Lennart Meri, first president of Estonia following the restoration of independence, 1992-2001, would have turned 90 on Friday.
Lennart Meri, born in Tallinn on 29 March 1929, worked as a film-maker and writer during the Soviet era, with much of his activity focussing on the central Asian republics. As a youngster, he was deported to Siberia following the 1940 Soviet occupation, where his interest was piqued in another of his noted specialities, Uralic languages. One of these, Estonian, was already his native tongue, and he reportedly became exposed to related Uralic languages whilst in exile. The Uralic group includes Finnish and Karelian, from the same Baltic sub-group as Estonian, as well as the more distant Mari, Komi and Udmurt tongues.
From the late 1970s, Lennart Meri was able to travel outside of the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact countries, and took the opportunity to keep Estonia's existence in the international consciousness. A founder member of the Popular Front in 1988, a major force in the drive towards Estonian independence, which became a fact in 1991, Lennart Meri was elected President in 1992 by the Riigikogu, and sworn in on 6 October.
His presidential career was characterised by some near-legendary incidents and choice quotes. He once led a group of foreign journalists into the toilets at Tallinn Airport (an airport later renamed in his honour) to highlight what he saw as the antediluvian nature of the facilities, and possibly as a metaphor for Estonia's post-independence struggles.
A selection of notable Lennart Meri-isms include:
- ''Compared with Russia, Estonia is like an Inuit kayak. A supertanker needs 16 nautical miles to turn around, but the Inuit can do a 180 degree turn on a dime'';
- ''I have yet to see a general who knows how to milk a cow'';
- and, most famously: ''The situation may be shit, but it's our fertiliser for the future''.
Lennart Meri also features prominently in the documentary ''The Singing Revolution'', in 2006, the year of his death, where he offers, in English, valuable insight into the events of the late 1980s/early 1990s, continuing the kayak analogy in his analysis on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's inability to come up with effective solutions in holding the collapsing empire together.
The news of his passing, from a brain tumour he had had surgery on the previous year, on 14 March, 2006, was met by widespread mourning. Then-president Arnold Rüütel said that: "In his nine years as head of state, Meri both restored the presidency and built up the Republic of Estonia in the widest sense,'' and then-President of Finland Tarja Halonen noted that: "The Finnish nation lost in Lennart Meri a close and sincere friend and the world, a great statesman who was one of the leading architects of the post-Cold War world''.
Lennart Meri is survived by his widow, Helle Meri.
His distinctive physiognomy, affectionately likened to that of a camel by many, has graced at least one commemorative coin.
A 2018 production, ''Estonia: A nation born in shock'', staged at the Estonian National Opera, saw Lennart Meri, played by René Soom, travelling through time and stopping off at various stages in Estonia's distant, and recent, history. The production opened with Lennart Meri in the central Asian republics, Uzbekistan, to be precise, in front of a silhouette of a camel. This had a double meaning, since that particular beast has traditionally been used as a work animal in the region.
A gallery of snapshots from Lennart Meri's life and career, pre- and post-presidential election, follows.
Editor: Andrew Whyte