Lennart Meri was a somewhat eccentric ethnologist and film-maker, who was educated abroad but spent some involuntary years (1941-46) in Siberia with his parents as a deportee. When he had grown up, Lennart went again and again to Siberia, voluntarily this time, to interview and film Finno-Ugrian peoples. And he finally became the first President of a reborn Estonia in 1991.
His cousin Arnold’s exploits also led to Siberia, but in a much nastier way. Even after his death, Arnold Meri still stands accused of taking part in the notorious 1949 Deportations from Estonia, when a total of some 20,700 people were sent to various (slave) labour camps in Russia.
Arnold Meri joined the Red Army during the first Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940. He seems to have been a brave soldier and was decorated for fighting against the Germans, whom the Russians had decided were aggressors, once the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been broken. Arnold Meri ended his WWII military career with the rank of colonel. So far, so good.
As you can read in another posting here, deportations took place in June of 1940 and again in March 1949, which is the reason they are being commemorated now, some 60 years after the latter events. Arnold Meri’s hand in all this was that he helped plan and carry out the deportations specifically for the western Estonian island of Hiiumaa (Dagö, in German and Swedish). On the 25th March of that year, 251 inhabitants of that island were rounded up, taken to the Soviet base and port of Paldiski the next morning, and then sent by train (cattle wagons) from there to Siberia.
Arnold Meri also belonged to the central command structure for Estonia for the 39 so-called Destruction Battalions (hävituspataljonid) whose job it was to stamp out anti-Soviet resistance by, for instance, killing off all the Forest Brethren, an Estonian guerrilla group. He did, however, himself suffer Stalinist repression in 1951, and was not rehabilitated until 1956.
By 2003, those Estonians that wanted to bring people to trial for such crimes as the deportations saw that time was ticking away. In August 2007, Arnold Meri was charged with genocide, as 43 of the 1949-deportees in his sphere of responsibility, mostly women and children, had died in Novosibirsk. The trial was resumed in May 2008.
At this point, Russia started interfering. In that same month, the Duma clamoured for the “shameful trial” to be stopped. The Duma was worried that bringing Arnold Meri to trial would discredit the activities of the so-called anti-Hitler coalition. (This coalition seems to have been rather inactive during the validity of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact…) And now, a couple of days ago, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev posthumously awarded Arnold Meri the Medal of Honour.
While Arnold Meri may indeed have deserved such an honour for defending Russia during WWII, it is most strange that the subsequent role of this man has been conveniently airbrushed out of his official Russian obituary.
For more details about Arnold Meri, plus several links, read the Wikipedia entry here.