Toomas Sildam: Please speak, Great Silent One

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Vaino Väljas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Estonia has over the past 35 years gotten lucky with people who took responsibility and made decisions during pivotal times. Vaino Väljas, who knowingly pulled back from public life after Estonia regained its independence, is one such person. His story is a piece in Estonia's story, which is why he would do well to tell it so we would know and understand more, journalist Toomas Sildam writes.

Vaino Väljas, known also as the Great Silent One (Suur Vaikija) recently turned 90. A hearty handshake and happy birthday!

I also have a request to make. Please do not remain silent, tell your story. Record it on tape if nothing else so that future generations would know.

Estonians are first and foremost interested in what led to the restoration of our independence. The Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was but a pale shadow of a real parliament, on November 16, 1988 passed the Estonian declaration of independence as the first legal resistance to the power in Moscow and an encouragement for many as it demonstrated that opposition was possible and no longer earned one a prison sentence.

The session was chaired by Vaino Väljas who had been sent to Estonia to chair the local Communist Party five months prior. As such, he was the highest-ranking politician in Estonia, top local representative of the Soviet authority. However, it was Väljas who first raised his hand and gave a stern look to delegates who were supposed to be entrenched supporters of the Soviet power as dissidents simply weren't allowed in. And when Väljas raised his hand in support of the declaration of independence, the others followed suit.

Historian Kaarel Piirimäe believes that had it been someone else in place of Väljas, things could have gone differently. But because Väljas had the trust and was a relatively close friend of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he could permit himself to go further. Väljas managed to explain to Gorbachev things others could not have and assuage the authorities in Moscow.

What did he tell them and how? How did he perceive the line the crossing of which would have seen Moscow deploy the military in Estonia? Or to use Väljas' own words: where the risk factor does not result in fatal consequences that can no longer be fixed.

These are important questions that Väljas has so far refrained from answering. Hence the moniker of the Great Silent One.

A slogan that read "Väljas, pull the cart out!" was seen on Toompea Hill before the November 16 Supreme Soviet session. A quarter century later, Väljas referred to it in a parable from his childhood in Hiiumaa. Animal feed was brought from hayfields removed from the farm and separated by patches of forest in the winter and one had to be very careful with the sled piled high when bringing it back down narrow forest paths. Toppling the load was a major headache.

"That is why I thought that being told by people from where I hail that I need to pull out the cart means looking around, keeping both hands on the prize, remaining attentive and alert as to what is happening around me." This was Väljas' way of explaining what he thought in 1988.

Estonia has been lucky enough to capitalize on opportunities history has offered us, Väljas has said.

Estonia has over the past 35 years also gotten lucky with people who took responsibility and made decisions during pivotal times. Vaino Väljas, who knowingly pulled back from public life after Estonia regained its independence, ("One cannot stay on Toompea Hill forever and must come down feeling good") is one such person. His story is a piece in Estonia's story, which is why he would do well to tell it so we would know and understand more.

There is still time if only the Great Silent One wishes. He still remembers very well.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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