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Kalju Mätik – one of the most important figures in Estonia’s small but vital brotherhood and sisterhood of political prisoners from the past century – died in the country’s capital of Tallinn on October 2. His ashes were laid to rest at his family’s funeral plot in Tartu in Southern Estonia on Saturday, October 26.

A Lead-up
During the periods when Estonia was occupied by the USSR (1940-1941 and 1944-1991), there were many forbidden topics in this country, numerous forms of disinformation and propaganda, and many decent people who were blackballed in what then passed for “media” here. There was also a period of Nazi occupation between the two Soviet eras, when things were equally authoritarian and grim, but with different emphases.

Our primary task in the various language services of Radio Free Europe, where I worked during the Cold War, was to try do our best to try to act as a surrogate or substitute free press for our audiences back in the “old country”. In my case, my parents had been born and raised in independent Estonia before the Baltic States were dragged into the unfamiliar and Orwellian abyss of Soviet rule.

As a young man at RFE, I was the one in the Estonian newsroom tasked with covering what might be called the samizdat beat, samizdat being a Russian word meaning “self-publishing”, involving the dangerous and painstaking reproduction in communist countries of either underground or censored publications by hand, and the passing of such news, periodicals and documents, also by hand, from reader to reader. Many of these materials reached the West too. It was my task and the task of colleagues to read these items on the air, bringing them to the awareness of Estonians and many others in the Soviet Union and the three occupied Baltic States.

There was a “problem” for me personally with this task, in that a lot of the materials smuggled out from Estonia had to do with the hard lives and very difficult conditions of imprisonment for Estonian freedom fighters who’d been apprehended by the Soviet security services and subsequently sent to the labor camps, and even to the psychiatric institutes that were used to punish opposition figures. The problem then was that getting immersed in the life stories and fates of these brave people ended up leaving a mark on us as well. It’s difficult to become steeped in the lore and accounts of the activities and also the suffering of such people without it getting internalized, and without – eventually – at least in a sense, “getting to know” the people you’re talking about in your radio programs. You get into their heads, which also tends to then get them into your head. It comes with the territory. Eventually I came to know Kalju Mätik’s story, and to respect him from a distance. I had no idea at the time that in the future I’d come to know him personally too.

About Kalju Mätik
Kalju Mätik was born in 1932 on September 16 in the university town of Tartu, which means that he was a child of the Republic of Estonia, and saw the golden age of Estonian independence with his own eyes, as well as its demise in 1940, when the Red Army consolidated its grip on our country. Even in his later years, he continued to carry distinct memories of the country of his birth from the time before its occupation and annexation.

His father died when Kalju was ten, and his mother died the following year, so Kalju ended up being raised by Agne Pertelson in Tallinn. If his having been orphaned at a young age had been hard on him, this was never evident later in his life. Kalju Mätik was one tough and principled character, and I wish I knew better how he got that way.

After finishing High School, he graduated from the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute as an electrical engineer in 1959. Having received his education, Kalju began work at his alma mater, and was also involved in translating technical texts.

As a youngster, Kalju had dreams of becoming an aviator, but his dreams were shattered when it turned out he was too tall to be admitted to training. Not one to give up easily, he got involved in sport parachute jumping, made over 5,000 free falls, and continued to skydive almost until his last days. Kalju Mätik was a tough bird, and that’s one of the reasons he was possibly my favorite political prisoner of all of the men and women punished in Estonia for their political convictions by the Soviet regime. The name “Kalju” happens to translate to Cliff in English.


How the Memory of the World got Wiped Out, or of How 3 European Countries Went Almost Completely Missing
Back in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the late Per Ahlmark – a writer who was also the Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden in the seventies – was one of the relatively few Western politicians well-educated and frank enough to truly “get it” concerning the three occupied Baltic States. Speaking before journalists during the Baltic Peace and Freedom Cruise political event in 1985, Ahlmark said that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the only three previously independent countries of Europe to simply, in effect, disappear off the map as a result of World War II, and more specifically because of the land grabs and conquests carried out by Hitler and Stalin. Everyone else, said Ahlmark, either got their independence back, if they were lucky enough to be one of the countries of Western Europe, or they at least retained a significant degree of statehood, as was the case of the satellite countries such as Poland and Hungary. The Warsaw Pact countries may have been heavily under the sway of the USSR, but they remained outwardly independent nations, retained some degree of sovereignty, and were visible.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, noted Ahlmark, were the only three countries of pre-war Europe that were simply swallowed up by the USSR and essentially disappeared after that. With the exception of the important non-recognition policies of countries like the United States and a number of others, (meaning non-recognition in the legal and diplomatic senses of the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR), these three previously independent countries were forgotten and pretty much just went missing. For example, in Ahlmark’s Sweden, the evening weather forecasts on TV failed to delineate Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the map of the Baltic Sea area, and simply showed an amorphous land mass belonging to the USSR off to the east.

Around the world, only older persons, USSR experts, history buffs and stamp collectors remained aware that the three Baltic States had existed as independent entities, and shouldn’t simply be regarded as some sort of indeterminate “Soviet Republics” along with the others. Still, Ahlmark and others did made convincing arguments for the uniqueness of the case of the Baltic countries within international law.

Whenever Estonia was treated abroad as just another of 15 Soviet so-called Republics, Estonians fortunate enough to live in the West would shake their heads in dismay.


To be continued...


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