Estonians in the USA

Stanford University to host a major Baltic conference in 2018

Stanford University will hold a major Baltic conference in 2018 which will bring together scholars interested in Baltic studies from all over the world and foster collaboration between Baltic and Stanford researchers.

The conference, hosted by the Stanford University Libraries, that has one of the largest Baltic collections in the United States, will celebrate two important milestones – the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS) and the 100th anniversary of independence for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence is to be held over three days and will feature panels, roundtable discussions and workshops on 16 broad topics. The conference will also include numerous additional events, such as keynote talks by leading Baltic scholars, evening receptions, film screenings, exhibits, and tours of Stanford’s Baltic collections.

The conference will highlight the achievements of Baltic studies a century after the three nations gained their independence and 27 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Questions to be considered include: Why are Baltic studies important today? How does the region fit into larger global and transnational trends, including the growth of populism and increasing instability catalysed by the region’s eastern neighbour? What is the intersection between Baltic and East European studies?

Showcasing the cutting-edge Baltic research

The conference will also showcase the cutting-edge Baltic research as well as highlight and discuss the roles of memory institutions and the digital humanities in Baltic studies.

Former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Kaunas-born Lithuanian-American political scientist and author Agnia Grigas, Estonian professor Lauri Mälksoo and American historian Norman Naimark have been confirmed as keynote speakers.

With more than 200 scholars and graduate students participating, the AABS conferences are the largest international Baltic conferences in the world. They take place every two years and have previously been hosted by prestigious academic institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania (2016), Yale University (2014) and the University of Illinois-Chicago (2012).

The conference welcomes paper, poster, panel, roundtable and workshop proposals from established and emerging scholars, including graduate students.


Cover: Stanford’s Palm Drive with granite curbs as originally specified by Frederick Law Olmsted, an American landscape architect (photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service.)

Estonian guitarist Laur Joamets is among the Grammy winners

American country music singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson, who employs Estonian Laur Joamets as his band’s lead guitarist, won a Grammy in the Best Country Album category.

The 59th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony, held on 12 February 2017 at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, saw an American country music and roots rock singer-songwriter John Sturgill Simpson scoop an award for his third studio album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”.

Part of the glory was also felt by Estonian guitarist Laur Joamets – known in the country music circles as Lil’ Joe – who plays electric and slide guitar in Sturgill’s band.

From Tallinn to Nashville

Joamets, who stems from a musical family – his father is a guitar player, mother a piano teacher and sister a violin player – immigrated to the US only three years ago, partly by a coincidence. He used to play at various gigs and in the studio band for Estonian TV shows, while also having his own blues-rock band called Dramamama. It was thanks to the latter that fate brought him in contact with American country singer Sturgill Simpson.

Sturgill Simpson and an LA rock band called Rival Sons share the same producer. By chance, Rival Sons played in Estonia in 2013 and Joamets’ Dramamama was the opening act at the gig. Later, when Rival Sons’s drummer Michael Miley started to visit Estonia more often, due to having found his future wife over there, Joamets started mingling with Miley and was recommended to visit Nashville by him. Miley also introduced Joamets to his producer Dave Cobb, who, in turn, introduced him to Simpson. Simpson liked Joamets’ playing style and invited him over to the US.

Although in Estonia, Joamets played with rock and blues bands – and even metal –, he has embraced the Nashville country music culture well.

“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is the band’s most successful yet – the album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart. It also entered the UK and Canadian album charts.


Cover: Laur Joamets performing on the David Letterman show as part of Sturgill Simpson’s band.

James D. Melville: Estonia is a capable ally and partner for the US

The US ambassador to Estonia, James D. Melville, addressed the Estonian American National Council in San Francisco on 5 November.

I’ve been in Tallinn for a close to a year now and have gained quite an appreciation for all that Estonia has accomplished over the last quarter century. And I know that the Estonian-American community has played a vital role in that by first keeping the memory of a vibrant, independent Estonian nation alive during the dark years of the Soviet occupation and then, once the walls fell, rushing in to re-establish and strengthen the links that bind our two countries so tightly together.

I’ve been in the US foreign service for over thirty years and have spent much of my career working with our close European allies, including Germany and the UK, but the relationship with Estonia is unlike anything that I’ve experienced elsewhere.

There is obviously a big difference in the sizes of our countries; however, that doesn’t limit our relationship. In fact, Estonia and the US are close partners on almost all international issues of importance. Whether the subject is regional or global security, free trade, or international rule of law, our two countries tend to think alike because of the fundamental values we share. This is true for all three Baltic countries, too: what drives our work together is our shared commitment to democratic values and basic human freedoms.

The progress achieved is irreversible

Estonians value just as much as Americans the hard-fought freedoms that form the foundation of our societies and understand the need to protect them not only in our countries, but also in those places, such as Ukraine, where people are demanding the same rights and liberties free from outside pressure and influence. That is the message that president Obama delivered when he visited Tallinn two years ago and it is very much applicable today.

When I began my career in the former East Germany, I never expected to witness as many profound changes in Europe as we’ve seen. Of course, we had confidence in our policies and we knew the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace was the only path to a prosperous future, but it seemed far off and maybe not achievable during my lifetime.

Looking back at the past quarter century, we have come a long way to achieving that lofty goal. Certainly, the progress attained in countries such as Estonia is irreversible. Even so, this is among the most challenging times in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

As I put this into the US-Estonia perspective, I’d say there are three important aspects that will define our relationship over the next decade.

First, Estonia is a capable ally and partner, for the United States bilaterally and multilaterally through the EU and NATO.

We admire the Estonian commitment to NATO

After re-independence in 1991, Estonia pursued policies to integrate as quickly as possible into Western institutions. This meant undertaking meaningful, and at the time painful, reforms in order to join organisations such as the WTO, EU, NATO, OSCE and OECD. It also helped to have neighbours such as Finland and Sweden making early investments and providing new markets as trade quickly shifted away from the former Soviet republics.

The result is that Estonia is as solid a partner and ally as we have. Estonia’s interests and values line up with ours exceedingly well. Estonia has consistently proven itself to be a committed ally by spending more than 2% of GDP on defence and through contributions to missions in Iraq and Afghanistan or more recently by contributing to the EU mission in Mali, the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon and by training Ukrainian Special Forces.

Estonia is also exporting its successful transition experience, including the pioneering e-governance and cyber security platforms, to Eastern Partnership countries. Estonia’s commitment to NATO has made a lasting impression on me and my staff, and is something that the many visitors we receive from Washington quickly come to admire and respect as well.

Second, Estonia’s geography means that security will be the dominate issue for the foreseeable future.

Let’s be clear, Estonia is concerned about an unpredictable and aggressive Russia and this concern has merit, not only because of the Soviet occupation. Often my Estonian interlocutors will point back to the Bronze Soldier riots and cyberattacks in 2007 or the invasion of Georgia in 2008 as an inflection point for a more outwardly combative Russian state. Crimea and Ukraine are only the latest extension of that.

Russian behaviour could lead to an escalation

It is quite obvious to anyone who can count that the Russian military is an order of magnitude larger than those of the Baltic States and the exercises they’ve conducted in the region have been much larger and more provocative than anything NATO would ever contemplate. Additionally, Russian behaviour, such as airspace violations, flying without transponders or what we’ve encountered at sea, run the risk of accidents that could lead to an escalation in the region.

Recognising the change in Russian posture, the United States and NATO have responsibly increased their presence in Estonia and the other Baltic countries. The United States has rotated troops, planes and ships to maintain an almost continuous presence that unequivocally demonstrates our commitment to our NATO allies.

We are also helping Estonia, through the European Reassurance Initiative, to increase its own national defence capabilities through infrastructure improvements at the Central Training Area as well as at the Amari Air Base and through augmenting Estonia’s defence acquisitions, such as providing US$33 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles.

“We’re just allies, pure and simple”

This bilateral engagement will continue even as NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence takes shape, with the UK as the lead framework nation in Estonia.

As president Obama said in Tallinn, “there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners in NATO – there are just allies, pure and simple. And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single ally.” We demonstrate this every time we have an air, land or naval exercise in Estonia and of course with the ongoing US troop presence in Tapa.

