the European Union in 2002-2003.

Lennart Meri married twice. His second wife, Helle Meri (born 1949), worked as an actor at Tallinn Drama Theatre until 1992. His first wife, Regina Meri, emigrated to Canada in 1987. Lennart Meri had three children – two sons, Mart (born 1959) and Kristjan (born 1966), and a daughter, Tuule (born 1985) – and four grandchildren.

Lennart Meri is buried in the Forest Cemetery in Tallinn.

RECOGNITION & DECORATIONS

1977 | Silver medal at the New York Film Festival

1986 | Honorary doctor of the University of Helsinki (Finland)

1996 | Coudenhove-Kalergi European prize

1996 | Freedom award of the EastWest Institute (New York)

1997 | Annual prize of the Crans Montana Forum

1998 | Silver medal of the Jagiellonian University of Kraków (Poland)

1998 | European of the Year (La Vie newspaper, France)

1999 | Liberal International Prize for Freedom

1999 | Honorary doctor of the University of Lapland (Finland)

1999 | Highest honour of the German Federation of Expellees

2000 | Honorary doctor of St. Olaf College (USA)

2000 | Honorary doctor of the University of Turku (Finland)

2000 | Small Countries Award of the Liechtenstein Institute

2001 | Max Schmidheiny Freedom Prize of the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland)

 

MEMBERSHIP OF UNIONS & ASSOCIATIONS

1963 | Member of the Estonian Writers’ Union

1966 | Member of the Estonian Filmmakers Association

1975 | Honorary member of the Kalevala Society (Finland)

1976 | Correspondent member of the Finnish Literature Society

1977 | Correspondent member of the Finno-Ugric Society

1982 | Honorary member of the Union of Finnish Writers

1989 | Member of the Estonian PEN Club

1993 | Member of the management board of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts

1995 | Member of the management board of the International Advisory Council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation

1997 | Member of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism

1999 | Honorary member of the Home Neighbourhood Union of Finland

 

ORDERS

1993 | Order of the Star of Jordan, Collar

1994 | Order of the Elephant of Denmark, Star and Collar

1995 | Grand Cross of the Order of the White Rose with Chain (Finland)

1995 | Royal Order of the Seraphim with Chain (Sweden)

1995 | Order of the Aztec Eagle (Mexico)

1996 | Order of the Three Stars Commander Grand Cross with Chain (Latvia)

1997 | Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic, Grand Cross

1997 | Golden Order of Freedom of the Republic of Slovenia

1997 | Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, Grand Cross

1997 | Order of Vytautas the Great of the Republic of Lithuania

1998 | Order of the White Eagle of the Republic of Poland

1998 | Order of the Falcon of the Republic of Iceland

1998 | Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav

1999 | Order of the Redeemer of the Republic of Greece, Grand Cross

2000 | Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Grand Cross, Special Grade

2001 | Companion of Honour of the National Order of Merit (Malta)

2001 | Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honour