Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Some Sad News

Lennart Meri — Estonian statesman, film maker, and much more — has died after a long illness. Mr. Meri was one of the more colorful characters I know of in Estonia. He was the President of Estonia for much of the period in which I was visiting the country: 1992 through 2001.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Meri twice: once at a U.S. Embassy function promoting U.S. — Estonian ties, and the second time while I walking early one morning in Toompea (the “old town” walled city within Tallinn). In that first meeting (I don’t remember the date, but it was probably in 1995 or 1996) I spent perhaps 10 minutes talking with Mr. Meri (who spoke fluent, pleasantly accented English). When he learned that I lived near San Diego, he surprised me by jumping into a remarkably well-informed discussion of our problems with Tijuana, just across the border in Mexico. He knew more than most San Diegans do about the politics of the river of sewage that flows from Tijuana into the U.S. We also talked a bit about the role of the company I was working for (Stac, a now-defunct software company) in developing the newly-independent Estonia’s economy. The model we had settled on (having a wholly-owned subsidiary in Estonia for our software developers) was exactly what he has been promoting: foreign investors establishing permanent presences in Estonia, creating jobs and building bridges between countries. He foresaw Estonians creating independent, Estonia-based businesses as a result — and I know that at least two former Stac employees have done exactly that.

I came away from that first meeting with Mr. Meri with a very positive impression. My normal reaction to meeting politicians is a strong desire for a hot shower with strong disinfecting soap — but I liked Mr. Meri, and I was impressed.

A couple of years and several visits to Estonia later, I took my usual early morning walk. It was springtime, and pleasant weather, so I chose one of my favorite longer walks — all the way around the walls of Toompea. On one side there is a pretty little park, full of trees and grass, with paths between canals and ponds. I sat for a bit on a bench beside a pond, when a car pulled up alongside the nearby street, and several men in suits got out for a little walk. One of them was Mr. Meri; the others I didn’t know. Mr. Meri glanced my way, gave a little wave, and walked over — and said “Good morning, Tom. You are visiting again?” After a few pleasantries, he said he must be on his way, and that was that. I’ve run into lots of people with this skill (which I am completely lacking in!) of remembering people — names, faces, facts — but I’m always amazed by it. It seems almost impossible to me that someone would remember a brief meeting — one of thousands that a politician must have — and remember it well enough to connect a face to a name and some context. Mr. Meri clearly had that skill.

Estonia has lost one of the people who led her to thriving independence, and the civilized world has lost a good friend.

Newspaper articles about his death here, here, and here; a short “portrait” of Lennart Meri from a Tallinn newspaper (English) here.

1 comment:

  1. In the old blog, Anonymous said:
    What a wonderful piece. Strong, heartfelt and it should be in the 'Wall Street Journal' I am NOT prejudiced!