Russia’s actions have called into question everything we’ve worked towards since the end of WWII and Estonia is on the front line of this struggle. Any wavering or destabilisation would have ripple effects that would directly threaten US interests and prosperity.

My third takeaway from my time in Tallinn is how Estonia’s capacity to innovate and adapt have set it up for success in the digital economy.

Estonia’s digital government really makes the country stand out from everyone else in Europe, with virtually all government services available to citizens online via an interconnected e-government platform.

You may have seen that I recently became an Estonian e-resident myself. Beyond the many lessons that other countries, including the United States, can draw directly from Estonia’s e-governance, the reliance on e-services has required that Estonia develop the capacity to keep the services secure. Estonia quickly institutionalised the lessons learned from the 2007 cyber-attacks and set a model for others to follow through national cyber security strategies, infrastructure, and cyber technologies needed to protect those services.

The importance of cyber defence

We use this innovation to our advantage in the security sector as well. Since the signing of the US-Estonian Cyber Partnership Agreement in December 2013, cyber coordination between our nations has increased significantly. Our embassy’s cyber team, which includes representatives from the Departments of State and Defense, the FBI and Secret Service, are working on the full range of cyber initiatives.

The US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, recognised the importance of cyber defence during his visit to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence last June when he met with Ministry of Defence and CCDCOE officials, and cyber cooperation is included on the agenda of almost every high-level engagement between the US and Estonia in both Tallinn and Washington.

Like Estonia, the United States sees the growing importance of digital technologies to economic growth and competitiveness in today’s world. We share a belief that the free flow of data is a key to unlocking innovation. And we’re hopeful that the European digital single market, an undertaking being led by the Estonian-nominated European Commissioner, Andrus Ansip, will expand transatlantic trade and our shared digital economy.

A dynamic spirit of entrepreneurship

And of course, we are pleased to see growing collaboration between the American and Estonian private sectors. Tiny Estonia is now on the map for many venture capitalists from this neck of the woods. Just a few weeks ago, Draper Associates led a 2.6-million-dollar investment round in Funderbeam, an Estonian start-up that has launched an online investment platform for start-ups.

Many high-tech companies that have received American financing have gone on to open up US offices while maintaining important jobs in Estonia. So we’re seeing a virtuous circle that is sustaining high quality job growth on both sides of the Atlantic.

To have a broader impact across Estonia’s economy, this dynamic spirit of entrepreneurship and embrace of technology needs to be extended to all corners of the country, and to the more traditional manufacturing and industrial firms. Our embassy is committed to supporting the Estonian government in this effort.

Of course, Estonia does still have some internal challenges that the government and all of its friends and partners are trying to address. There is certainly a role for the Estonian-American community to help in this endeavour as well.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel all around the country and visit very many different communities and it is a simple fact that development has been uneven and prosperity unequally shared.

This is an issue for many, many communities throughout mainland Estonia and the islands, but it really manifests itself in a unique way in Ida-Virumaa County, through the prism of ethnic segregation and isolation. Given Russia’s vow to protect its compatriots abroad and its sustained efforts to divide communities, this also presents a unique security challenge for Estonian state institutions.

An incredible first year in Estonia

In response, we’ve partnered as much as we can with Estonian educational institutions, non-governmental organisations and other like-minded partners to bring in as many skills-based programs as possible, focusing primarily on English language learning, entrepreneurship, science and technology, and civic activism and leadership, to empower youth on their path to successful futures in Estonia and Europe.

I’m optimistic about Ida-Virumaa, which I do not see as one of those many places in Europe where history seems to prevent progress. In fact, I see just the opposite. I see communities and people coming together if just given a chance.

It has been an incredible first year for me in Estonia. One of the many perks of being ambassador is that I’m invited to experience a wonderful variety of Estonian culture.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear folk music at the Viljandi Folk Music Festival, enjoy the cuisine at the Estonian food festival in Saaremaa, give remarks at many schools, tour the Ukrainian and Russian cultural centres, and meet current and future leaders from each of Estonia’s 15 counties.

In conclusion, I see these themes as continuing throughout my two years in Estonia: Estonia as a rock-solid ally in an environment where we must all deter an increasingly belligerent Russia. And Estonia as an innovator, helping Europe and the world make the most of the digital age. And the United States will remain Estonia’s closest partner and friend in both scenarios. Thank you.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: President Obama greeting children during his visit to Estonia on 3 September 2014 (official White House photo by Pete Souza.)

Estonian choreographer Rauno Zubko helps keep folk dancing alive in America

Folk dance boot camp? Not quite, but Rauno Zubko, a renowned Estonian folk dance choreographer, has come to the US to get everyone’s toes tapping in time for the Estonian Song and Dance Festival.

Zubko, an Estonian folk dance director and choreographer, has come to Portland, Oregon, for a week to “spice up” the local dance scene among the Estonian American folk dancers. The Tulehoidjad (Torch Bearers) Estonian dance group is one of the oldest in North America, now teaching the fourth generation of Estonian families’ traditional dance. Zubko teaches both contemporary and folk dance in Estonia, and his choreographies here are meant to impress at upcoming festivals domestically and internationally.

Tell me about yourself and your work, in Estonia and in the US?

This is my second time in the US; the first time was in 2014 for the Tantsupidu (the Dance Festival). I was the age-groups assistant for Vancouver, Seattle and Portland dance groups, to help them prepare for the Laulupidu (the Song Festival). In Estonia, I’m based in Tallinn, although I’m originally from Hiiumaa (the second-largest island in Estonia).

rauno-zubko-iiI teach folk dance there on a regular basis but it’s not the only style I do; I’m also a contemporary dancer. I have my own folk dance society called Pääsuke. I’m the artistic director and it’s really growing right now. I also give contemporary classes in different studios and at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. We organise the Hiiumaa Tantsufestival, a contemporary dance festival, as well.

What are your main goals for the Tulehoidjad during your time here?

My main goal is to somehow spice up [the Estonian] folk dancing popularity while I’m here. It seems to be working – I understand that since I arrived, many dancers who had not come to practice in years have now shown up. It’s really a good thing. But I also want to give them material that’s not too easy, so they can improve their technique and skill level.

I’m doing some simpler dances, but mostly quite challenging ones, so they’ll have time to work with the material. I’m going through it really fast right now and they’ll have time to work on it later. Yesterday after rehearsal I could tell everyone had really hit a wall but they are all good and very motivated.

How are dances connected to Estonian culture? Why is it important for the people here?

Estonians are a singing and dancing people. We’re lucky to have such an incredible amount of folkloric dance. It’s thanks, of course, to Anna Raudkats, who started in the 1920s to collect the dances. Dancing is really popular, both in and out of Estonia. And we even managed to preserve the folk dancing tradition during the Soviet-occupation.

How do you see dance within the Estonian diaspora in North America?

I’ve been here and in Vancouver and both of the communities are doing really well, despite how difficult it is to do the classes and get people together. Hats off to the organisers, really! I was amazed the first time I was in Portland that there are third generation fluent Estonian speakers here. I’m really glad they can hold on to it.


How do you see the role of the Estonian diaspora in the “100 Years of Estonia” celebration?

There are so many events leading up to the celebration – starting with the youth celebration in 2017 and ending with the main event in 2019, and many in between. I hope to see these groups there.

Often the singing is the only things people think of or know when they think about Estonian folk culture. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

At least they know something! Of course I wish everyone would come to see the dancing section at Laulupidu, it’s completely amazing, especially when you see it for the first time. It’s jaw-dropping.

What kind of challenges do you face in a job like this?

I never know ahead what kind of level to expect from the dancers. There are pairs with different levels and I had to select the dances to teach ahead of time, without the full information. I made a list of possible dances first, then made the final cut here, once I understood the levels. Also, Estonian dances are usually made for eight couples exactly, and the women’s dances take exactly 12 women and, of course, here we don’t have the luxury to do that! I had to select dances that you can do with different configurations.

Would you like to say a word to the readers of Estonian World?

