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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Lennart Meri (1929-2006)


Estonian statesman, film director, and writer, acknowledged for his unique skill to make history vivid and exciting. Meri published a number of books based on his expeditions to Siberia, the Soviet Far East, and the Arctic. In these works Meri combined historical facts and a deep knowledge of folk poetry with subjective, poetic insight. His books have been translated into about a dozen languages. Meri's films in the 1970s and 1980s won international renown: The Winds of the Milky Way received a silver medal at the New York film festival. He also translated into Estonian works by Erich Maria Remarque, Graham Greene, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Pierre Boulle. In 1992 Meri was elected President of Estonia.

"In the past, when I still shot films about fishermen and hunters, I always had to admire their ability to perceive time in its entirety. They moved freely between the past and the future. For them, the present was not exactly secondary, but always temporary – like the hole in the ice for the seal, who surfaces there to breathe. Unfortunately, our civilisation has lost this bond between times, and tends to measure time with a yardstick, bit by bit, from one point to another..." (from Meri's speech on New Year's Eve 1999)

Lennart Meri was born in Tallinn, the son of the Estonian diplomat and translator Georg-Peeter Meri, and Alice-Brigitta (Engmann) Meri. Meri's surname means "sea." The family spent many years abroad: in Paris, Georg Meri studied at the Sorbonne; in Berlin, where Lennart entered a Catholic school, and again in Paris.

During World War II Estonia was occupied by the Red Army. The Meri family was deported to Siberia in 1941, along with some 12,000 Estonians. Georg Meri was imprisoned at Lubyanka, but the family survived the hard conditions, and returned after the war to Estonia. While his father was in a labor camp, Lennart earned for the family extra money as a lumberman and as a potato peeler in a Red Army factory. In his office as President of Estonia, Meri initiated a collection of life stories of the former deportees by school children.

Unable to continue his career as a diplomat, Georg Meri returned to his work as a translator. He translated thirty-two of Shakespeare's plays into Estonian and became a founding member of the International Shakespeare Society. In 1950 he was again imprisoned  he was released after Stalin's death in 1953. In the same year Meri graduated from the University of Tartu, where he had studied history, and married Regina Ojavere, who studied medicine. His fellow-students remember his self-assured behavior and knowledge of languages  he spoke German, French, Russian. English he learned from listening to the BBC, and he had Winston Churchill's picture on the wall of his room. During this period he also wrote articles for magazines. Meri's father worked as a driver and at a construction firm. Later he began to translate Shakespeare's works into Estonian. He was never allowed to travel abroad, except to the DDR.

From 1953 to 1955 Meri worked as a dramatist at the Vanemuine theater and later as a producer of radio plays in Estonian broadcasting. He traveled in the Ukraine and made his first long expedition, exploring Samarkand and Tashkent. Kobrade ja karakurtide jälgedes: Kesk-Aasia matkamärkmeid (1956, Following the Trails of Cobras and Black Widows) was his account of the journey. It was followed by Laevapoisid rohelisel ookeanil (1961 (Shipmates on the Green Ocean) From 1963 to the late 1980s he worked for Tallinnfilm as a script editor, screenwriter and producer. During these decades Meri made the acquaintance of a number of cultural figures in Estonia and abroad, among others such poets such as Jaan Kaplinski, Paul Erik Rummo, Hando Runnel, and Viivi Luik. Meri's marriage to Regina Ojavere ended in the early 1980s and he later married the actress Helle Pihlak.

Literature in the Soviet period was subjected to the strict control of the regime, and it was not possible to publish works which openly criticized the Communist rule. However, following a period of thaw (1954-1964) party control of literature became much less restrictive for a period. Meri's translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about the gulag system, was published in Tallinn by Ajalehtede-Ajakirjade Kirjastus in 1963. He also translated into Estonian  John Osborne's play Look back in Anger and Graham Greene's novel Our Man in Havanna.

Meri joined the Estonian Writers' Union in 1963. Like a number of other intellectuals, Meri had created good contacts in Finland. Among his close friends was the writer Paavo Rintala, who was leftist but did not especially admire the Soviet system. In the 1970s, Meri was elected the Honorary Member of the Finnish Literary Society.

Meri's travel book of his journey to the North-east passage, Virmaliste väraval (1974), won him huge success in the Soviet Union. It was translated into Finnish in 1977 in the Soviet Writers series, which also introduced to Finnish readers works by the Estonian writers Mats Traat, Lilli Promet, and Ülo Tuulik. Meri combined the present moment with a perspective into history, and uses much material from such explorers as Cook, Forster, Wrangel, Dahl, Sauer, Middendorff, Cochran, and others. When he sees a mountain rising against the stormy sky of the Bering Strait, he realizes that Vitus Bering (1681-1741) and James Cook (1728) have looked at the same mountain, but from the other side of the strait. Hõbevalgem, an interpretation of myths and history of the Finno-Ugrians and Baltic countries, was translated into Finnish in 1983. Its 32 000 copies were sold in two days.

