January marked Jaan Poska’s 150th anniversary.
Jaan Poska (1866–1920), who signed the Tartu Peace Treaty on behalf of Estonia, had the life experience that allowed him to take a stand against the Bolsheviks, explains Peeter Järvelaid, Professor of Law History and Comparative Law at Tallinn University and Chairman of the Board of the Jaan Poska Memorial Foundation, in this interview with Erkki Bahovski.
How would you assess Jaan Poska’s role in Estonia gaining its independence? How much did his actions influence the fact that other countries began to see Estonia as a reality in international life?
I like the striking remark of Professor Aadu Must—a historian and specialist in archival studies—that explained how it was that the actions of our noted statesman Jaan Poska were relegated to history so quickly after his death. He claimed that, immediately after Poska’s death, Konstantin Päts—a close younger friend of and former assistant to Poska as a barrister—started every speech with a reference to Poska, stressing his service; however, just a year later he was saying “Poska and I thought like this”, and a couple of years after that the comparison with Poska disappeared altogether. This does not mean that Päts himself did not have any merits—of course he did—but he no longer bothered to emphasise the exact division of roles soon after the death of his teacher and patron. Unfortunately, the official history went along with this, and that is why we are in this situation today.
I want to stress right away that the fair recognition of Jaan Poska’s role does not diminish in any way the role of Päts or any other noted politician in our history; we do not need to worry about that. However, if we do not fairly highlight the role of Jaan Poska during the first years of the Republic of Estonia, we cannot fully understand how this country came to be. Actually, Poska’s importance was vividly summarised by Jaan Tõnisson at the Estonian Constituent Assembly session on 8 March 1920, one day after Poska’s death. It would take too long to repeat the list of his services [to Estonia], so I will only give a couple of examples. The historical preconditions for creating the state of Estonia are a complicated subject but Estonians gaining power in Tallinn in 1904 was hugely significant. That was a collective achievement, but Jaan Poska played a significant role because younger lawyers (such as Jaan Teemant and Konstantin Päts) would not have achieved the same results without him—at the time they did not have the necessary prominence in the city. Becoming accustomed to managing power in Tallinn and contributing to the rapid development of the city gave the politicians of that generation the necessary experience that they used for taking subsequent steps.
But Jaan Poska was a man of another, higher category because he was the important factor that decided our history. He became one of the few Estonians who had sufficient support to be elected a member of the Russian Constituent Assembly [of 1918]. This assembly, which was to fail in its tasks, dealt with reshaping the former empire into a modern republican state. What matters for Estonia is that, through holding the position of mayor of Tallinn [1913–17], Poska became the commissar (his contemporaries considered him the governor) of the new, larger and nationalist Autonomous Governorate of Estonia in 1917. In 1905, jealous and spiteful Baltic German politicians had written letters of complaint that Jaan Teemant thought of himself as the King of Estonia, and we find the same expression used misleadingly in the English-language memoir about Jaan Poska written by Aleksander Kerenski, but this can perhaps be blamed on an overzealous editor not familiar with Estonian history.
Jaan Poska held the position of deputy prime minister in the Estonian Constituent Assembly [and took over from] Konstantin Päts, who could not perform his duties; Poska should therefore be considered our first head of government, who managed to take the most important initial decisions to launch the management of the state in very difficult circumstances. He had gained experience from running Tallinn and had the practical experience of leading the Governorate of Estonia. Other contemporary politicians in Estonia did not have comparable experience, especially when it came to the practical general management skills necessary for leading this country; it was most important that Jaan Poska applied his skills for the benefit of Estonia. Naturally, when we talk about international recognition of this new country, it was important to longer-established countries that our representative was a man who had been a statesman in the pre-war [World War I] era. As a commissar [governor] of a Russian province, Poska was certainly a statesman. His experience of fitting into high society, skills that his younger colleagues quickly had to acquire in the new circumstances, also helped. However, while the younger men were still learning the ropes, there had to be someone to take on the most difficult tasks. Until March 1920 [he died on 7 March], Jaan Poska performed that role outstandingly, alongside others from that legendary generation of Estonian politicians.
Did Poska achieve as much as possible in the Tartu peace negotiations or could he have bargained for more?
The negotiations did not take place in a vacuum but in a situation where Europe had to redefine its general lines of power and fix the borders of the new countries that had emerged; the continent had entered a new period as a result of the war. Because of that ambiguous situation, it was very difficult to evaluate how the world felt in its relationship with the Bolsheviks and how other parallel negotiations in Europe would end, influencing our positions as well. That is why the Tartu peace negotiations were definitely a race against time, in which delays worked against us.
Secondly, we have forgotten that peace was the primary issue at the negotiations: that is what every family in Estonia wanted because husbands, sons and relatives were fighting in the war and every minute of it brought death. The Estonian defence forces did not have much more cannon fodder if the war had lasted any longer. Also, pragmatically speaking, fighting until the last man would have destroyed any chance of creating a well-functioning country. Those men would be needed in our new life as an independent country.
There was one more additional factor: Jaan Poska’s health was deteriorating rapidly. One member of the delegation to the talks, Doctor Mait Püümann, noticed signs of medical danger and called in his colleagues from the University of Tartu. They recommended that Poska step aside from the negotiations, but this was impossible in the circumstances. That is why continuing even longer with the negotiations, which demanded constant mental concentration and physical effort, was extremely detrimental to his health. We know that on Sunday 7 March 1920, he fell ill so suddenly during his lunchtime nap that he did not even have time to call for help, although the maid was in the house and would have come quickly, had she heard the bell ring.
