One Meri cousin, Lennart, just had an airport named after him to coincide with the annual foreign policy conference that bears his name. He’s been away for three years already, but newspaper headlines still celebrate his anniversaries and ask, “What did he eat that made him so smart?”
The other Meri cousin, Arnold, spent his twilight years on trial for the deportation of the men, women, and children of Hiiumaa while being defended to the bitter end by the Kremlin and its media. This week, he even received an award from President Dmitri Medvedev for his WWII heroics.
Yet there is something you should know about each of these Meri cousins. They are now both dead.
Lennart Meri is an important man for Estonians for many reasons. But perhaps the biggest reason is that there have been far too few great Estonian political leaders. Needless to say, only after Lennart’s death would they rename something as consequential as an airport. They didn’t name it after Konstantin Päts. They wouldn’t name it after Arnold Rüütel.
Nobody buys the collected speeches of Päts or Rüütel at the supermarket. But their bookcases shine with intelligence when they carry the words of Lennart Meri. Indeed, if there is one Estonian that the state would like you to grow up to be, it is the whimsical, swashbuckling polyglot Lennart, followed distantly by Estonia’s plethora of Olympic champions.
But if there is one Estonian the state would like you not to grow up to be, it was cousin Arnold. The Russian media portrayed him as a kindly old grandfather who proudly served in the Red Army and — most importantly — willingly abandoned the national interests of the Estonian state to Soviet state interests when the Soviets deemed necessary. The political gods of the 20th century had decided that Estonia would not survive, said Meri, so he chose the lesser evil. This is the kind of Estonian that the Kremlin, through the ages, has preferred.
Estonians don’t click their heels and say “sbasiba” do they? They aren’t really happy that the Soviets came back in 1944 to stay and sit on the Estonian soul for 46 more years, are they? They don’t justify their role in deporting their own people to die in Siberian camps with the response, “I was just following orders,” do they?
No, there was something really distressing about cousin Arnold, and the most distressing thing was that he and Lennart were flesh and blood. One was just as Estonian as the other.
The Estonian discourse on dealing with the Soviet period, especially the crimes of the Soviet state, is quite deep — a far cry from the sort of Russophobic village hysteria that has been used by the Kremlin-supported media to describe the Estonian dialog. How would they know anyway? How many Kremlin sycophants are functional in the Estonian language?
It feels though that the discussion has moved away from, “How could they do that to us?,” to “How could we do this to ourselves?” It’s true that even some of the June Communists, including puppet Prime Minister Johannes Vares, did not want Estonia to join the USSR in 1940. But they voted for it anyway. It is true that some Estonians did not want to deport their fellow citizens to Soviet concentration camps. But they did it anyway. Like cousin Arnold, they were “just following orders.”
The most painful legacy of the Nazi occupation is Estonians’ participation in the crimes perpetrated by that state. But equally as painful is the collaboration of Estonians with the Soviet occupation authorities. It is one thing to blame all ones suffering on an external enemy. It is another thing when the person who held the keys to your survival or ruin lived right next door, attended family parties with you, and sprang from common roots.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Estonians are notoriously distrustful of one another and why they still say that an Estonians’ favorite food is another Estonian.