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Poska the Statesman, Lawyer by Occupation

In 2002, Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus (Estonian Encyclopaedia Publishing House) published Tiit Kändler’s collected work entitled Sajandi sada Eesti suurkuju (A Hundred Estonian Luminaries of the Century). One of the great figures named there is Jaan Poska (1866–1920), the 150th anniversary of whose birth was commemorated by way of several events in January of this year. He earned this recognition as a statesman, who after serving as a member of the city council of Reval (Tallinn), the capital city of the Russian Empire’s Province of Estonia, and later as its mayor, became a minister of the newly established Republic of Estonia and headed the delegation that concluded the Peace Treaty of Tartu between the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia on 2 February 1920.

Jaan Poska drew a politician’s salary from 1913 until his death. He did his professional work for at least 23 years. Jaan Poska was a lawyer who graduated from the University of Tartu Faculty of Law in 1890.

The objective and also the value of this article is to supplement the history of law in Estonia by working through the advocate’s files of the lawyer Jaan Poska and to add to his biography as a man who is primarily known as a statesman. Examples of court cases provide a cross-section of everyday life at that time in Estonia, which is interesting reading for everyone who is fascinated by history. I also wish to show that this field of Poskas’s activity has not been thoroughly studied to this point, and to appeal to other historians to examine advocate’s and court files.

Let it be said that the lawyer’s occupation was popular in the Poska family. Jaan Poska’s three children were lawyers, as were his brother, the children of his brothers and his later descendents right through to the present day.

Jaan Poska was the first Estonian lawyer in Tallinn. He was a respected authority in legal circles in tsarist Russia (including in the Court of Appeal in St. Petersburg). Officials also asked him for advice and he did not have to present sources in order to be believed. Poska’s strength was his familiarity with local conditions, which compared to younger lawyers and lawyers from the Russian provinces meant legal interpretations in terms of the Baltic region prior to legal reform.

People who were close to Poska have said in their memoirs that as a lawyer, he liked to work on minor cases because major cases often dragged on and did not provide enough income. The research of Poska’s advocate’s files clearly brings this out. Most of the court cases extending to nearly one thousand archival records are smaller scale disputes between two private individuals or where one of the parties is a private individual, for which reason the relative proportion of his civil law court cases is clearly noteworthy while there is only a minimal number of criminal law court cases. Poska was considered one of the most authoritative experts on Baltic private law.

Jaan Poska’s archive is one of the few surviving personal archives. Konstantin Päts, who earned his living as a legal assistant under Poska and later became the first President of the Republic of Estonia, put the archive in order. Since Jaan Poska and his wife died during the first years of the Republic of Estonia, his documents were given to the archive, for which reason they were not destroyed during the era of Communist rule.

This article highlights only a few of the court cases that Jaan Poska worked on. Poska was an example of multiculturalism and the mastery of languages, representing different ethnic groups in court – a cross-section of the society of that time in the Province of Estonia.

The subject matter of Poska and his colleagues and contemporaries is thankworthy research material. In fact, it is a debt of honour to Estonian history. The fact that 2016 marks the passing of 150 years since the birth of Jaan Poska makes this subject even more topical. This anniversary takes its place alongside the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Republic of Estonia and the 100th anniversary of the Peace Treaty of Tartu signed by Poska which will follow in the coming years.