He was an Estonian and a European of dimensions we find much too seldom. He played a critical role in the emergence of the free and succesful Estonia that we are having today as member of both the European Union and NATO.
He was a true statesman, as well as a highly educated intellectual and a man deeply rooteed in European culture and history.
As a young boy, his family belong to those deported to Siberia as the Soviet Union occupied his country. In a speech in Stockholm in 1999 he described the experience:
”When I climbed into it with my mother and my brother, it was full of women and children already. Space was made for us on a dark lower bunk. At times, I was allowed up to the window. The sparse chain of the Red Army soldiers stood with their backs to the wagon, arms grounded with the rods on. In the evening, a bucket full of water was handed into the wagon.”
”I remembered my father’s last words: ‘Take care of your mother and brother, you are now the eldest man in the family.’ After that we had been separated. I was twelve years old.”
The losses of his Estonia during the dark years of war and Soviet occupation were staggering. In that speech – which I highly recommend reading; it’s now on my webpage that is linked to – he pointed out that if Sweden would have lost an equal proportion of its population we would have lost 1,65 million people.
After returning from his years in Russia, and spending decades at the University of Tartu, Lennart Meri was at the forefront of the struggle to re-establish the independence of his country. He was Foreign Minister during the most critical period when the Soviet tanks tried to turn everything back, but when their failure paved the way for the recognition of the independence of Estonia in 1991.
He naturally become the free country’s first new President.
His experience and vision was instrumental in giving stability to the country as it entered a new era. The complexities of history made for a complexity of backgrounds:
”Most of us today have some relative who died in Siberia; someone who was killed in the World War II on the German side and someone on the Soviet side; someone who belonged to the communist party and someone who fled to the West from the communist occupation.”
That’s why the European vision become so important to him. It was a question of overcoming the past, but it was also a question of returning to the richness of the European culture within which he wanted to be able to be proud of his Estonia.
During these years, Estonia had the oldest – and most certainly the wisest – president of Europe in combination with the youngest prime minister and government. The combination laid the ground for the extraordinary success story that his Estonia has been since then.
For me, he become a good friend in days that were not only easy.
And as he had left the Presidency, he continued to live, write and discuss with friends in the house on the very edge of the Gulf of Finland that he built where there has previously been a Soviet guardpost.
He was a great European. And the foremost of Estonians.