Tulemägede maale (1964, To the Land of Fiery Mountains) was about Meri's journey to Kamchatka in the 1960s. Other members of the expedition group included geologists, botanists, a photographer, and the artists Kalju Polli. "Traveling is the only passion that doesn't need to feel shy in front of intellect," wrote Meri, and concluded that urban people still have an inner urge to see the world, hunger for nature. Meri did underestimate the drawbacks of mass tourism but saw optimistically that "science will liberate us from the chains of big cities and lead us back to nature." Although Meri's films about ethnic people were distributed in the West, they were seldom shown in the Soviet Union.

Meri founded the non-governmental Estonian Institute in 1988 to promote cultural contacts with the West and to send Estonian students to study abroad. In the same year the "Singing revolution," the singing mass demonstrations, collected 300 000 people in Tallinn. In 1991, Meri became a founding member of the Popular Front, which cooperated with its counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania.

After the first non-communist-style election, Meri was appointed in 1990 Foreign Minister, and in 1992 he became Ambassador of Estonia to Finland. On October 6, 1992 he became the 28th President of the Republic of Estonia. Meri was the candidate of the Fatherland Alliance. However, at the first ballot, Arnold Rüütel, a former leader of the Estonian Communist Party, had won with 42 per cent of the total vote, but the final choice for the nomination was made by parliament, dominated by the Pro Patria Alliance. Four years later Meri was elected for his second term. During the campaing, the nationalist right again brought up questions about Meri's former links with the KGB. The allegations did not hurt Meri's reputation and public image, which was not based on dissident background but on his wit, down to earth personality, and his sense of history. "History is more interesting than politics," Meri said once.

Between 1992 and 1999, Estonia had four prime ministers. The Russian residents were disturbed by a proposed law that would have denied them Estonian citizenship; the law granted citizenship only to those who held Estonian citizenship before 16 June and their descendants. Meri vetoed the Law on Aliens and it was amended before it was passed. In 1995 Meri's government was brought down by the disclosure, that the minister of the interior, Edgar Savisaar, had illegally tapped the phones of political opponents. In 1998, Meri created the Commission to Investigate Crimes Against Humanity Perpetrated in Estonia. Among Russian minority leaders Meri was more respected than other politicians. "We have to assure every resident of this country  citizen and non-citizen  that his rights are respected, everywhere," he explained after Estonia's Aliens Act.

In his office Meri strengthened his country's contacts with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. These two goals  the EU and NATO membership  were his most important foreign policy priorities. In 1993 Meri declared: "It is precisely in the name of European values that Estonia needs a secure border... Our border is the border of European values." When Meri visited the United States, he once stayed at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, where his father had been a regular guest in the 1930s while attending international meetings as a diplomat.

In his own country Meri was criticized by former communist for his independent handling of the foreign affairs. In 1994, after Meri's visit to the Kremlin, the Russian troops withdrew from Estonia. Again Meri was attacked by his political opponents for not consulting the political parties and the Riigikogu (the parliament), but generally Estonians celebrated the departure as the final end of World War II. Meri was followed in his office in 2001 by Arnold Rüütel, who had played a major role in the early 1990s when Estonia struggled for independence. Meri died after a long and serious illness on March 14, 2006, in Tallinn. He had undergone an operation for brain cancer in August 2005.

In spite of the fact that Estonia is a small country, Meri gained during his presidency the position of one of the most respected political leaders in Europe. Sometimes he found the success discomfiting. "I must confess I am not always happy with the compliments Estonia has dutifully received. It reminds me of an upside-down picture of Robinson Crusoe: Estonia, emerging from the dark forest of the Soviet oppression, is applauded as an unexpected Friday, who surprises everyone with talents and skills attributed only to Robinson Crusoe." (from Meri's lecture on his promotion to Honorary Doctor St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota April 6, 2000) Always open to new ideas, Meri advocated the building of the Internet infrastructureä and often spoke to young people.

Meri's best known books are perhaps Hõbevalge (Silver White: Travelogue on the Winds and Ancient Poetry) and its sequel Hõbevalgem (Silverier White: Travelogue on a Big Bang, the Wind and Ancient Poetry). These poetical works reconstructed the history of Estonia and the Baltic Sea region. (Estonian belongs to the Baltic-Finnic group of the Finno-Ugric languages and Estonian is closely related to Finnish and distantly related to Hungaria.)

As in his other works, Meri combined documentary sources and scientific research with creative imagination. "If geography is prose, maps are iconography," Meri once summarized. Meri's vision of Estonia's heroic pre-Christian history and the cultural impact of the Kaali meteor craters stirred a wide-ranging discussion. In 1975 he said in a letter: "I want to take a look at the cultural history of the Estonian people, one that is free from all inferiority complexes and the masochist fawning resulting from 700 dark years of slavery."  

Hõbevalgem was based on a wide material of ancient seafaring, and carefully unveils the secret of the legendary Ultima Thule. The name was given in classical times to the most northerly land, reputedly six days' voyage from Britain. Several alternative places for its location have been suggested, among them the Shetland Islands, Iceland, and Norway. According to Meri, it is possible that Thule derives from the old folk poetry of Estonia, which depicts the birth of the crater lake in Kaali, Saaremaa.

