Feature: Remembering Estonian political prisoner Kalju Mätik

Kalju Mätik (1932-2019)
Kalju Mätik (1932-2019) Source: Maailmavaade/Tunne Kelam

Former political prisoner Kalju Mätik passed away this month and is to be laid to rest in Tartu on Monday. Journalist and consultant Jüri Estam looks at the siginficance of Mätik's life and actions, and hopes that future generations will honor those who gave up practically everything to keep the spark of Estonian independence alive during the decades of Soviet occupation.

Kalju Mätik, one of the most important figures in Estonia's small but vital brotherhood and sisterhood of political prisoners from the past century, died in Tallinn on Oct, 2. His ashes are to be laid to rest at his family's funeral plot in Tartu.

During those periods when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union (1940-1941 and 1944-1991), there were many forbidden topics in this country, numerous forms of disinformation and propaganda, and many decent people who were blackballed by what then passed for the "media" here.

There was also a period of Nazi occupation between the two Soviet eras, when things were equally authoritarian and grim, but with different emphases. 

Our primary task in the various language services at Radio Free Europe (RFE), where I worked during the Cold War, was to try do our best to act as a surrogate or substitute free press for our audiences back in the "old country". In my case, my parents had been born and raised in an independent Estonia, before the Baltic States were dragged into the unfamiliar and Orwellian abyss of Soviet rule. 

As a young man at RFE, I was the person in the Estonian newsroom tasked with covering what might be called the samizdat beat, (samizdat being a Russian word meaning "self-publishing") involving the dangerous and painstaking reproduction in communist countries of either underground or censored publications by hand, and the passing of such news, periodicals and documents, also by hand, from reader to reader.

Many of these materials reached the West too. It was my task and that of my colleagues to read these items aloud on the air, bringing them to the awareness of Estonians and many others in the Soviet Union and the three occupied Baltic States.

There was a "problem" for me personally with this task, in that a lot of the materials smuggled out from Estonia concerned the hard lives and very difficult conditions of imprisonment for Estonian freedom fighters who'd been apprehended by the Soviet security services and subsequently sent to the labor camps, and even to the psychiatric institutes that were used to punish opposition figures.

The problem then was that getting immersed in the life stories and fates of these brave people ended up leaving a mark on us as well. It's difficult to become steeped in the lore and accounts of the activities and also the suffering of such people without it getting internalized, and without – eventually – at least, in a sense, "getting to know" the people you're talking about in your radio programs.

You get into their heads, which also tends to then get them into your head in turn. That comes with the territory. Eventually, in this way I came to know Kalju Mätik's story, and to respect him from a distance. I had no idea at the time that in the future I'd come to know him personally too. 

Kalju Mätik

Kalju Mätik was born on Sept. 16 1932 in the university town of Tartu, which means that he was a child of the First Republic of Estonia, and saw the golden age of Estonian independence as a child with his own eyes, as well as its demise in 1940, when the Red Army consolidated its grip on our country. Even in his later years, he continued to carry distinct memories of the country of his birth from the time before its occupation and annexation.  

Kalju's father died when he was ten, and his mother died the following year, so he ended up being raised by one Agne Pertelson in Tallinn. If his having been orphaned at a young age had been hard on him, this was never evident later in his life. Kalju Mätik was one tough and principled character, and I wish I knew better how he got to be that way. 

After finishing High School, he graduated from the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute as an electrical engineer in 1959. Having got his education, Kalju began work at his alma mater, and was also involved in translating technical texts.  

As a youngster, Kalju had dreams of becoming an aviator, but these were shattered when it turned out he was too tall to be admitted to training. Not one to give up easily, he got involved in sport parachute jumping, making over 5,000 free falls, and continuing to skydive right up until almost his last days.

Kalju Mätik was a tough bird, and that's one of the reasons he was possibly my favorite political prisoner of all of the men and women punished in Estonia for their political convictions by the Soviet regime. As an aside, the name "Kalju" happens to translate to "Cliff" in English.

How the world got a memory wipe - or how 3 European Countries almost completely disappeared

Back in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the late Per Ahlmark – a writer who was also Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden in the seventies – was one of the relatively few Western politicians well-educated and frank enough to truly "get it" concerning the three occupied Baltic States. Speaking to journalists during the Baltic Peace and Freedom Cruise political event in 1985, Ahlmark said that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the only three previously independent countries of Europe to simply, in effect, disappear off the map as a result of World War II, and more specifically because of the land grabs and conquests carried out by Hitler and Stalin.

Everyone else, said Ahlmark, either got their independence back, if they were lucky enough to be one of the Western European countries, or at least retained a significant degree of statehood, as was the case of the satellite countries such as Poland and Hungary. The Warsaw Pact countries may have been heavily under the sway of the Soviet Union, but they remained outwardly independent nations, and retained some degree of sovereignty, and were visible.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, noted Ahlmark, were the only three countries of pre-war Europe that were simply swallowed up by the Soviet Union and essentially disappeared after that. With the exception of the important non-recognition policies of countries like the United States and a number of others, (meaning non-recognition in the legal and diplomatic senses of the incorporation of the Baltic States  into the Soviet Union), these three previously independent countries were forgotten and pretty much just went missing.

