president kersti

“I’d been dealing with all kinds of stodgy males my entire life: Reagan, Gorbachev, Ansip. Yet never did I feel some kind of camaraderie or solidarity on the basis of our gender.”

When my daughter Anna returned home from school on the day of last year’s historic presidential election, she asked me, “Is it true? That Kersti is our president?”

At first it was hard for me to understand her pride, her joy, that a ‘girl’ like herself had been selected by the Estonian parliament to be the next president. I’d been dealing with all kinds of stodgy males my entire life: Reagan, Gorbachev, Ansip. Yet never did I feel any kind of camaraderie or solidarity on the basis of our gender. If you had asked me as a child what I had in common with President Reagan, I might have said nothing. He was old, I was young. He was an actor, I was a student. He was from California, I was from New York. He wanted Gorbachev to tear down the wall, I wanted to listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I never thought, ‘There goes Ronald Reagan. He’s my boy! One of us!”

(This changed slightly when Justin Trudeau became prime minister of Canada though, if only because I can now say, ‘Justin. Like Trudeau,’ when I check into hotels, instead of being taunted by little Estonian children who call me, ‘Justin Bieber, juustuviiner*!’)

From my daughter’s perspective, however ‘President Kersti’ was already part of the tribe, one of their own. They loved her without hesitation. I’ll never forget how President Kersti came to Viljandi in the winter to meet her citizens and skate on the lake. Some girls even followed her to the down to Lake Viljandi, just to see President Kersti on ice.

Estonia’s first woman president! It touched me in a way, made me feel connected to her. My daughter had gained a new positive role model overnight. 

Not that it’s all ice skating and adulation. Sometimes when I imagine the president trotting about the halls of Kadriorg though I can’t help but think about  that old Communist poet Johannes Vares-Barbarus who shot himself in the hall toilet in 1946. There’s something about that image, the ghost of Vares hunched over in a water closet in the presidential palace, that hints to the mystery of Estonian political power. The secrets, the intrigue. Who really knows what goes on behind the windows of Kadriorg when power is involved. Who really knows what else has happened within those pink walls.

President Kersti is appealing anyhow. When she was elected, after much intrigue and sauna whispers, there was a sigh of both relief and astonishment. After Lennart Meri, that old school adventurer with his deep connections to the prewar state, including a diplomat father; or Arnold Rüütel, who rose through Soviet politics, only to pivot in old age and oversee EU accession: or Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the emigre returnee with the bow tie, Swedish birth certificate, and American diploma; we suddenly had one Kersti Kaljulaid, who was born in the final month of the 1960s, a mother of four, auditor, and bureaucrat.

Could it be that the next Estonian president would just be some tubli Estonian person?

I only glimpsed her through the dark window glass that day during her wintertime visit to Viljandi, saw her silhouette as it leaned over her goat cheese salad or whatever she had for lunch. Those telling bangs and mop of hair. The fierce and intelligent presidential eyes. The heads of all her special guests turned in her direction. Anyone who walked past the Rohelise Maja Kohvik that day had to pause and look through the windows. The Viljandiers were so curious to see their Kersti. Especially the little girls.

*Juustuviiner — a cheese sausage.

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