In the essay 'Tacituse tahtel' (2000) Meri examined ancient contacts between Estonia and the Roman empire and notes that furs, amber, and especially Livonian kiln-dried, infection free grain may have been Estonia's biggest contribution to the common culture of Europe  in lean years, it provided seed grain for Europe.

For further reading: Meie Lennart, ed. by Pekka Erelt and Tarmo Vahter (1999); Lennart Meri - Eestile elatud elu by Andreas Oplatka (2000); Sateenkaaren värit: Lennart Meren elämä by Kulle Raig (2001); The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, by David J. Smith, et al. (2002) - See other writer/statesmen: Václac Havel, Léopold Senghor - Note:  Lennart Meri's cousin Arnold Meri, who was loyal to the Communist Party, was put on trial at the age of 88 for genocide in connection with the forced deportation of some 251 Estonians from the island of Hiiumaa to Siberia in March 1949.

Selected works (books, films, translations): 

  • Kobrade ja karakurtide jälgedes: Kesk-Aasia matkamärkmeid, 1956 (illustrated by Antsn Viidalepp)
  • Raudne kodu: Evald Tammlaane draama lauludega 3-es vaatuses proloogi ja epiloogiga, 1959 (editor)
  • Vaata raevus tagasi: näidend kolmes vaatuses / John Osborne, 1956 (translator)
  • Meie mees Havannas: põnevusjutt / Graham Greene, 1961 (translator)
  • Laevapoisid rohelisel ookeanil, 1961 (illustrated by Antsn Viidalepp )
  • Teise mehe pea: näidend 4 vaatuses / Marcel Aymé, 1962 (translator)
  • Üks päev Ivan Denissovitši elus / Aleksandr Solženitsõn, 1963 (translator)
  • Tulemägede maale: reisipäevik 160. meridiaanilt, 1964
    - Kamtšatka: tulivuorten maa (suom. Eva Lille, 1988)  
  • Supernoova, 1965 (script editor, dir. Veljo Käsper)
  • Kirjad Sõgedate külast, 1966 (script editor, dir. Jüri Müür)
  • Keskipäevane praam, 1967 (script editor, dir. Kaljo Kiisk)
  • Libahunt, 1968 (script editor, dir. Leida Laius, screenplay by Leida Laius and Lembit Remmelgas)
  • Viimne reliikvia, 1969 (script editor, dir. Grigori Kromanov, screenplay by Arvo Valton)
  • Tulemägede maale, 1970 (documentary film; Vesilinnun kansa / The Waterfowl People)
  • Kolme katku vahel, 1970 (script editor, dir. Virve Aruoja, screenplay by Jaan Kross)
  • Ebaloomad: romaan / Vercors (pseudonym of Jean Bruller), 1970 (translator)
  • Ahvide planeet / Pierre Boulle, 1973 (translator)
  • Virmaliste väraval, 1974 (illustrated by Viive Tolli)
    - Revontulten porteilla (suom. Eva Lille, 1977)
  • Hõbevalge: reisikiri tuulest ja muinaisluulest, 1976 
    - Hopeanvalkea (suom. Eva Lille, 1983)
  • Lähenevad rannad: reisid 130. ja 160. meridiaani vahel, 1977 (enlarged edition of To the Land of Fiery Mountains)
  • Linnutee tuuled, 1977 (documentary film: silver medal on the New York Film Festival; Linnunradan tuulet / The Winds of the Milky Way)
  • Hõbevalgem: reisikiri suurest paugust, tuulest ja muinasluulest, 1984 (illustrated by Kaljo Põllu)
    - Hopeanvalkea: menneeseen oppaina aurinko, fantasia ja folklore (suom. Eva Lille, 1983)  
  • Kaleva hääled, 1986 (documentary film; Kalevalan äänet / The Sounds of Kalevala)
  • Toorumi pojad, 1989 (documentary film; The Sons of Thorum)
  • 1940 Eestis. Dokumente ja materjale, 1989 (with others)
  • Lennart Meri personaalnimestik, 1991 (edited by Andres Heinapuu)
  • Tulen maasta, jonka nimi on Viro, 1995 (a collection of speeches, ed. by Piret Saluri, suom. Juhani Salokannel)
  • Presidendikõned, 1996
  • Šamaan, 1997 (documentary film)
  • Freedom Through Democracy, Security, and Unity in Diversity: Memorable Words of Lennart Meri: From His Speeches 1996-1999, 1999 
  • 'Tacituse tahtel', 2000 (in Mare Nostrum - Mare Balticum, edited by Paul Raudsepp)
  • Riigimured, 2001 (edited by Toomas Kiho)
  • Poliitiline testament, 2007 (edited by Toomas Hiio and Mart Meri)
  • A European Mind: Selected Speeches by Lennart Meri, the Late President of Estonia, 2009 (selected by Mart Meri & Edward Lucas, foreword by Edward Lucas)

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