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25 August 1991

A Memorable Dinner

Hofdi 26 August 1991. From left: Oddsson, Hannibalsson, Saudargas, Jurkans and Meri. Photo: David Oddsson’s archive.

The fate of the Baltic countries was decided during seven days in August 1991...

The phone rang in my Reykjavik flat. It was 5.30 on Monday morning 19 August 1991. My friend, Icelandic Prime Minister David Oddsson, was on the line. ‘They are marching in,’ he said. There was no need to explain who ‘they’ were. Everybody knew that the situation in the Soviet Union was highly volatile. What really surprised many of us was how reluctant the Communist Party had hitherto been to use force to quell its opponents, both inside Russia and in the many countries under Soviet rule. ‘This was to be expected,’ I said with a sigh. ‘I wonder what comes next.’ David who had formed his first government less than four months earlier was concerned: Was this the beginning of a new Cold War? What would now happen to our friends in the Baltic countries?

Fortunately, this attempt by hardline communists to seize power failed. After three days, the ringleaders had all been taken into custody. The three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, now saw an opportunity. They had been brutally occupied by Stalin’s Red Army in June 1940 as a consequence of the Non-Aggression Pact between Stalin and Hitler in which they divided up Central and Eastern Europe between them. In the late 1980s, when Soviet power weakened, the resolve of these three small nations strengthened. On 23 August 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Non-Aggression Pact, in a highly symbolic gesture approximately two million people had joined hands to form a human chain across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The ‘Baltic Chain’ was widely reported in the international press. On 11 March 1990, the newly-elected Supreme Council of Lithuania had unanimously passed a resolution by which the Republic of Lithuania was restored. It became clear that the great majority in Estonia and Latvia also wanted independence again: they had never accepted Soviet occupation.  

The Baltic countries had long enjoyed sympathy in Iceland, also a tiny, struggling country, but luckier in her neighbours. It is telling that in 1955 when the Public Book Club (Almenna bokafelagid) was founded in an attempt to counter the massive communist influence in Icelandic cultural life, its first publication was a translation of Baltic Eclipse, about the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries by Ants Oras, an Estonian Professor of English Literature. In 1957, the President of Iceland and the Foreign Minister, both committed anti-communists, received the Estonian Prime Minister in Exile, Dr August Rei, despite the protests of the Soviet Ambassador. Again, in 1973, the Public Book Club published a translation of Estonia: A Study in Imperialism, a book by Estonian-Swedish journalist Andres Küng about Soviet oppression in Estonia and attempts at enforced Russification.  

Immediately after the Supreme Council of Lithuania had passed its resolution, in late March 1990 Thorsteinn Palsson, Leader of the centre-right Independence Party, had proposed a parliamentary resolution on recognising Lithuania. He was strongly backed by Deputy Leader David Oddsson, who as a young law student had taken such interest in the Baltic tragedy that he had himself translated Küng’s book. But in Iceland at the time a left-wing government was in power. Its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Social Democrat Jon B. Hannibalsson, rejected Palsson’s proposal, arguing that nothing should be done at the moment to increase tensions between the Soviet Union and Lithuania. Hannibalsson added that anyway Iceland had never renounced her pre-war recognition of Lithuania as an independent country: therefore it was still in effect, like the recognition of the other two Baltic countries.

Nevertheless, Hannibalsson shared Oddsson’s strong interest in the plight of the Baltic nations, not least because his brother, philosopher Arnor Hannibalsson, had during his studies in Moscow in the 1950s made some Baltic friends who had told him many stories about Russian atrocities in their homelands. Hannibalsson remained Minister of Foreign Affairs in the coalition government formed in April 1991 by Oddsson, now Leader of the Independence Party. When the communist attempt to recapture power in the Soviet Union was seen to be failing, Oddsson and Hannibalsson firmly agreed with their Baltic friends that it was time to take action. On 26 August 1991, Iceland became the first country in the world formally to reaffirm her pre-war recognition of the three Baltic states. This was only a week after David had called me in the wee hours to tell me about the coup attempt.