I’d like to just encourage everyone to come and see the song and dance festivals! Folk dancing is hugely popular, even among younger people in Estonia. The celebrations (like the Song Festival), of course, contribute to the popularity, because it’s said that if you go once, you want to go every time. Estonia is very nationalistic; people are very proud of their heritage. When they put on the folk costumes and dance their own dances, people feel very proud. I’m so happy that people enjoy it.


The Portland Tulehoidjad folk dance group was formed in 1950 to keep Estonian traditions alive and to share culture with American friends and family. In 2009 and 2014, Tulehoidjad performed in Tallinn, Estonia, at the Song and Dance Festival, and they travel and perform within the United States on a regular basis, including taking part in the annual West Coast Estonian Days.


The Portland area mother-daughter team of Lehti Merilo and Liina Teose were awarded the 2016 Outstanding Achievement Award by the Estonian American National Council for their work with Tulehoidjad. Within the group, there are mixed pairs, women’s dances and a special group for children aged 0-8.


Cover: Folk dance tradition in Estonia (photo by Katrin Winter.)

Military service in Estonia is worth it

As an Estonian expat who first moved abroad at the age of 6 but who returned to Estonia to complete my ajateenistus (military service), I have just one message for those, both here in Estonia and abroad that are considering it now: it is absolutely worth it.*

As a small nation in a strategically significant location that is difficult to defend, Estonia’s precious independence was first won in the aftermath of the First World War by a fortuitous combination of national heroism and external assistance. These elements form the core of Estonia’s dual defence policy today, too, and are reflected in Articles 3 and 5 of NATO, namely that we must be able to defend ourselves but that we can rely on our partners and allies in the gravest of situations.

National defence

The events of the past few years have fundamentally altered the security situation in Estonia, and this requires an equivalent shift in our mindset toward national defence.

The advances made by Estonia in the past quarter-century in terms of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, health care and economic development are all underpinned by security and stability at home and abroad. In a tumultuous international environment and an immediate neighbourhood characterised by political, economic and diplomatic, and, ultimately, military coercion, Estonia as a nation needs the resolve at both the heights of strategic decision-making and in the hearts of its citizens that we will do what we must and pay what is necessary to ensure our independence and territorial integrity.


Of course, the high politics matter less to most of us than our career ambitions and personal goals. But I can attest that military service in Estonia can be beneficial in that sense as well for both those of us living in Estonia as well as those who form part of the diaspora community. This is because, as with everything else in life, what you get out of the service is proportional to what you put into it, both physically and mentally. This is particularly the case with physical fitness, but also with four other crucial and cross-cutting elements: stress management, teamwork, self-expression and leadership.

Difference between success and failure

First and foremost, I would argue that how you react to difficult situations can make the difference between success and failure. In your professional and personal life, you will be subjected to high-pressure situations and challenging events. In military service, you will be pushed to the end of your physical and mental capabilities.

You will face the kind of pressure, difficulty and adrenaline that you have never experienced before. Will you buckle under the potentially overwhelming hardships or will you overcome them? Conquering those kinds of challenges or learning your own limits in military service makes you better prepared to handle and overcome stressful situations in your professional and personal life as well, no matter what field or situation you find yourself in.


Secondly, the days of the lonely genius are over and teamwork skills are necessary regardless of one’s institution or field of endeavour. Military service can give you a window into social dynamics and the virtues of cooperation in close to their most extreme form.

Taking part in joint activities that are often very challenging and for which there is only extremely limited financial compensation can give you substantial experience with the concepts of discipline, motivation and inspiration. These are valuable skills and substantial insights that, if properly understood and implemented, can make or break the successfulness of any group or organisation and can be very helpful for each of us to internalise as we continue to make our way in this world.

Strengthening the fabric of society

Thirdly, and this applies especially to the diaspora community, military service is beneficial for one’s language and social skills and also for the feeling of community and nationhood that they support. If you’ve grown up speaking Estonian at home but still often think in English or another language, putting yourself in a situation where Estonian is the only thing around can do wonders for your speaking ability.

For those that have grown up in Estonia, there is a certain subset of vocabulary used in the military service that creates a unique bond between those that have gone through it. Either way, whether because of natural reasons or as a result of mutually endured hardships, the military service usually brings with it lasting friendships and strengthens the fabric of our society in each of these ways.


Finally, the military service gives you an unparalleled experience with leadership. This applies both to those who end up remaining privates as well as those who go on to become sergeants or even platoon leaders. By the end of your service, it will become clear whether you are a successful or unsuccessful leader and/or team member.

Either way, the personal characteristics, attitudes and abilities necessary for both giving commands and carrying them out will reveal themselves, and those lessons that are learned in that environment can be effectively applied to countless situations in civilian life. Every organisation has a leadership structure and teamwork dynamic of one type or another, and getting an experience of that in its most challenging form can be very useful for reaching your goals, whatever they may, in the rest of your life as well.

Shared security consciousness

But going back to the bigger picture, one of the most important things that is accomplished by the military service is the creation of a shared security consciousness in the minds of our citizens. We understand that without security, we would not have the quality of life and level of development that we do.

And I argue that partially as a result of being one of the last European and NATO countries with compulsory military service, Estonia’s society is much more in tune with international security developments and interested in the complex questions of security policy than those of most of our allies. This is a substantial strength that contributes to the international credibility that we have achieved as a result of the extensive list of forward-looking security policy decisions made by our governments over the years.

One of the most meaningful experiences

As for me, I have to say military service was certainly one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Never before or after have I felt exactly that combination of adventure, purpose, hardship and pride. Estonia is only as strong and as resilient as the skill and resolve of its reserve army, and for me, taking the vow to defend my country at all costs and regardless of danger or difficulty was profound beyond words.

During my service, I kept in my chest pocket a document detailing the imprisonment, deportation or execution of a large proportion of my extended family during the Soviet occupation, when Estonia was unable to defend itself. When I took that vow to defend my country, I promised to give my all to prevent that kind of atrocity from ever occurring again. And I will never forget the feeling of self-realisation when I had a rifle in my hand, a knife on my waist, simulation grenades in my pouch and illumination flares in my pocket, ready to begin the defensive battle training session, learning the skills to protect my nation in a time of need. What will be your motivation?

So to those of you that don’t have physical reasons for not doing so and are considering whether or not to complete your ajateenistus, I say again: it is worth it. Do it to gain a one-of-a-kind experience. Do it because it will help you in the rest of your life. Do it to see the pride in your grandparents’ eyes. And do it to see the Estonian flag continue to wave on flagpoles across our land and around the world.


Photos courtesy of Estonian Defence Forces. * The original version of this article was published on 12 October 2014.

Visit behind the Iron Curtain

Maie Currie was born in Estonia in 1939. Her mother escaped with her to Germany in 1944 and in 1949 they left for the United States. This is Currie’s emotional account how she went back to Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1968 for six days to meet her father who had been taken from her in 1941 to a labour camp in Siberia and eventually was made to go into the Soviet Army.*

Maie Currie was born in Estonia in 1939. In 1944 her mother escaped with her to Germany and lived for five years in a DP (displaced persons) camp.  In 1949 they left for the US, where Currie still resides. But her dad had been taken from them by the Soviets in 1941 and made to go into the Soviet Army. It wasn’t until 1968 when Currie had a chance to travel back to Estonia to see her dad again. At the time, Estonia was ruled by the Soviet Union, behind the “Iron Curtain” and foreign visitors were a rarity. This is Currie’s emotional recollection of her short journey back to her native land.


Did I know or even care what was waiting for me in Estonia the first time I went back. Not at all since, I was more interested in meeting my father for the first time as an adult in 1968 than any of the unknown factors that might be looming in the dark. The fact that Estonia was behind the “Iron Curtain” had a certain mystery about it that was unfamiliar and scary to most in reality. We heard all kinds of stories, but as stories went, you never knew what was true and what was exaggerated.

The anticipation of seeing ‘Eesti’

The excitement within me was escalating as I boarded the ship in Helsinki for Tallinn. I would have really enjoyed a drink from the bar since that could have calmed my nerves. Since I was not sure how it would look if a woman walked up to the bar alone among all the joyful Finns and ordered a drink, so I refrained from it.

