March 26, 2009

The 90-Year-Old Estonian Foreign Ministry

“Despite our lack of sophistication, those early years were very exciting because they marked the Ministry’s greatest achievements – Estonia’s de jure and de facto recognition by the European countries.”

“Despite our lack of sophistication, those early years were very exciting because they marked the Ministry’s greatest achievements – Estonia’s de jure and de facto recognition by the European countries.”


Peep Pillak

The 90-Year-Old Estonian Foreign Ministry

“Despite our lack of sophistication, those early years were very exciting because they marked the Ministry’s greatest achievements – Estonia’s de jure and de facto recognition by the European countries.”

Both the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Republic of Estonia celebrated their 90th anniversaries this year, which is why a high-level international conference, ‘For Estonia: 90 Years of Foreign Policy and Diplomacy’, was organised on October 24-25 at the Tallinn Teachers’ House where the Foreign Ministry was located 90 years ago. The Foreign Ministry was the only Estonian governmental body that continued its operations, through its foreign representations, during the Soviet occupation. So, this is the right moment to devote some space in Diplomaatia to look back to the time when the Foreign Ministry of the independent Republic of Estonia was established 90 years ago. I am convinced that the memoirs of the people who were involved in the activities of the Ministry capture the colourful atmosphere of those days much better than the dry facts in the archive records, which can only be analysed with the benefit of hindsight.
On February 24, 1918, the Estonian Declaration of Independence was announced in Tallinn, by which the Salvation Committee became the supreme authority in Estonia. The Provisional Government, which was led by Konstantin Päts and which included Jaan Poska as Foreign Minister, was established in accordance with the order of the day, issued on the same date. On the following day, however, the Imperial German Army entered Tallinn and subsequently occupied all of Estonia, which is why the Foreign Ministry did not become operational until after the collapse of the German occupation. The first public meeting of the Provisional Government took place in the then Transport Minister Ferdinand Peterson’s apartment in Gutkin’s house at Vanaturu kael in the morning of November 11, 1918. For a while, the Provisional Government operated from Jaan Raamot’s (who was Minister of Agriculture and Food) 9-room apartment at Roosikrantsi Street, but the Government soon re-located to Town Hall Square no. 14, which is now the Tallinn Teachers’ House. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs actually began its operations on November 14, which is traditionally considered to be its birthday. It was on November 14 that a letter was sent to British and French Consuls in Helsinki, asking for help and weapons in order to prevent the German forces that were occupying Estonia from transporting food and property out of the country.
Ferdinand Kull recalls”¦
Ferdinand Kull, who was a member of the foreign delegation and Acting Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry, described in his memoirs his return from Helsinki to Tallinn in the middle of November, 1918:
“Despite some nervous moments in the minefields near the skerries in Finnish waters and the sea journey that lasted for the entire night, I was not at all tired in the morning: I was completely absorbed by the unusual and ambiguous position Tallinn was in – that is by the opposition between the Estonian Provisional Government and the German General Staff.”
“They were engaged in a power struggle that took a lot of hard work and energy. Even the smallest accomplishments had to be literally wrestled out of the hands of the Germans. As they were not yet willing to yield the Castle of Toompea to the Estonian authorities, we had to move to a building on the Town Hall Square, which now houses the central casino for officers. The meetings of the Estonian Provincial Assembly (Maapäev) were convened in the spacious hall where today dance parties are held, the Provisional Government met in a smaller room to the left, while the ‘ministries’ and all their departments had to fit into the room where the canteen is now. Some simple desks with a few chairs stood against the walls of this quite large room. There was one desk for every ministry and one person sitting behind every desk – this person was the highest-ranking and only official of the respective ministry. Later, the atmosphere became a little more cheerful: every desk got a young female typist, so that joking and shouting between the officials of the ministries brought a glimmer of summer sun to the room, although it was autumn already. In a way, it was very convenient to have all the ministries in the same room – if you needed some information from other ministries, all you had to do was to shout a little louder.”
“In the beginning, all practical arrangements were, understandably, inadequate. Even though you had to have an entry permit to gain access to the government building, people began to stream in and out of it – some had problems to solve, while many were simply driven by curiosity. The desk of the Foreign Ministry was right next to the door, which meant that every person who entered the room asked me to whom he should turn. Sometimes I had no idea who should deal with one problem or another. For example, I issued ordinary foreign passports for several days until K. Lepp from the Interior Ministry relieved me of this duty. People who had worked at the former local government were already familiar with their other duties, but the Foreign Ministry had to be built up from scratch. Using my own scant knowledge, I drafted a preliminary organisational plan, according to which the Ministry was going to be divided into three departments: an administrative, a political and an information department. However, I did not have time to implement the plan because I was soon dispatched to Stockholm.”