The leaders of the Baltic countries very much appreciated the Icelandic initiative, and their foreign ministers flew to Iceland to attend a solemn ceremony marking the resumption of diplomatic relations: Algirdas Saudargas from Lithuania, Jānis Jurkāns from Latvia and Lennart Meri from Estonia. The event took place at the historic Hofdi House where Winston Churchill had lunched during his visit to Iceland in 1941 and where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had tried to negotiate an end to the Cold War in 1986. The night before, on Sunday 25 August, Prime Minister Oddsson and his wife Astridur Thorarensen gave a dinner in honour of the foreign visitors at the Prime Minister’s formal residence, a comfortable and spacious old house overlooking the Reykjavik Pond. Attending the dinner, besides the hosts, were the Icelandic foreign minister, the three Baltic ministers, the members of the Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, and a few others, including the tireless champion of the Baltic cause Arnor Hannibalsson, the staunchly anti-communist editor of Iceland’s leading daily, Morgunbladid, Styrmir Gunnarsson, History Professor Thor Whitehead and me, as a personal friend and informal adviser of the Prime Minister. It was a memorable occasion. As could be expected, everybody was cheerful, although Jurkāns had a bad cold and was therefore not completely at ease. (I should perhaps say ‘almost everybody’, because afterwards the Leader of the left-wing People’s Alliance, Olafur R. Grimsson, publicly complained that Gunnarsson, Whitehead and I had been invited to the dinner: this was, he claimed, a breach of protocol, as we had no official function.)

Over drinks before dinner, I chatted for quite a while with Meri who later (between 1992 and 2001) served as Estonia’s President. Tall, slim, balding, bespectacled, fluent in English and quite articulate, he looked and acted like a Harvard professor. He told me that he and his family had been deported to Siberia by the communists in 1941 because his father had been a diplomat during independence. Lennart was then only twelve years old. But despite many hardships they survived, unlike many others, and they were able to return to Estonia after the war. He had made some documentaries, and so had I, and we briefly discussed the charms and trappings of film making. What impressed me most about Meri was however his lack of bitterness or obsession about the past: he was a pragmatist who wanted his country to join the West without alienating too much her big neighbour in the East. He stressed that Iceland’s initiative was very important, but added with a smile that fortunately our island was so far away from the Soviet Union that we had little to fear.

At dinner, Prime Minister Oddsson gave an eloquent speech. He reminded the guests of the fact that Iceland had become a sovereign state in the same year as the three Baltic republics, in 1918. He recalled his interest in the Baltic countries as a young man, when he translated Küng’s book and corresponded with him, and his great relief just a few days ago when the coup attempt in Moscow failed. He expressed his belief that a unique chance had presented itself and quoted Shakespeare:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Oddsson added that God was on the side not of the heavy battalions but of the best shots, as Voltaire had observed. The Baltic visitors listened carefully. Over coffee and brandy after dinner, Saudargas commented that he had rarely heard such a stirring speech. Meri told us that his father had translated most of Shakespeare’s plays into Estonian, including Julius Caesar from which Oddsson took his quotation.

In the following few days, other Western countries followed suit and resumed diplomatic relations with the Baltic republics after they had endured foreign occupation for forty-one years. In 2016, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Iceland’s initiative, the Public Book Club republished the two books in Icelandic about the Baltic tragedy, by Ants Oras and Andres Küng, with prefaces and notes by me. The books are available both online and on paper, and the well-written and moving book by Oras is also available on audio. The Public Book Club also held a meeting on 26 August in Reykjavik, in cooperation with the honorary consuls in Reykjavik of the three Baltic countries. The two main speakers were former Prime Minister David Oddsson, now editor of Morgunbladid, and Estonian historian Tunne Kelam, one of the leaders of his country’s struggle for independence and at the time a MEP. In the evening the Public Book Club gave a dinner for Kelam in a private room at a popular Reykjavik restaurant, the Grill Market. Five guests at the memorable dinner in 1991 attended, Oddsson and his wife, Editor Gunnarsson, Professor Whitehead and I.

Discussion at the dinner was lively. Oddsson recalled his conversations in 1991 with other Western leaders some of whom had been slightly annoyed that Iceland, a small country with no power to back up her public declarations, had taken the initiative to resume diplomatic relations with the Baltic countries. Gunnarsson said that he and many other pro-American Icelanders had been bitterly disappointed in 2006 when the United States decided unilaterally to close the military base the U.S. had operated in Iceland since 1951. The Americans seemed not to possess any institutional memory or to maintain any long-term loyalty to their friends and allies. Kelam reminisced about the long and arduous struggle in Estonia to regain independence. In the Soviet era, he himself had narrowly escaped imprisonment because of his political activities, but he had lost his job as an editor of the Estonian Encyclopaedia, working for many years as a nightshift worker on a state poultry farm. I commented that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party must have followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union with great interest. It was perhaps an illustration of what has been called Tocqueville’s Paradox: that a despotic regime is never as vulnerable as when it starts to reform itself. We all agreed that we had perhaps been too optimistic in the heady days of 1991, as we saw communism collapsing. It had not meant the ‘end of history’, but rather the emergence of new challenges.

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