RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
RFE/RL NEWSLINE 2 September 1999
SLOVAK MONUMENT DEFACED BY HUNGARIAN GRAFFITI. Unknown
perpetrators in Bradlo, western Slovakia, have defaced a
memorial to Milan Rastislav Stefanik, co-founder of
Czechoslovakia, by writing anti-Slovak graffiti in Hungarian
on it, CTK reported on 31 August. The graffiti reads "The
Slovak is not a human being." The opposition Movement for a
Democratic Slovakia said the blame must be taken by the
Hungarian Coalition Party, whose "escalating demands," it
argued, demonstrate "racism, chauvinism, and provocation." MS
LENNART MERI: 'A LIFE FOR ESTONIA'
By Jan Cleave
In February 1991, Hungarian-born journalist Andreas
Oplatka visited Estonia to interview the then foreign
minister of that country. Returning there in July 1997 and
again in January 1998, Oplatka was granted permission to
record extended conversations with the same interlocutor, who
had since been elected and re-elected president. Out of those
conversations was born "Lennart Meri: Ein Leben fuer Estland"
[Lennart Meri: A Life for Estonia] (Verlag Neue Zuercher
Zeitung: Zuerich, 1999).
As Oplatka explains in his introduction, the intention
of everyone involved in the book's publication was to render
not only Meri's life story but also the history of 20th
century Estonia. Consequently, "A Life for Estonia" is both
an autobiography and, to use Meri's own term, a chronology.
Reminiscences, anecdotes, and digressions are all on hand,
revealing the inner world of the memoirist. At the same time,
the chronology--the account of the world that the memoirist
inhabits--is faithfully adhered to, defining the book's
structure and, to a certain extent, its tenor.
That Meri is supremely qualified to render this
"Estonian chronology" is beyond doubt. By his own admission,
he was "born into the history" of his country, and by
universal acknowledgment, he has played a major role in
shaping that history. His depiction of pre-World War II
Estonia is based to a large extent on the experiences of his
father, who fought against the Red Army in 1919 and later
became a high-ranking diplomat, holding posts in Berlin and
Paris in the 1930s before returning to Estonia shortly before
the outbreak of war. Through his father's first-hand
knowledge of events in Moscow and Tallinn during the summer
of 1939, when Lennart Meri was just 10 years old, the reader
is presented with a behind-the-scenes account of the futile
struggle of a small, inexperienced, and, in Lennart Meri's
own estimation, naive country about to be sacrificed to the
Beginning with the year 1945, when the Meri family
returned to Estonia following four years of enforced exile in
Russia, Lennart Meri gives his own eye-witness account of
Estonian history. His student years at Tartu University
(where he proved masterful at passing exams in Marxist-
Leninism with minimal preparation), his early career as a
radio journalist and author of travelogues, his writings on
the origins of the Estonian people and his films on Finno-
Ugric communities (for which he came to be regarded as a
"bourgeois nationalist"), and his growing involvement in
politics in the late 1980s--all these are described within
the context of major developments in postwar Soviet Union and
their direct impact on Estonia.
Meri is a gifted raconteur who tells his story, as well
as that of Estonia, in a matter-of-fact manner--one that
allows the autobiographical and the chronological to merge
effortlessly. Characteristically, his description of the
family's exile in Russia focuses on the Russian countryside,
its peoples, and the means of survival, rather than the
sufferings and deprivations that he and his family
experienced. By the same token, he often chooses to highlight
the absurdities of Soviet rule, rather than dwelling on its
gloomier manifestations, thereby revealing his renowned sense
of humor. Particularly memorable is Meri's discovery of his
own name on "ersatz" toilet paper in the "gentlemen's room"
at Estonian state radio; that paper turned out to be the
protocol of a Communist Party meeting at which Meri's
"nationalist" inclinations had been discussed at length.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, however,
Meri repeatedly sounds a somber note in recalling how the
"double standards" (Doppelmoral) of Western democracies led
to the acceptance of a divided Europe after World War II.
Implicit in those reminders is a warning about the possible
ramifications if the West again chooses not to defend the
principles that it espouses. Against the background of the
Baltic States' current bid to become members of NATO, Meri's
descriptions of how he and other Estonians viewed Western
inaction over the Soviet interventions in Budapest, Prague,
and Afghanistan are especially resonant.
Indeed, were Estonian diplomats looking for a few brief
paragraphs to promote their country's bid to join the
Atlantic alliance, they would be hard pressed to find more
eloquent ones than those with which the book concludes: "If
one sacrifices even a small country against its will, then
one also sacrifices principles," Meri argues. "Now is not the
best time in Europe to talk about principles. Most people
would rather hear about material goods.... However, well-
being and harmony...are linked to principles that democracies
must never give up. That Europe will remain Europe only as
long this connection is understood and respected, that is our
common problem of the next century."
Published to coincide with Meri's 70th birthday earlier
this year, "A Life for Estonia" is a fitting tribute to that
country's president as his second term in office begins to
near its end. Readers may regret that more space was not
devoted to Meri's experiences as head of state and to
Estonia's transition following the regaining of independence,
not least because of the obvious parallels--to which Meri
himself alludes--between this period and the interwar one.
Many will also regret, particularly in view of the book's
scope, that no index is provided. This latter omission could
easily be rectified, however, should the book appear in
translation, which it indisputably deserves to do.
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