Helsinki-Tallinn passenger ship

The anticipation was peaking as I watched Tallinn’s silhouette get closer. I could hardly believe that I was going to be walking on the soil of the country of my birth, the country I had to flee from during the war, the country I loved so much, and the country that was occupied and suppressed by the Communism of the Soviet Union now. In spite of that, this was my “Eesti” (Estonia) and I always held it close to my heart. I had such a roller-coaster of emotions and they were hard to contain. So many questions ran through my mind – besides my father, who else was going to be waiting for me? Would I recognise them? How would I fit in? Would I be welcomed?

Detained by Soviet border control

I was the last one off the ship and I wondered if that was because I came from America. I had two very big suitcases and always needed a porter. I wanted to bring everyone something and that caused me to be detained in customs for endless hours. Every bag and piece of luggage was gone through with a fine toothcomb. Things were removed and my thrill of being there quickly changed to anger. No amount of arguing helped my situation. There was no winning with the “powers that were”. They were not even Estonian.

By this time, it was getting late and I had no idea where my family and friends were. Had they gone home? Did they last the hours of waiting and not knowing what was going on? The exhaustion was overtaking me and I could not think straight. Some items were confiscated, some were taken to the back room and inspected closer, there were questions, and heads were shaking. The bags were all a mess and the suitcases did not close properly. With no help, I had to struggle myself. “Oh, God!  Did I do the right thing in coming here?” I quickly dismissed that thought since I was already there and would still see my father.

Family reunion

As I struggled with my stuff and walked around the corner, I hear all kinds of cheering and greetings from a distance. “My God, they are all here!” I thought, as my heart could not have beaten any faster or louder in my chest. I still could not get to them since there was an eight-foot chain link fence separating us. As I was led into the fenced area, I quickly glanced to see where my father was.

I saw a very tall man, but I did not remember him from pictures to be looking like this man. In any case, I dropped everything, ran to him with an “isa” (father), and hugged him. Finally, I was here with my father. Once we let go and looked into each other’s eyes, the tall man said to me, “I am not your father.  I am your godfather.” It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck me. “Where is my father?” No one knew and everyone was almost as shocked as I was.

Waiting to transport me to the Intourist Hotell Tallinn (the Soviet-era state-owned hotel in the Estonian capital) was an official car. Truth be told, now I was scared to death and asked if “tädi” (aunt) Erika could come with me. I had initially wanted my godfather also to come but I was allowed only one person. “Tädi” Erika mentioned to them where we would be going after the hotel but some had to go home and I would see them another time. I just went along with whatever was decided by “my people”.


It turned out we were going to my godfather’s apartment, which was not far from the hotel. In sign language, I was informed that the walls had ears and to be careful what I said. Since I would be too upset talking to my father over the phone, my godfather called him to find out where he was. My father wept because he did not know I was coming that day and was upset that he was not there to meet me. You see, with the letters being censored “they” decided not to have my father receive my last letter in which I told him of my arrival date and time. My godfather arranged that my father take the first train from Kohila and come to the hotel in the morning to meet me.

Counting the crumbs

In the meantime, they sat me at the only comfortable chair in the small apartment in front of a small round table. “Tädi” Leida placed a pancake on a plate in front of me with a small jar of berry preserve. Immediately I asked, what about the rest of you? The response was devastating because this preserve was saved especially for me. They did not have the heart to eat it themselves. So there I was sitting and eating alone at the table with the six or seven of them just watching me enjoying this “delight”. It broke my heart. I came from the land of plenty and here in Estonia they were counting the crumbs.

With the secret code of “watch what you say”, I waited for one of them to start all conversations. My mother had warned me of this even when I was writing letters to Soviet-occupied Estonia, so it was not difficult for me to abide by the same rules during my stay. This gave me an idea of what I could expect in the next several days but there was more to come.

KGB everywhere

As “tädi” Erika walked me back to the hotel, it seemed as if she had to have eyes all around. She did have only two eyes, but they were moving everywhere. It made me a little nervous as well. I was sad when she left because I was not sure when I would see her again.

I needed to change into my nightgown but hesitated because of the known bugs. I envisioned they also could be lurking at me with cameras. With that thought in mind, I took my clothes off in the windowless bathroom without turning the light on. I too became paranoid.

Of course, everyone back home had warned me about the lack of toilet paper in Estonia, but I forgot to bring a roll. I checked earlier and realised they had a roll, but it looked like crepe paper and felt like sandpaper. Luckily, I brought some tissues, but saved them for special occasions and going out.

Praying for the blue, black and white flag on the “Pikk Hermann” tower

Estonia is so far north that in June the nights were very short. I marveled as the sky swayed from dusk to dawn and never got dark. I sat on the bed and looked at the round vase on the windowsill with the flowers given me when I arrived. I especially admired the buttercups since I had not seen any back home.

Looking out of the two large windows was what should have been the second most beautiful site after the silhouette of Tallinn. There in front of me was the wall of “Vanalinn” or Old Town.  A light projected on the “Pikk Hermann” tower aiming at the flag. It saddened me to see a red flag up there instead of the blue, black, and white flag. I prayed that someday there would be the flag of free Estonia flying again and that would be a beautiful site for all to behold.


On the morning when I was about to meet my father, I had to get up early. I hurried downstairs for breakfast. It was not the quick service you would get back home but I did manage to get a cup of coffee after a while and a “pisi” ham sandwich. Since there was nothing that came with the coffee like cream and sugar, I asked the woman at the next table if she would pass me hers. Very rudely, she said, “no, you order your own”. Welcome to Estonia behind the “Iron Curtain”.

It took two bites to eat that sandwich and a couple of gulps to drink the coffee and I was done.  Surprisingly “tädi” Erika was waiting for me outside the door. She did not want to bother me in the dining room and she seemed a little afraid. She had come early to say, “good morning” and see how I was. She suggested we take a walk. That was how people were able to talk freely because of the spying.

She took me to a small store not far from there, called “The Dollar Store”. It was not to buy anything, but to show me that only a foreigner with foreign currency, especially American dollars, was able to buy anything from this store. Even if a local had the dollars, they were not allowed to buy anything. Apparently, this was the only store to get something worthwhile, even though it was overpriced. We quickly went back to the hotel and she left immediately knowing that I was expecting my father.

About 11 o’clock, there was a knock at the door. I knew it was going to be a tall handsome man that I had seen in so many photos. Yes, my father, for whom I longed all these years. It was the father with whom I made a pact when I was a teenager that each night we would look up at the stars and pretend we could talk to one another. That father was now on the other side of that door. Open Sesame!


I wanted that magic to continue to the other side of that door; but once opened, the magic was gone. Instead, it was the shock of my life to see a man hunched over, frail, and thin but with a big smile on his face. We hugged without skipping a beat with both of our hearts pounding like crazy. It broke my heart to see him so old looking at 59 and not well. What a moment in time!

There was an added surprise around the corner. He had brought his wife Alide and two sons, Urmas (13) and Tarmo (11). I had known about them and had received pictures and letters, so I was happy to meet them now. I finally had my own family with these two boys as my brothers. I was elated. Since I was so much older, they wanted to call me aunt. I kept insisting I was their sister and not their aunt. Alide was very nice and my mother had known the family earlier and was happy that he married her, especially since she was Estonian and a good Christian.

Painful memories

We made all kinds of small talk and then Alide let my father and I talk and had the boys sit very quietly and listen. I wanted so much to know about his life, but did not know how or what to ask. I waited for him and it was apparent that he was afraid to say too much. I learned of him being shot in the neck, which hit a vital nerve during the war. His left leg and arm were lame and his left hand shook. His eyes twitched and his speech was slurred. No longer did he stand tall and proud, but hunched and broken.

I was holding back tears until the night when I was alone. He did not talk about the labor camps or the suffering he lived through in the forest when he was first forced out of our home.

Father and I in the friend's garden 1968

He told me of how he came back home after he was released from being in a hospital due to his injuries for many months. With joy in his heart and with the great anticipation of seeing the love of his life, Ilona, and the other love of his life, his daughter Maie, he had knocked on the door of his once apartment. To his shock and disappointment, strangers opened the door, but no Ilona or Maie. Now, not so happy anymore, but sad and bewildered he turned around and in his pain walked several more blocks to my grandfather’s house hoping for some better news.

