By Margalit Fox

The New York Times
March 15, 2006
Lennart Meri, the first president of Estonia in the post-Soviet era and an internationally recognized filmmaker, travel writer and translator, died yesterday in the capital, Tallinn. He was 76.

The death was announced by the office of Estonia’s current president, Arnold Ruutel, whose Web site said Mr. Meri had died in a hospital “after a long and serious illness.” Agence France-Presse reported that Mr. Meri had undergone an operation for brain cancer in August.

Mr. Meri served two terms as president, from 1992 to 2001. An ardent nationalist who advocated free-market policies, he was one of a small handful of leaders of newly independent former Soviet republics who had no serious Communist past. He forged close relations with several world leaders, among them President Clinton and Pope John Paul II.

Originally trained as a historian, Mr. Meri was for decades one of Estonia’s most prominent public intellectuals, an authority on the history, languages and cultures of the Finno-Ugric peoples of northeastern Europe and Siberia. From 1990 to 1992, he served as foreign minister, and for a brief period in 1992 was ambassador to Finland.

The Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact the year before. The three republics declared their independence in 1991, as the Soviet Union crumbled.

In contrast to the office of prime minister, Estonia’s post-Soviet presidency was conceived as a largely ceremonial position. Mr. Meri, however, routinely tested the elasticity of the job. In 1994, for instance, Mr. Meri negotiated a treaty with President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia securing the withdrawal of the last Russian troops from Estonia. In return, Mr. Meri agreed to grant residence permits to Russian military pensioners living in Estonia, a move that angered many hard-line Estonian nationalists.

Barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term, Mr. Meri was succeeded by Mr. Ruutel in 2001.

Lennart-Georg Meri was born in Tallinn on March 29, 1929. His father, Georg-Peeter, was a prominent diplomat who in his later years translated the plays of Shakespeare into Estonian. Lennart Meri was educated in Paris and Berlin, where his father’s postings took him.

In 1940, the elder Mr. Meri was appointed Estonia’s first ambassador to the United States, and the family prepared to move to Washington. But the Soviet invasion followed shortly afterward, and in 1941, the Meris were deported to Siberia. With his father in a labor camp, Lennart, then 12, supported the family by working as a lumberman and as a potato peeler in a Red Army factory.

The Meris were able to return to Estonia in 1946, and in 1953 Lennart Meri graduated from Tartu University with a major in history. Prevented by the Soviet government from working as a historian, he spent the next two years as a dramatist with the Vanemuine Theater, Estonia’s leading repertory company. He later worked as a producer for Estonian radio before becoming a documentary filmmaker.

For more than two decades, Mr. Meri traveled to the farthest corners of the Soviet Union, capturing the lives of remote ethnic communities in print and on film. His books, which have been translated into many languages, though not, apparently, into English, include “Silverwhite” (1976), a study of the ancient history of Estonia and the Baltic region.

His best-known films include “The Winds of the Milky Way” (1977), an ethnographic documentary.

Several of Mr. Meri’s films, which made plain the hardships of ethnic peoples behind the Iron Curtain, were banned in the Soviet Union. But they earned critical praise abroad, where they were shown in smuggled copies.

Mr. Meri, who spoke a half-dozen languages, was also known for translating into Estonian the work of many prominent writers, among them Erich Maria Remarque, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Graham Greene.

Mr. Meri’s first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, the former Helle Pihlak, an actress; two sons, Mart and Kristjan; a daughter, Tuule; and four grandchildren, The Associated Press reported.