The Republic of Estonia achieved the maximum from the peace treaty at that moment and in those circumstances because we got to enjoy peace that lasted from the start of the truce on 3 January 1920 until the so-called bases treaty in late September 1939. What is more, we skilfully used the moment when the academy-educated General Jaan Soots and Colonel Victor Mutt and their assistants managed to draw the Estonian–Russian border in such a location that would allow it to be defended in the best manner in the future, and other members of the delegation, especially Poska and Piip, managed to get signatures of the opposing side on the border map drawn by the military men. After signing the peace treaty, a consignment of gold was brought to the Bank of Estonia from the reserves of the Bank of Russia, and that laid the foundation for our national currency.
If we are to believe contemporary descriptions, people at the station in Tallinn took off their hats for the delegation when its members arrived back on that cold winter’s day because they brought with them a treaty that promised peace. People always want to live their lives and do not want to fight, if it is not absolutely necessary.
Poska was only two years older than Jaan Tõnisson. Would anything have been different in Estonian politics, including foreign affairs, before World War II if Poska had lived longer?
The question is, of course, provocative and I could answer by saying that making assumptions is a poor strategy. In the eyes of history, Poska lived a short but active life. His brother Mikhail, who became a school inspector and commissioner for the peasantry, only lived to be 32. But if we must speculate, my answer is that something would have definitely gone differently within the state. Jaan Poska would have repeatedly been head of state and would have managed to balance his former assistant, Konstantin Päts, more than anyone else. Poska would have managed to open up Estonia more to the outside world because he had qualities that a lot of the younger statesmen did not; they were only domestic politicians with no ambitions and none of the courage and skills to look beyond the borders. We have to admit that Päts was, above all, a domestic politician who did not really care about foreign relations and who did not have the prerequisites for engaging in them due to his fierce temper.
While speculating, one important question is whether the two Jaans (Poska and Tõnisson) would have managed to fit into one political spectrum in their subsequent political life. In the time given to Poska, he was a very active specialist (minister, deputy prime minister, peace negotiator and barrister, to earn extra money for his family); he could not have sought any more power in this country because he would not have been able to bear it. In more peaceful times, when Poska would probably have had to concentrate only on politics, the situation could have been different, as well as his relatively good relationships with others, not just with Tõnisson.
What could current politicians learn from Poska’s experience, especially in foreign affairs?
I still sometimes like to peruse Professor Eero Medijainen’s books about the early period of our international relations and I find the newspaper caricatures of the Estonian politicians and diplomats of the time fascinating. I ask our current diplomats to forgive me for this comparison, because all kinds of generalisations might hurt many talented diplomats, and I have not been involved in their training (unlike in the training of lawyers), so I will try to answer the question as follows.
In the early years of the Republic of Estonia, the caricaturist Gori drew a picture in which he made fun of the people working in the foreign service who were unsuitable for such a position. Young people with no experience of life, no proper schooling and poor language skills were ridiculed. Jaan Poska was a politician and diplomat who had the qualities that allowed him to stand up to people like Adolf Joffe [who signed the Tartu treaty for Soviet Russia]. In the case of Joffe, we have put too much stress on the fact that he was a Bolshevik but have forgotten to emphasise that he lived in Western Europe and studied to become a psychiatrist in Vienna, having moved in the close circles of world-famous names in the field of psychiatry.
If I try to imagine what current politicians could learn from Jaan Poska, the first thing I need to emphasise is that people with experience of life are better at making big decisions. Secondly, Poska was a politician who was good at his profession (the law) and who had had some religious training as a student in the theological seminary in Riga, in addition to the schooling that he received from his father, a parish clerk, which gave him more opportunities to come into contact with different kinds of people, while he also knew how to hold back his personal preferences. Doctors, clergymen and lawyers must know how to do this. Poska was undoubtedly talented but he had had time to study properly. His degree studies in law, entirely in German, gave him a German education because he was taught by German professors, most of whom were very good. Not only did he speak Russian like a native, but he also had an in-depth knowledge of Russian culture.
We have a lot to learn from Jaan Poska in foreign policy. I have spoken to Ago Pajur (PhD), the best expert in this era, about publishing (by 2020 at the latest) a proper, extensive academic commentary about the Tartu peace negotiations with text analysis and background descriptions written by historians and lawyers. If we do that great work for our country then, believe me, we will value Jaan Poska much more than we have done so far on the basis of our previous knowledge. Although Poska spent only a year at university studying to become a doctor, he got from it an attitude that every doctor, clergyman and lawyer must have—always to be ready to communicate with people with whom one personally would never wish to talk. You cannot take the negative position that some people with whom you inevitably need to communicate are not to your liking. Diplomats cannot afford the luxury of showing that they find the other party’s national, religious, political or other principles unacceptable. If one is a politician or diplomat who is active in foreign relations, one has to proceed from the interests of the state to fulfil specific tasks, and a respectful attitude is required for this. One must have the mentality of a doctor or clergyman, for whom the goal is to reach the destination no matter how difficult the other side is being. Of course, all relationships are based on the skill of not offending the other party with whom you need to talk. It is natural that all discussions between professionals are difficult, and that is why the media should not exaggerate this because reaching an agreement among friends is possible without using words, and in such a situation we do not always need (the best) specialists to represent the interests of the state.