My grandfather, of course, knew what had happened to my mother and me because it was with his convincing that Ilona fled with Maie, leaving everything behind hoping to return when all this was over. Ilona never got the chance to return when Estonia was free.


My father waited several years in hopes that we might return, but that too did not happen. Being an invalid and homeless, he reached out to old family friends and eventually married Alide. It was a heart-wrenching story and I was hurting deeply. What anguish and grief he must have felt.

Soviet reality

With me being there, he seemed to have gotten extra energy and strength. He insisted on all of us taking a walk and he showed me our former apartment house and my grandfather’s house. All these were in extremely poor condition and total strangers were living in them. Everywhere the paint was falling off, the fences and gates were in disrepair, nothing green was growing, and everything looked dead and gray. The people had either a sad or mad look about them, as well as a colorless hue. Their clothes were drab and no one seemed to care much about anything. This picture will come back to haunt me.

He also took us to many tourist sites, like the churches, towers, and walls of the Old City. He would tell me a little history of everything. My father would lean on my arm most of the time. Other times he would hold my hand, look at me and say, “my little Maie”, as if I were that little girl whom he missed so much. He missed out on watching his little girl grow up and I desperately missed my father. For him these moments were priceless, as they were for me.

My visa was only for seven days and I was not allowed to go outside of the city limits. All but one day was spent with my father. On another day, we went to a department store and I believe there was only one in the entire city of Tallinn. People would go there in hopes to find something they needed or wanted. The choice was extremely small and the sizes few. Most of the tables were empty and others had only a few items on them.


My father also took me out to dinner. The menu had but a few things to offer, the waitress was unfriendly, and the wait time was extremely long. We decided on hot dogs and sauerkraut. I do not believe my father had been to a restaurant in a very long time and did not realise how things had changed. He was complaining and apologising to me about everything . . . the lack of food, dirty tables, the poor service, and no tablecloths. I think having been a refugee made it easy for me to adjust to this sad situation, but apparently, it was unpleasant for my father.

KGB interrogates

I had requested permission to go to my father’s home in Kohila and one morning I was called down into the office.  I had my hopes high, but quickly they were shot down. I was asked to sit down. The room was long and narrow with two desks, some file cabinets, empty walls, and a bare window. The two men began questioning me by first telling me about the shooting of Robert Kennedy, waited for my reaction, and continued to question me for several hours. Why I left Estonia, what was going on back in the USA, specifically in Lakewood (where large expat Estonian community lives in the US – editor) with the Estonians, the Estonian House, church, school, and much more. I was scared and wanted to make sure I was able to leave Estonia.

I got back to my room before my father and family arrived. I was somewhat unnerved, but composed myself. We visited all the possible grave sites of the family. This was part of visiting the past, giving it meaning, and making that far-away land real after all. Even after so many years of being in foreign lands and finally making a home in America, I still felt a strong attachment to Estonia.

Leaving occupied Estonia

The day to depart arrived sadly and too soon. Getting to meet my father and all the family members and friends was a dream come true even if this dream was in a dark place where fear prevailed and nightmares occurred. Everyone was sad and crying on that last day, but I had brought them a few days of relief, happiness, and smiles. I was relieved to go home though.

Maie with her dad in Tallinn in 1968As we gathered on this side of the gates and fences to say our goodbyes, I was given a bouquet of flowers. I took out a red rose and pinned it on my father’s lapel. I knew I had to turn my back soon, walk through the gate and possibly never see them again. Oh, so painful. There were many secrets that could not or did not have time to come out and they will stay locked behind the “Iron Curtain” forever.

After some persuasion by my godfather, they allowed my father to walk with me to the ship. We walked in silence as we listened to the Oral Roberts Choir sing “Nearer My God To Thee” from the ship. They were in Tallinn for a concert, but were not allowed to sing religious songs. Now as they were departing, they sang as many as they could.

Last walk together

Our last walk together came to an end as we got to the steps of the ship. How do you say goodbye to your father, knowing you will never see him again? We hugged, we kissed, we cried, and then I had to leave my dear, poor father. I rushed to get up on deck from where I could see him. The tears were rolling down my cheeks uncontrollably as I looked down at him. I felt so much love, sorrow, and pity. I could not imagine the pain he was feeling to have his only daughter return into his life after so many years for seven days and then watch her leave again forever. I could almost see him losing his strength and getting weaker and weaker.


The ship started to pull away from the dock very slowly. My eyes filled with tears and I wiped them constantly in order to see my father waving. I took out my scarf and started to wave, so he could see where I was. He was standing alone on the dock with my rose pinned to his lapel. He was getting smaller and smaller but I could not take my eyes off him. Finally, he stopped waving; he turned and I watched a broken man limp further away until my eyes could see him no more. He did not turn around, he did not wave anymore, and I knew he was crying his heart out, as was I. All I could do was to stand there and watch the skyline disappear.

Gone! It was all gone. It was with regret and sorrow that I was leaving my loved ones. How I cried for my father and how he must have cried for me. During the 3½-hour ride back to Helsinki, I reflected back to where I had been and what I had seen.

The happiness was understandable. It was the depression, sadness, and feeling of doom of the Estonian people that will be etched in my heart. It was the importation and forced mingling of foreigners, the lack of food and clothing, the devastating ruins from the war, the disrepair, the fear in people, and so much more that changed a once beautiful country to a country with wounds and scars and a people in pain and in a state of hopelessness.

Unless you have lived there or visited during these hard times, you could not begin to understand. You read or hear their stories, but you cannot fully comprehend until you have been there and seen and heard what I have. The mental and physical struggles of suppressed people cannot be put into words, it is a feeling that stays with you once you have seen it and felt it…


Cover: Maie Currie visiting Tallinn in 1968. Photos courtesy of Maie Currie and Estonian World. * This article was first published in two parts on 1 May 2013.

Top ten reasons to attend the Estonian American National Council gala

The Estonian American National Council (EANC) is taking the show on the road. This year’s annual meeting, public programme and awards presentation will take place in San Francisco, California, on 5 November 2016 and will include timely panels and an awards gala.

Detailed information and registration is available on the EANC website. But, to whet your appetite, here are 10 encouraging reasons to register now:

1. You think Marina Kaljurand is a boat dock at Fisherman’s Wharf. If so, you would be mistaken. Kaljurand is the former foreign minister of Estonia and the current presidential candidate. She will be the distinguished keynote speaker at this year’s awards gala.

2. You are a huge fan of Melville and his work. Not, not that Melville… there will be no discussions of the allegories sprinkled throughout Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. But, rather, James Melville, the US ambassador to Estonia, will be hosting a whale of a time discussing current American-Estonian relations.

3. You shiver at the thought of the Cold War. Well, grab a coat because even if we’re technically not in a new Cold War, there is a chill settling over the northern Atlantic. And this cold front, whose line perfectly mirrors the political boundary between Eastern Europe and Russia, is a barometer of NATO’s renewed relevancy. Come hear the international weather forecast as Kurt Volker, a NATO expert, and other guests present a panel on “Transatlantic Security – US-Estonian relations”.

4. You think Singing Revolution is to documentaries as Gone with the Wind is to films. Meaning, it’s hard to get any better. If so, come hear the Singing Revolution co-writer and co-director James Tusty moderate a panel on “telling our stories”.

5. You like Vladimir Putin as much as you like you’d like finding vermin in your frikadellisupp (Estonian meatball soup). One would think this aversion would be universal, but unfortunately, it’s not. But for those in the know, the EANC will be screening The Master Plan, which is a film that explores how Putin continues to interfere with the Baltic states in nefarious ways, even worse than tampering with the national soup.

6. You are convinced Estonians are not funny. Stoic, efficient, stubborn – yeah, probably. Well the comedy stylings of Andy Valvur, a stand-up comedian, writer, actor, voice-over artist and this year’s gala emcee, will change your mind.

