Staunton, August 1 – Endel Lippmaa, Estonia’s greatest nuclear physicist but even more important, one of its political leaders “without portfolio” in several Talllinn governments, died on July 30, removing from the scene one of the most intriguing if sometimes difficult figures of the period of Estonia’s drive to recover its independence.
Born in Tartu on September 15, 1930, Lippmaa had a brilliant career as a scientist both within Estonia and internationally. He will certainly be remembered for his numerous contributions in that sphere. But perhaps more importantly, at least for me and many far from his scientific field, he will be remembered and even revered for his political activities.
His untimely passing just weeks before what would have been his 85th birthday will undoubtedly unleash many memories about him; and as part of what I expect to be a flood, I would like to share three of my own not because they are so terribly significant but because they may provide some details about a figure around whom there are so many stories, myths and even misunderstandings.
My first interaction with Academician Lippmaa was anything but pleasant. In the fall of 1990, when I was working as the US State Department’s desk officer for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Toomas Hendrik Ilves was the head of Radio Free Europe’s Estonian Service queried me about how foreign relations are normally conducted among countries and about the role of parliamentarians in them.
I gave the textbook answer that relations between states are normally government-to-government. Parliamentarians and others can play a role, I said, but it is typically secondary. Ilves included that in one of his broadcasts, and Endel Lippmaa was outraged, viewing it as an attempt to exclude him and other Estonian figures like him from participating in foreign affairs.
He complained to both RFE/RL and to the State Department, and RFE/RL management decided that Tom and I should not be speaking to each other lest more such problems occur. In fact, the problem quickly exhausted itself for reasons that are worth recalling.
On the one hand, despite Academician Lippmaa’s concerns, no one was trying to exclude him or anyone else from Estonian-American dialogue. And on the other, and more significantly, his view then that this represented a tilt to then-Estonian foreign minister Lennart Meri, with whom Lippmaa as is well known had a long and complicated relationship, was entirely misplaced.
American non-recognition policy which defined how the US interacted with Estonia from 1940 to 1991 was based on the premise that Washington did not view the government in Soviet-occupied Estonia as the legitimate government of the country. Consequently, the US did not view its relations with Tallinn through the prism Lippmaa then applied or wish to exclude him from conversations in any way.
My second interaction with Academician Lippmaa was between midnight and three o’clock in the morning of January 13, 1991, at the State Department in Washington. Mikhail Gorbachev had just ordered the use of force against Lithuania, an action that claimed 13 lives in Vilnius and put paid to the idea that the Soviet leader would pursue a peaceful resolution of the Baltic drive to the recovery of de facto independence.
Academician Lippmaa, who had been on a visit to Texas, came to Washington and was the most senior Baltic official then in the United States. He called the White House seeking a meeting, and Condoleeza Rice, who then was overseeing Soviet affairs at the National Security Council, called me and asked me to receive Lippmaa at the State Department.
Not surprisingly, I was busy with the Baltic Working Group the department had established immediately after the killings in Vilnius; and I approached the meeting in the middle of the night with someone who had tried to isolate me from my friend Toomas Hendrik Ilves and had caused some problems for me at my workplace with more than a little trepidation.
I well remember his arrival: The department was under lock and key because of concerns in advance of the Desert Storm campaign against Saddam Husseyn’s occupation of Kuwait, and I had to go down to the C Street entrance to allow him to get in at what was an especially unusual hour. When he was seated in my fifth floor office, I told him that clearly we each had some reasons to have problems with the other but that right now, those problems were as nothing compared to the challenges to the Baltic countries and the West that Moscow had laid down by its shooting of the Vilnius demonstrators.
He agreed that it would obviously be best if we put these “personal” things aside for some later point, and I am happy to report that then and over the coming days, Academician Lippmaa worked long, hard and well to promote Estonian and Baltic interests in Washington and thus to set the stage for the recovery of the independence of the three countries less than eight months later. His contributions then were far larger than many yet know.
My third interaction came in 1999 at the time of then-President Lennart Meri’s 70th birthday celebrations. At the dinner at the Blackheads Hall, President Meri in one of his famed “little games” decided that he would have me sit at the second table BETWEEN Lippmaa and his wife. President Meri, of course, had his own special relationship with Lippmaa: Meri’s family took in Endel at one point after members of the future academician’s family were killed, and Lippmaa was among thos who accused Meri of working with the Soviet security agencies. And President Meri knew very well about my complicated relationship with the academician.
The evening proved a delight: There was much to talk about, and no reversion to any of the problems of the past. And it was ended by an exchange that I will always recall with a smile when I think about Academician Lippmaa. After dinner, we left the main dining room and went into one of the smaller rooms near the entrance where cognac and coffee were being served. When we entered, I was shocked to see that there was a young woman there dressed in a way that suggested she was someone who worked the streets rather than someone who should be a guest at a presidential banquet. I said that I thought the Estonian government would have better security.
Lippmaa gave me his trademark grin and said, “Mr. Goble, you are wrong. There’s no question of security. That young woman you’re worried about almost certainly is here because she’s the new girlfriend of someone high up in the Estonian political establishment.”