At the very outset, the Foreign Ministry had only three officials in addition to the Minister: Ferdinand Kull, Secretary-General of the Ministry, Alice Erjapea, an English translator, and Helene Müllerstein, a secretary/French translator.
By the end of 1918, the Foreign Ministry had its own building at Väike-Pärnu Road no. 3 that had previously belonged to the Russian Army. The chief of the naval port in Tallinn, Vice Admiral Wirén, lived in the building. This one- and partly two-storey wooden building was located at the corner of what is now Kentmanni Street and Sakala Street, where the Defence Ministry and NO Theatre are currently situated. At the beginning of 1919, the Foreign Ministry had expanded, including the posts of minister, secretary and administrator as well as the accounting and passport department and the telegraph agency Estur.
Eduard Virgo recalls”¦
Eduard Virgo, then Estur’s director and the secretary of the delegation negotiating the Tartu Peace Treaty, writes in his memoirs:
“Back then, the staff of the Foreign Ministry comprised Mr. Herman Hellat, who was in charge of a number of younger and older ladies, Mr. Schipai, who was the Foreign Ministry’s administrator, and Mr. William Tomingas, personal assistant to the Foreign Minister. There were, however, so few men about that the staff of the Ministry seemed to comprise only ladies.”
“In those days, Tallinn was full of foreigners. Some were here for a short time, some for longer, but all of them had business at the Ministry. Mr. Hellat made sure that the young ladies working at the Foreign Ministry showed foreigners around Tallinn and, if necessary, kept them company during their stay. The young ladies had, in addition to their work, a lot of representational duties to fulfil, the reason being that the Ministry wanted to give foreigners accurate and pro-Estonian information about the situation in our country. The Ministry often threw parties for foreigners. They were invited to play tennis in the Ministry’s quite big garden in summertime. Usually, the parties spread to every room in the Ministry, but the focal point was, of course, the grand hall with its palm trees, which gave it an exotic look. I remember one summer party, for example. The young ladies had produced great amounts of milk and other liqueurs, which, together with coffee, provided a huge boost to morale and led to energetic dancing. Back then, we did not know much about etiquette. There was one prominent, official-looking man who showed up at the ball in white pants and a blue jacket, probably thinking that he looked very chic. Being an eager dancer, he kept stepping on the pointed shoes of his partner, an American female journalist.”
“The archives and the correspondence of the Foreign Ministry were not that extensive in those days. Everything fitted into one filing cabinet, which was so messy that you could never find any paper you needed. At the end of 1919, however, the decision was taken to bring some order to this chaos and the archivist, Ms. Metsis, and her assistant, Mr. Puura, spent every evening at the Ministry sorting out the paperwork. But Ms. Metsis often had to go out in the evening and at night to fulfil her representational duties, which is why she was frequently very tired and sleepy when she arrived at the Ministry in the morning and tried to catch up on some sleep by napping in the bath in the Ministry’s bathroom. Mr. Puura gave a discreet knock on the bathroom’s door to ask her to come out every time she was needed as an archivist.”
William Tomingas recalls”¦
William Tomingas, personal assistant to the Foreign Minister, has as colourful memories of those times as Virgo:
“When you entered the Ministry, you were greeted by a doorman/cloakroom attendant in the lobby. I could never remember his name, but he must have been the longest-serving official at the Foreign Ministry because I saw him in the new building of the Ministry – the House of the Knight Guild on Toompea – when I went there at the beginning of 1934.”
“From the lobby, you stepped into the Minister’s antechamber, which was the greatest and most pompous room in the Ministry. The room was filled with gum trees and other green shrubs; the floor was polished parquet. Under Virén’s rule, this room must definitely have been called the ‘hall’. The antechamber had one door to the Minister’s study, which was huge and could have accommodated a couple of ministers, and another door to a big room, which previously must have been the dining room, but which now was the Chancellery of the Ministry. The Chancellery had two doors: one to the heated glass veranda and the other to smaller side rooms. In the lobby, there was a staircase that led to the second floor, which was the passport department, comprising a married couple – Samuel and Salme Lindpere.”
“I got to know my colleagues during my first days at work. One level lower than the Minister was Herman Hellat, Head of the Political Department, who was the complete opposite of his firm and brutal brother, Aleksander, the famous Chief of Police and Interior Minister. As it turned out, it was Herman Hellat with whom I had the most contact in the Ministry. He was in charge of the Ministry’s internal affairs and he pursued a political career as well. He was a lawyer by education (like his brother) and a ‘spinster’ par excellence by nature and behaviour. On my first day, I gave him a nickname – Tante Hermine. The name was right away taken into use by the entire staff. Tõnisson knew it and so did Hellat.”
“Hellat, a bachelor, was about 45 years old. He was extremely well-mannered, short of giving a curtsy, and extremely shy. When I had a spare moment and I told, out of mischief, to my view the most innocent joke to the young ladies who were under his command and who giggled light-heartedly, it was Hellat who blushed scarlet, so that his blond hair turned red. He began to admonish me in that high-pitched voice of his – he said ‘phooey’ and this made the girls burst out laughing, instead of giggling.”
“He was the Ministry’s arbiter elegantiarum, occasionally giving Tõnisson some bad advice. For example, when the Ministry was organising its first big party at the Estonia Concert Hall on July 6, the event planner was Hellat. He suggested to Tõnisson that invitations pour une tasse de thé í  5 heures (for a cup of tea at 5 o’clock) be sent out and then he kept people at the party until early morning. It was his idea that the Ministry’s young ladies should serve tea wearing little white aprons and coifs.”