7. You are convinced there is no such thing as a free lunch. Wrong again. The weekend will include a luncheon, hosted by Enterprise Estonia, Silicon Valley. Here, while gorging on a plate of various no-charge delicacies, local Estonian entrepreneurs and investors will give participants an opportunity to hear about a prospering Estonian-American business sector (just don’t forget to preregister… otherwise there really won’t be a free lunch).

8. Due to prior commitments, you couldn’t make it to Eurovision 2005. You would not be alone. But fear not, Euro music fan. Laura Põldvere, who represented Estonia in Eurovision 2005 as part of the group SunTribe and took part in Eesti Laul 2007, will perform during the evening gala.

9. You know a non-Estonian estophile and you’ve always wondered, “Why? What the heck is the matter with this person?”How in the world does this happen, when one has a greater affinity for Estonia than those with Estonian DNA? Well, there’s actually an award for such a person and this year, Lonnie Cline is the recipient. As founder of the internationally recognised Unistus chamber choir, Cline forged lasting ties between Oregon and Estonia.

10. You really like tax deductions. As the EANC is a 501(c)3 non-profit organisation, all donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. So, help your tax return while simultaneously helping an outstanding organisation continue its mission.


Cover image: the San Francisco cable car (photo by Sten Hankewitz).

The role of the United States in the restoration of Estonia’s independence

The US policy of not recognising the annexation of the Baltic states formed an international anchor which fostered the hope that justice would one day prevail, and strongly influenced the behaviour of other Western states for 50 years.

The Welles Declaration

My experience is that the US – the biggest Western democracy – has helped Estonia and the Baltic states the most with their legal and moral position in assessing the Soviet occupation and annexation of 1940. The publication of the declaration by acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles (substituting for Cordell Hull) on 23 July 1940 truly deserves to be celebrated, even 76 years later.

Welles_declarationThis official position of the US government identified the activity of the Stalin-led Soviet Union as a breach of international law and rules, and confirmed that the US would not recognise the violent change of the status and political regime of small states.

Naturally, it could have been claimed back then that the Sumner Welles declaration provided no specific assistance to Estonia, which was suffering from Soviet communist terror.

However, we can now say that this position adopted by a large democratic state had a clear effect for the subsequent half-century. The US policy of non-recognition shaped an international political and legal axis that supported the pursuits of various movements, both in exile and at home, in trying to liberate the Baltic nations.

Firstly, when the US adopted this position, it encouraged other Western democracies to do the same. Without the Sumner Welles declaration, it would have been unlikely that the UK, France, Canada or Australia would have treated the matter as unambiguously, especially during the Cold War.

Ernst Jaakson's cabinetSecondly, the non-recognition policy guaranteed that the diplomatic representations of the occupied Baltic states retained their status as members of the diplomatic corps in the US. The Latvian and Lithuanian embassies in Washington continued their activity until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the Republic of Estonia unfortunately had not had the time to establish an embassy in the US capital, the main consulate in New York, led by Ernst Jaakson, fulfilled the role of a diplomatic representation.

In addition, the principle of the Baltic states’ legal continuity provided the opportunity to maintain and, if necessary, expand the activity of honorary consuls, such as Jaak Treiman in Los Angeles.

Annoying thorn in the side of the Soviets

We can only imagine what an uncomfortable and constantly annoying thorn in the side of the Soviet authorities was the status of the Baltic representatives in the Washington diplomatic corps. It was a consistent public reminder that the status of the Baltic states in the Soviet empire was the result of devious and predatory activities (to borrow the style of Sumner Welles). It was also a constant indirect allusion to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which made the annexation of the Baltic states possible for the Soviet Union.

Thirdly, as the Baltic countries continued to be occupied, the value of the US non-recognition policy gradually became evident to the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who lived in their homelands. The fact that the world’s most powerful country did not consider Estonia’s membership in the Soviet empire to be lawful became the only ray of hope in the gloomy reality of a totalitarian regime for many patriotically minded Estonians.

Each year on 24 February (the Estonian Independence Day), thousands of ears were pressed close to their wireless sets to hear, through the crackling generated by radio jammers, broadcasts of festive assemblies organised by Estonian expatriate organisations, the Estonian national anthem and the US president’s annual message to Consul-General Ernst Jaakson, expressing the hope that Estonia would become free again one day.

Radio Free Europe poster during the Cold War

President Ronald Reagan pronounced a similarly strong message in July 1983 with a statement to the UN General Assembly, presented by Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick:

Americans share the just aspirations of the people of the Baltic nations for national independence. We cannot remain silent in the face of the continued refusal of the government of the USSR to allow these people to be free. We uphold their right to determine their own national destiny, a right contained in the Helsinki Declaration which affirms that “all people always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status, without external interference, and to pursue as they wish their political, economic, social and cultural development.

Radio Free Europe poster

Fourthly, although Stalin may not have cared about the non-recognition of his conquests, the US position had a hidden effect on his successors. The knowledge that the democratic world did not treat the Baltic states as a lawful part of the USSR must inevitably have made the Kremlin somewhat hesitant. We may suppose that the knowledge made them more cautious in attempting to completely sovietise the Baltic nations, hindered the authorities’ plans to that effect and, to some extent, gave a bigger cultural and economic breathing space. After all, they were considered the “Soviet West”.

Realpolitik bites

Today, we must be especially grateful to the leaders and politicians who, for 50 years managed to maintain the legal and moral position that the United States had adopted in 1940. Maintaining it was much harder than publishing the Sumner Welles declaration. The realpolitik of the times meant that Washington’s position was consistently attacked with varying intensity.

Soviet Union in 1989

The first period of crisis for the policy lasted from the late 1960s to the 1970s. The peak of the Cold War had passed and was replaced with coexistence that meant creating a peace through the balance of power and concentrating on avoiding a nuclear conflict. In that new situation, America’s tenacious refusal to acknowledge the Baltic states as part of the USSR started to seem not only an anachronism but also a hindrance to achieving agreements with the Kremlin on the most pressing matters. Many refugees despaired and were harangued into coming to terms with real life.

Australia’s Labour Party gets cosy with the Soviets

The door to realpolitik was opened by Gough Whitlam’s Labour government that came to power in Australia and decided to start formally recognising the annexation of the Baltic states in 1973. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a positive development, an incentive that encouraged Baltic refugees to protest all over the world. The result was that the conservative government that followed Whitlam’s dismissal (in 1975) resumed the policy of non-recognition. This was an important victory that blocked the wider spread of realpolitik.

In the US, preparing for the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was a critical period for the non-recognition policy, as one of the main issues at the conference was the recognition of existing borders.

In 1975, information was leaked to the US press according to which Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the National Security Council were considering legalising the annexation of the Baltic states to relieve tensions. A State Department official said the hope of the USSR surrendering the Baltic states was as “realistic” as the belief that the southern states of the US that lost the Civil War would once again form a confederation.

Gerald Ford stands his ground

The newly sworn-in US president, Gerald Ford, who had replaced Richard Nixon six months earlier, was under heavy pressure. The American media thought that the only factor hindering the abandonment of the policy was the US Congress, which was believed to be sensitive about losing the votes of their Baltic-born constituents.

President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev prior to their summit meeting in Vladivostok November 24, 1974

However, Ford – who had no experience of foreign policy – turned out to be more principled than diplomats expected. He met the leaders of Baltic organisations twice prior to the 1975 Helsinki conference, was warm and positive towards them and confirmed that he would maintain a firm position on the matter.

In 1976 Ford agreed to be the patron of ESTO (a festival organised by Estonian expatriates) in Baltimore. In his address, Ford declared that the US would continue to support Eastern European nations’ pursuit of freedom and independence with all appropriate and peaceful means, emphasising that the principles of territorial integrity of the Helsinki Final Act included a clause under which no occupation or acquisition achieved in contravention of international law would be recognised as legal.

The US congress as the most effective ally for the Baltic people

The US congress has always been the most effective ally and channel of influence for Baltic refugees. If one wanted to inform the public about the fate of Estonia, it was easy to turn to one’s local congressman by mail or telephone, or visit them personally. Several members of the congress who had an Eastern European background were especially empathetic towards the Baltic question. In the critical year of 1975, our “guardian angel” was Congressman Edward Derwinski, who had Polish roots. He submitted a draft resolution to the congress in March that year demanding that the US delegation to the Helsinki conference continue with the non-recognition policy.

