Elected President of Estonia in 1992, Lennart Meri was a filmmaker, writer, and translator. His most famous book, Hõbevalge (Silverwhite, 1976), is a travel memoir narrating the history of Europe and Estonia. “I would have liked to write this work myself,” Jaan Kross, the most world-renowned Estonian writer, once remarked. The book’s title refers to a cosmic event from 2,500 years ago, when a meteorite fell upon the island of Saaremaa, creating the mysterious Lake Kaali, a place “where the Sun went to sleep“. In Meris interpretation Saaremaa is the mysterious island Thule, visited by a Greek explorer Pytheas between 330-320 BC.

Eloquently weaving history, essay, and folklore, Meri’s enthralling journey into the past recounts the story of Estonians as one of Europe’s indigenous peoples and, in a broader sense, that of the ancientness and openness of cultural contacts.  

Lennart Georg Meri was born in 1929 in Tallinn. The son of a diplomat, he spent his childhood in Germany and France. After the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1941, his family was deported to Russia. Managing to return to Estonia after the Second World War, Meri studied history at the University of Tartu, but after graduation was barred from working in his chosen field. He worked instead as a dramatist and later as a producer of radio plays, beginning work at Tallinnfilm studios in the 1960s. 

Ethnographic expeditions brought him into contact with the ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union, about which Meri would direct five acclaimed documentary films. Perhaps inspired by the Swedish explorer and travel writer Sven Hedin, the documentarian also turned his journeys into literature, writing about journeys through Turkestan, Sakha, the Kamchatka peninsula, and Chukotka. His most translated book is Virmaliste väraval (At the Gateway of the Northern Lights, 1974), a travelogue of the far North, extending from the North Sea to the Northeast Passage.  

In 1963, Lennart Meri joined the Estonian Writers’ Union, becoming a freelance writer in 1972. Like his father Georg Meri, Lennart Meri was a prolific translator, producing literary translations from English (Graham Greene, John Osborne), French (Marcel Aymé, Pierre Boulle, Jean Bruller), and Russian (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).  

Following the restoration of the Estonian Republic, he served first as foreign minister, then as president. His second presidential term ended in 2001. Lennart Meri died in 2006 in Tallinn. 

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