“Tõnisson liked the tea-serving ladies so much that when he was Head of State, he mobilised the young ladies in Tartu to serve tea during the peace conference held there.”
“There were three women under Hellat’s command at the Ministry – Helene Müllerstein, Erika Saaler and Anette Simonson. Müllerstein sat behind a small desk in the antechamber. It was her task to receive guests and to announce them to either Hellat or the Minister. Simonson was the Ministry’s French expert. She was responsible for all texts written in French. Saaler was a typist who could work in every language.”
By the end of 1919, the Foreign Ministry employed as many as 29 officials, 14 of whom worked for Estur. In 1920, when Estonia had become more active in foreign relations, the Political Department was divided into two: one for the East and the other for the West. The Political Department for the West covered Western Europe and America, while the Eastern department dealt with Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Far East and Asia Minor. At the end of the same year, a third one – the Russian department – was established. The Foreign Minister’s residence was at Toomkooli Street no. 17, which now houses the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Eduard Virgo continues”¦
Meanwhile, after the signing of the armistice agreement with Soviet Russia, Eduard Virgo was Estonia’s representative in London. Starting on May 5, 1920, he became Head of the Political Department for the West and assistant to the Foreign Minister. Virgo describes those times in his memoirs:
“As the building on Väike-Pärnu Road was unsuitable for the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry requested that it be given the so-called Landstube1. This request was granted. In the autumn of 1920, we moved to the Landstube and this is where the Ministry has been located ever since. Somehow we managed to fit ourselves into the rooms on the second floor, while the first floor continued to be occupied by the State Board for Prisons and the archives of the former Knight Guild. Some parts of the current big hall used for the Foreign Ministry’s receptions had not changed since the times it had been used by the Knight Guild: the walls were covered with the coats of arms of the members of the Estonian Knight Guild, a huge oil panting – a portrait of Peter I – was displayed in a prominent place on one wall, while on another wall, there was a marble plaque with the names of numerous noblemen who had died fighting for the common cause of the nobility. Later, we gave the coats of arms and the plaque back to the Knight Guild. We brought the exotic big palm trees with us from the old building and used them for dividing the antechamber to the Minister’s current apartment into two: on the one side, there was the office of the Foreign Minister’s assistant and Head of the Political Department – my office – and on the other side, there was the Chancellery. When the reconstruction works began, the entire Ministry moved into the Landstube’s large hall where meetings had been held previously. In the hall, people were walking around all the time, the clatter of typewriters and speaking never stopped, but it was fun to work there.”
“As time went on, the organisation of work within the Ministry improved, we specified the Ministry’s rules of procedure, we became more familiar with protocol, our initial primitiveness disappeared gradually and we adopted a system of procedures that was similar to those used by other foreign ministries in Western Europe.”
“Despite our lack of sophistication, those early years were very exciting because they marked the Ministry’s greatest achievements – Estonia’s de jure and de facto recognition by the European countries.”
Ferdinand Kull
(14.11.1884, Virumaa, Aruküla – 23.03.1957, Tallinn) had lived in France for many years. He was appointed a member of the foreign delegation because he spoke French fluently. In November 1918, he became Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry. Due to friction between him and Jaan Tõnisson, and other leading members of the delegation, Kull was forced to leave the foreign service in January 1919. He published his memoirs in the newspaper Vaba Maa in 1932 and later in a separate book. The memoirs were reprinted by the National Library in 1996: Ferdinand Kull, Mässumehi ja boheemlasi. Esimesi Eesti diplomaate [A Rebel and a Bohemian. One of the First Estonian Diplomats]. The reprinted version included a comprehensive introduction and extensive comments by Eero Medijainen.
Eduard Virgo
(16.10.1878, Virumaa, Päide Village – 28.04.1938, Tallinn) was a member of the foreign delegation. He worked for the Foreign Ministry until he died, holding the posts of Consul General and chargé d’affaires to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Ambassador to Latvia and Consul General to the Balkan countries. His memoirs under the title of Välisministeeriumi algaastailt [The Early Years of the Foreign Ministry] were published in the magazine Olion no. 1 in January 1935.
William Tomingas
(30.06.1895, Tallinn – 07.02.1978, New York) fought in the First World War and in the Estonian War of Independence. In February 1919, he assumed the duties of Naval Attaché at the Estonian Embassy in London. From June 1919 onwards, he was personal assistant to the Foreign Minister. He took part in the negotiations for the Tartu Peace Treaty. After that, he left the foreign service. His memoirs were published in two books: Vaikiv ajastu Eestis [The Silent Era in Estonia] (New York, 1961) and Mälestused [Memoirs] (New York, 1970). These were reprinted as one book by Olion in 1992: William Tomingas, Mälestused. Vaikiv ajastu Eestis, with an afterword by Jüri Ant and Rein Marandi.
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1 The House of the Knight Guild on Toompea was called the Landstube because the Provincial Assembly had held its meetings there.

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