Edward Derwinski, in 1983. A former Republican congressman from Chicago, he served in the elder George Bush's cabinet. Credit Paul Hosefros,The New York Times.

However, it is true that members of the congress were also influenced by the main trends in realpolitik. Nevertheless, most were prepared to agree with the legal and moral arguments concerning the Baltic nations.

When I was organising an address signed by members of the congress on the occasion of the 50th birthday of Mart Niklus, an Estonian who was at the time imprisoned in the USSR, I met Senator Robert Dole. His first reaction was that there was “not much hope for those poor little countries”. My argument was that, on the contrary, people in the Baltics had not lost hope; many of them were fighting bravely for their basic rights. Our job was to encourage and support them. Dole warmed to this and not only signed the letter to Niklus but even sent a “Dear Colleague” letter co-signed by Senator Dennis DeConcini recommending that other senators do the same.

In the 1980s the Baltic question was hot in US politics, the more so thanks to President Reagan, who signed the Baltic Freedom Day proclamation in June each year starting from 1982. That initiative actually came from the Congress, which passed a resolution due to the lobbying of Baltic organisations. The leading organisation representing Estonians was the Estonian American National Council (EANC).

President Reagan signs a proclamation Monday at the White House, naming June 14, 1983 Baltic Freedom Day

An example of the influence of Baltic friends in the congress on events in Estonia was the message by 20 senators to Mikhail Gorbachev (the last Soviet leader) ahead of the 23 August 1987 demonstration in Hirvepark, Tallinn, marking the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Its authors wrote that granting permission to hold a peaceful commemoration ceremony was connected to the freedom of speech and assembly that the Soviet leader had permitted in the USSR and the exercise of which he had apparently promised to guarantee.

The senators demanded that the organisers of the event in Tallinn would not be persecuted and that the meeting would be allowed to take place without interference. The message was presented to the Soviet ambassador in Washington and to the secretaries of the Communist Party in the Baltic states, including Karl Vaino (the Estonian communist leader at the time). The position of the US senators was broadcast on Voice of America radio three days before the planned meeting. It could be said that this high-level address neutralised Soviet plans to suppress the event and helped gradually to gain acceptance for future national mass events.

US Capitol at dusk as seen from the eastern side - photo by Martin

However, it must be added that the senators did not dream up the initiative themselves. Having learnt of the upcoming commemoration of the Soviet-Nazi Pact, Baltic American activists prepared the congress and the media for it. As the members of the congress already knew us from many Baltic-related campaigns, the problem was not over the essence of the event but rather the technical execution of the message: the congress was on vacation in August. It was only because we were known and trusted that we had the chance to get the senators’ support rapidly in a limited time – two or three days – as their staff contacted them during their holidays. We proposed the original text of the message, which the senators naturally edited.

The media awakens to Baltic issue

Working with the American media was even more important. As we were able to direct their attention to what was to take place in Tallinn on 23 August before it happened (the effect was boosted, in turn, by the senators’ letter to Gorbachev), the next day – 24 August – the message of the Baltic nations broke through to mainstream media for the first time.

Hirvepark meeting in 1987. People demand for the prosecution of Stalinist killers

The Hirvepark meeting and its demands on disclosing historical truths were front-page news in nearly all the largest US papers. From that time on, the Baltic problem was in the sphere of interest of American journalism. The next, even greater, breakthrough in terms of coverage in the international media was the Baltic Way (on 23 August 1989, approximately two million people formed a human chain spanning 675.5 kilometres (419.7 mi) across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania two years later.

Washington avoids “rocking the boat”

As attempts to restore the independence of the Baltic nations became more pointed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, realpolitik paradoxically made another comeback. The arms limitation talks between the US and the USSR, and the fact that the USSR was starting to pull forces out of Afghanistan in 1988, strengthened the belief that Gorbachev was a reasonable and innovative partner, and this forced the issue of the Baltic states into the background. However, it was in that ambiguous situation that the non-recognition policy proved to be strong and tenacious, and this automatically hindered the attempts of realpolitikers to get the problem off the table.

After President Reagan’s first Moscow visit in May 1988, at a press conference organised by the State Department, I asked Rozanne L. Ridgway, the head of the European department, what the US was planning to do to support the Baltic states’ right to self-determination. The answer was that, as the US did not recognise the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, they were to be treated as independent countries, which meant that they could already exercise the right of self-determination. Thus, the US did not deem it necessary to deal with the question of that right!

Reagan and Gorbachev were close. Photo by Bob Galbraith-AP

The SS-20 ballistic missiles and Soviet military equipment deployed to the Baltic states in general also became a prominent issue. Did the armaments agreements concluded with the Kremlin apply to the Baltic states, and how was the US planning to check whether the USSR was performing its obligations there?

I explained to Paul Nitze, special advisor on arms control at the State Department, that there were at least as many Soviet forces in occupied Estonia as there were in Afghanistan. Nitze confirmed he was aware of the situation but started to talk about the 400,000 Soviet servicemen who were supposedly still in East Germany. In the end, the State Department moderator found a compromise: the missile agreement would also apply to the territory of the occupied Baltic states, but that did not mean that the US would recognise the lawfulness of the occupation.

Soviet MIG-23 fighters above Tapa airfield in Soviet-occupied Estonia, 1980s.

In the following two or three years leading up to August 1991, the Baltics were strongly advised to refrain from “rocking the boat”. The deeper Gorbachev sank into crisis with his internal policy, the more the US administration’s majority wanted to support him, as they believed there was no better partner. Thus, the Baltic nations’ pursuit of freedom seemed especially risky as Washington presumed that the dissolution of the Soviet Union would lead to an international catastrophe.

The irony was that, while the US administration had consistently supported the state continuity of the Baltics for decades, it started seriously to doubt its strategy at the very moment that the restoration of independence was becoming an actual possibility.

A rare exception was Vice President Dan Quayle’s meeting with Tunne Kelam, the chairman of the Congress of Estonia, on 13 September 1990. Quayle said that on the basis of his political intuition the die had already been cast and the Baltic states would continue developing towards achieving full independence. That was the most positive opinion expressed by a senior official of the US during that period. But we must keep in mind that Quayle was not in charge of international relations.

Cautious George H.W. Bush

A good example of the hesitation by US leaders was the meeting between US Baltic organisations and President George H.W. Bush on 11 April 1990. I compiled a thorough summary of this. President Bush justified the US’s ambiguous policies at the meeting. He said that he had not changed his mind about freedom and self-determination, but emphasised that he had a huge responsibility in promoting freedom and he paradoxically found that duty to be connected to supporting Gorbachev, whose potential unseating he deemed a catastrophe.

The president said it was necessary to act so that “the inevitability of freedom would not be jeopardised”. He complained that he had been unfairly criticised because of his overly soft reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, and interestingly repeatedly mentioned the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, claiming that the Western states had given false hope to the Hungarians and failed to fulfil their promises, which should not happen again.

We pointed out to the president that the Baltic nations had already started restoring their independence without any external encouragement. We in the US had been preparing for the liberation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for all these years. The US had supported our aspirations. This was not the time for last-minute doubts. On the contrary, the US had to show that the non-recognition policy was real, that it had a practical impact on the liberation of the Baltic nations.

Baltic Way

The First Gulf War began in August 1990. The fact that the US focused its attention on repelling Iraqi aggression in Kuwait made the Baltic nations feel endangered. It was clear that the new situation offered the Soviet leaders the opportunity to end Baltic “separatism”.

Yelena Bonner, a human rights activist and wife of Andrei Sakharov, warned, in an interview with the New York Times on 28 December 1990 that US willingness to turn a blind eye to Gorbachev’s threats about using force against the Baltic nations would actually encourage the Soviet leader to establish a dictatorship.

