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Behind the Scenes of Estonian Days: Hain Rebas’ Correspondence with the World’s Top Politicians

In 2016, Hain Rebas handed over to the Estonian Cultural History Archives the materials of Estival’83: financial documentation, minutes of meetings, and correspondence. Estival ’83 was a cultural festival of Estonians in exile, held in Goteborg; such festivals are also called Estonian Days. The programme included concerts, theatrical performances, exhibitions, and a procession, which culminated with a political manifesto. In this manifesto, Estonians in Sweden demanded the right to self-determination to their occupied Estonian homeland.

The tradition of Estonian Days goes back to the early 1950s, and political manifestation has been part of the programme since 1972. The expatriate society developed a practice of inviting an internationally renowned politician as the keynote speaker at the manifestation, as it was believed that this would draw the attention of Western countries to the ongoing occupation of the Baltic States. Based on archival documents, this article demonstrates how complicated it was for the post-World War II expatriate society to gain the public support of top politicians for the demands for freedom of their country of origin.

The organisers of Estival sent an invitation to five politicians asking them to participate in the manifestation, all of whom were unable to accept it for different reasons. The archival documents do not reveal the reasons why the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declined the invitation. Thomas Hammerberg, Secretary General of Amnesty International, had to turn down the invitation since the regulations of his organisation prohibited his participation in events organised by other organisations. Otto von Habsburg, member of the European Parliament, Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden, and Jimmy Carter, ex-President of the United States, were all engaged elsewhere at the time of Estival.

The article focuses on the documents related to Carter’s invitation to Estival. The set of documents includes minutes of meetings and Rebas’ correspondence with Carter’s bureau, as well as with Ernst Jaakson, the Estonian Consul-General in New York, and Ilmar Raamot, a politician in exile. The letters reveal that the politicians of the older generation considered Estival to be an ambitious and controversial idea; they thought that its implementation would split the expatriate society. The idea was to emphasise the shared identity of all Estonians, irrespective of their country of residence. The Board of Estival (members of the younger generation) sent an invitation to the Estonian Radio mixed choir to participate in the cultural programme, therewith wishing to symbolically unite Estonians. The politicians of the older generation regarded the choir as a Soviet political institution, consequently its participation in the same event alongside Western politicians would not be acceptable. On the pretext of the choir’s participation, the Consul-General refused to help the Estival organisers by forwarding their invitation to Carter. The Board of Estival decided to ignore etiquette in communicating with Carter’s bureau and, against all expectations, their letter received a benevolent answer.

Estival ’83 turned out quite different from what had been planned: the Estonian choir failed to come to Sweden and no star politician was able to participate in the manifestation. Carter, Habsburg, and Hammerberg sent their best regards to the Estival organisers; yet the key speaker was found from academic circles — Professor Erik Lönnroth, an historian.