For example, in Ahlmark's Sweden, the evening weather forecasts on TV failed to delineate Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the map of the Baltic Sea area, and simply showed an amorphous land mass belonging to the Soviet Union, somewhere off to the east.

Around the world, only older persons, Soviet Union experts, history buffs and stamp collectors remained aware that the three Baltic States had existed as independent entities, and shouldn't simply be regarded as some sort of indeterminate "Soviet Republics" along with the others. Still, Ahlmark and others did made convincing arguments for the uniqueness of the case of the Baltic countries within international law.  

Whenever Estonia was treated abroad as just another of 15 Soviet so-called Republics, Estonians fortunate enough to live in the West would shake their heads in dismay.      

Kalju Mätik wasn't a "Soviet dissident"

Kalju must have had a patriotic streak early on, because the teachers were mortified when, instead of singing the Soviet national anthem at school, this young man stood up and launched into the forbidden national anthem of pre-war independent Estonia, which has nowadays been restored to its rightful place in this country's public life.

According to people who knew him, Kalju Mätik got involved in underground resistance activities in 1970, at a time when the post-war resistance and passive resistance of much of the Estonian population had waned, and people were joining the Communist Party in large numbers. Most of the massive post-war armed resistance in the Baltic States had already been crushed in the years before Stalin's death. 

Perhaps Kalju's most important contribution to his country's cause was his active involvement in the founding of the Estonian National Front and the Estonian Democratic Movement, which organizations sent a memorandum from Estonia to the UN in 1972. The memorandum appealed for UN help, for removal of Soviet occupation troops, a referendum to determine the status of Estonia, and for the restoration of democracy.

No response came from the UN. The memorandum did however receive attention in the west, and sent the signal that many people in Estonia continued to aspire to freedom. Tunne Kelam, a present-day Estonian politician and also a participant in the resistance movement back in those days, has said that: "This was a desperate message to the west, sent in the full knowledge that all participants would be harshly punished,"‒ not for supposedly slandering the Soviet Union as accused: "But simply for openly stating their concerns."

Dozens of others were interrogated, their houses searched, and many were fired from their jobs. This was but one of many similar episodes in fairly recent Estonian history.

During his interrogation by the KGB on Jul. 24, 1975, as marked in the official record, Mätik stated: "I consider myself a democrat and my activities has been aimed, I'm convinced, at the restoration of true democratic freedoms in Estonia". 

I've heard from contemporaries that of all of the defendants, Kalju stood the firmest and the straightest at the trial in October of 1975, showing no hesitation or remorse. Kalju Mätik and several other memorandum signatories were convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation. He was forced to serve six years in prison camp 389/36, where prisoners considered particularly dangerous to the Soviet state were confined under a strict regime. He'd previously also been a victim of the Soviet abuse of psychiatry at the infamous Serbsky Institute in Moscow. Kalju Mätik was released on Dec. 13, 1980. 

Self-assured but not self-important, Mätik was a man of principles and character who stood out in the relatively small and now dwindling community of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who were punished by the Soviet regime for their political beliefs and actions during the latter part of the past century.

People who know Mätik are convinced he refused, until his release from the camps, all offers from prison staff and the KGB to receive a reduced sentence or other favors in exchange for collaboration with representatives of the regime.  

Upon his return to Estonia, Mätik was deeply involved in the MRP-AEG movement (the Estonian Group for the Publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and was a founding member of the groundbreaking Estonian National Independence Party, being one of its leaders.

Kalju remained politically active until the end of his days, succumbing finally to respiratory issues after a heart attack. Friends were fortunately at his side as his health faded. 

Although the Soviet tradition of dissent was a proud one, and unfortunately still is under Putin, and although Kalju Mätik came to meet and associate with many Soviet dissidents of various nationalities during his years in the camps, and though he got along with them and wished them well, Mätik will go down in history not as a Soviet dissident, which is a category of opposition within Russia and the Soviet Union, but as one of the prime examples of the people who dared to participate in the Estonian resistance movement during the years of Soviet Russian occupation.

To the present day

Kalju was formally recognized by the Estonian state after independence was restored in 1991 and received state awards, but Estonian society hasn't as a rule embraced its resistance fighters and opposition figures, to the extent that has been the case with, let's say, Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, or Lech Wałęsa in Poland. Estonia, and Estonians, are, for whatever reason, still slow to accept and give the full credit that should be due to their sons and daughters from the desperate and very dangerous era of resistance to the Soviet regime. 

Kalju Mätik's funeral will be held at the nationally significant Raadi cemetery in the city of his birth, Tartu, and will be followed by a wake. Many of his past colleagues will be in attendance, along with others who have come to respect this great son of a small nation. 


Jüri Estam came to know Kalju Mätik well after 1991, when he, Estam, moved back to the country of his parents, who had lived in exile in the west after World War II. Kalju Mätik and Estam were both members of the now-defunct Congress of Estonia. Jüri Estam continues to write for media organizations internationally and in Estonia, and also works as a consultant in the area of communication. 

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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