We published several interviews and articles soon afterwards (The Washington Post, 4 January 1991; The New York Times, 8 January 1991), one of which was titled “Selling Out the Baltics”. We appealed to the US administration to apply the same principles to the Baltic nations as it had in liberating Kuwait from occupation. In order to stop the Soviet terror apparatus from being used again, Washington needed unequivocally to reaffirm the Baltic nations’ right to independence, instead of concentrating on maintaining the last colonial empire.

Our friends in the congress agreed with these arguments. On 10 January 1991, at the initiative of Donald Riegle, ten senators sent a letter to President Bush, emphasising that it should be explained to Gorbachev in no uncertain terms that US involvement in the Gulf War did not reduce the country’s commitment to the liberty of the Baltic states.

Tensions rise

However, the things we feared did happen. A day after the bloodshed in Vilnius during the Soviet crackdown, the president’s security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, invited representatives of Baltic nations to the White House. The meeting was depressing. Rice concluded that if such things were to occur again “something” would have to be done. But what exactly? I asked, how many Baltic people would have to die before the US would do something. 50? 500? 5,000? She did not answer.

On 22 January 1991, the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, invited the heads of three Baltic organisations for a meeting. I was there standing in for Juhan Simonson, President of EANC. President Bush entered the room unexpectedly. It was clear that this was an attempt to calm the Baltic representatives with an unofficial high-level meeting. I tried to convince the president that the US reaction to Gorbachev’s use of force was feeble and, as a result, the Soviet leader might think that the US was weak and would be prepared for appeasement to maintain good relations.

It is interesting that the term “appeasement” had an explosive effect on Bush. He flinched, turned red and practically shouted: “Don’t use that word! Never use THAT word!”

The meeting ended politely but it did not change anything of importance. It had revealed President Bush’s internal moral tensions, which may have emerged from the effort of trying to find a balance between various forces and conflicts. A leader of a democratic state usually has a conscience and the worst – sacrificing the Baltic States on the altar of maintaining US-USSR relations – was perhaps avoided because several parties squashed it.

A lesson for Trump

In “At the Highest Levels; the Inside Story of the End of the Cold War” (with Michael Beschloss, Little, Brown, 1993), Strobe Talbott (the former Deputy Secretary of State) recollects what it was like in the Oval Office after the Baltic representatives’ visit. White House chief of staff John Sununu warned Bush: “This thing is developing into a big political problem for us.” Sununu mentioned that the congress was annoyed and recommended that carefully worded protests against the use of force in the Baltics were not enough; the government needed to “show their teeth” in addition to complaining. A specific result of all the protests was that President Bush decided to postpone a meeting with Gorbachev that was to take place on 11 February 1991, which was a real disappointment for Moscow.

A more distant result of Bush’s hesitant Eastern policy was that he lost the 1992 presidential election because millions of voters with Eastern European backgrounds no longer supported him. The same message should be understood by Donald Trump: if he continues to label NATO as obsolete and is willing to recognise only conditional solidarity, he must be prepared to lose a large number of voters who may be the decisive factor in the event of a close contest.

Happy ending

In conclusion, it can be said that the US policy of not recognising the annexation of the Baltic states formed an international anchor which fostered the hope that justice would one day prevail, and strongly influenced the behaviour of other Western states for 50 years.

George W. Bush became the first US president to visit Estonia in modern times, in 2006.

The support of a large state is indispensable for small ones, even in today’s international environment. The US is the anchor of NATO without which the organisation would lack power and reliability. However, large states have big problems when they need to adapt quickly to a new situation in which other large partners are involved. The US legal and moral position on the topic of the Baltic states lasted more than 50 years in spite of various short-term pressures – this is unique and is to be commended.

However, in a situation where changes occurred in the blink of an eye, the democratic world needed small pilots like Iceland and Denmark with the courage to act at decisive moments so that the continuity of the Baltic states would become a reality again instead of a theory.

Iceland became the first country to recognise the independence of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, on 26 August, 1991.

Foreign ministers Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson (Iceland) and Uffe Ellemann-Jensen (Denmark) helped make the transition from not recognising the occupation of Baltic states to immediate restoration of diplomatic relations with the newly independent countries. Nobody protested against this concrete step, and other democratic states followed Iceland and Denmark’s example one by one.

All this emerged from the foundation of the US-initiated non-recognition of the Baltic states’ annexation and support for their legal continuity.


This article was first published by Diplomaatia magazine – this is an enhanced and amended version. Cover image: the United States played a major part in Estonia’s quest for independence. The US flag combined in Estonian flag colours (credit: 

Estonian-Americans award Steve Jürvetson for outstanding achievements

The Estonian-American National Council (EANC) is to present the entrepreneur, Steve Jürvetson, with the 2016 Outstanding Achievement Award.

The Outstanding Achievement Award recognises Jürvetson’s many successes in the realm of venture capital investment, where he was an early investor in Hotmail, Tesla, and of course, in Estonia’s own Skype, the EANC said in a statement.

Steve Jurvetson with his Tesla model X

Jürvetson is currently a partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) and is known for his investments startups in electronics, space technology, clean technology, nanotechnology and life sciences. Jürvetson’s most recent investments have been in early-stage technology companies, among them Agradis, an agricultural biotech company, and Gen9, a gene synthesis company, and his current board responsibilities include SpaceX, Synthetic Genomics and Tesla Motors.


Born to Estonian parents Tõnu and Tiiu in 1967, Jürvetson graduated at the top of his Stanford University class as the Henry Ford Scholar. He worked at Hewlett-Packard as an R&D engineer and also with Bain & Company where he developed executive marketing, sales, engineering and business strategies for a wide range of companies in the software, networking and semiconductor industries, the EANC said. He returned to Stanford to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering, after which he joined a firm founded by Tim Draper and John Fisher.

Steve Jurvetson in a Deep Flight Submarine

In 2014, Jürvetson became the first non-European to receive an Estonian e-residency card. He also regularly visits Estonia.

Jürvetson will receive the award at the EANC awards gala on 5 November in San Francisco.


Cover: Steve Jürvetson meeting president Barack Obama in 2009. Photos courtesy of Steve Jürvetson.

Estonian-American mother-daughter team awarded for promoting Estonian folk dance

The Estonian American National Council has chosen the mother-daughter team of Lehti Merilo and Liina Merilo Teose as recipients of its 2016 Outstanding Achievement award in recognition for their work in promoting and preserving Estonian folk dance and music.

Lehti Merilo and Liina Teose will be honored at the EANC’s awards gala on 5 November at the Marriott Union Square in San Francisco, California, the council said in a statement.

The awards being presented to Lehti Merilo and Liina Teose recognise their many years of leading the Portland, Oregon, Estonian folk dance troupe “Tulehoidjad” (“Keepers of the Flame”). “Through folk dancing and music, they have been instrumental in keeping Estonian culture alive in the United States and have played a major role in introducing Estonia to Portland, and other West Coast cities in the US and Canada, and to other locations outside of Estonia,” the statement said.

Lehti MeriloLehti Merilo was born in Narva, Estonia. She fled during the Second World War in advance of the occupying Soviet troops and eventually settled in Portland, Oregon, where she founded the first Estonian folk dance troupe in 1950. The small group grew to become “Tulehoidjad”, and Merilo was its leader for 35 years (1950-1985).

After retiring as the leader of the group, Merilo has continued to encourage Estonian-Americans as well as Americans to participate in it. Along with her daughter, Liina, she has organised visits by and welcomed folk dancers and musical ensembles from Estonia and thereby introduced high quality Estonian folk dancing to residents of Portland and Oregon.

Liina Teose, Lehti Merilo’s daughter, was born in Portland, Oregon. At two years of age, she made her debut as a folk dancer in an Estonian children’s folk dance troupe led by her mother. In 1985, she took over leading Tulehoidjad and has been its director for the past 31 years. During Teose’s tenure, Tulehoidjad has continued performing at the biennial West Coast Estonian Days (1986-2015); in 1995 and 2003, she was the producer of the Folk Festival program for the event.

The 5 November awards gala is the highlight of EANC’s two-day annual meeting which is being held for the first time on the West Coast, and culminates a full day of public programs, including three panel discussions, a documentary film and a photo exhibit.


Cover image is illustrative (courtesy of Katrin Winter).

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