It is hard to explain to people who know nothing of Estonia why the death of Lennart Meri means so much. As President he displayed an intelligence and vision that truly marked him as a great statesman. Yet he was so much more than that- he understood the character of Estonians- the bad as well as the good. He connected deeply with the culture of his country- writing of the deep roots that connected the traditions of the Estonian people with the land where they have lived for millennia. A theme of one of his most popular books was the search for Ultima Thule- a place of mystic significance as well as geographic speculation. Estonia, he thought, had a case to be thought of as that remote, mystic land.
Despite his deep passion and knowledge of Finno Ugric culture of which Estonian forms a part, Meri was in the best sense a true European- fluent in several European languages, he carried with him a full appreciation of the richness of our common European heritage. His intellect was wide ranging, his wisdom universal- his mind was paved with the literature and philosophy of Europe. Yet Meri was never ponderous- his quick humour made him a delightful conversationalist, and his wry smile was never far away. To a generation of Estonians, Lennart Meri was a puckish grandfather, humorous and kindly, but possessed of an occasionally acid tongue. After the failure of the August 1991 coup in Moscow, which put all the hopes for Estonian freedom at risk he explained why the coup could not have succeeded:
"I've never met a general yet who could milk a cow." His words were often prescient: in the mid 1990s he decried Western finance for Russia, which was mostly siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts, with a pithy and dismissive comment: "The West is making a fundamental mistake when it keeps Russia's nomenklatura fed in salami."
An intelligent and occasionally formidable man, his humour and kindliness nevertheless inspired a profound loyalty in those closest to him. He became the object of great affection in the younger generation, in whom he in turn placed much trust for the future. In later years, after he left office, he conducted himself with dignity, despite the provocations of those who opposed his vision of the future.
Lennart Meri has been voted "the Greatest Estonian". Even such an accolade sells him short. He represented the humanity of European culture, he understood the strengths and failings of our diverse continent, he spoke for the oppressed and the downtrodden in their resistance to tyranny. A liberal intellectual, he spoke with wisdom and vision: A great European and a great man.