A Long Heritage

Vladimir Putin today named Anton Vaino his chief of staff, replacing Sergei Ivanov. Vaino has been deputy chief of staff. His family history is intertwined with the Soviet Union’s

Vaino’s grandfather, Karl Vaino, was the next to last First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The First Secretary was, in effect, Moscow’s governor of a republic in the Soviet Union. Moscow’s practice was to make the First Secretary an ethnic of that republic who had been born and educated in the Russian SSR where possible, to give the veneer of respect for ethnic differences and perhaps shore up local support. Estonians who were resistant to this persuasion called such people Yestonians, which emphasized Russian pronounciation.

Vaino came to Estonia in 1978. From the mid-1980s on, Estonian national resistance to Moscow’s rule increased and became more public. Vaino started as a hardliner and was disliked by the nationalists, who were most of the Estonian SSR. By 1988, the Estonian Supreme Soviet had declared its laws to supersede Moscow’s, the Estonian sini-must-valge flag had begun to appear in public, and mass meetings for independence were being held.

In June of that year, Karl Vaino was removed from his post and Vaino Väljas was hurriedly recalled from a diplomatic post in Latin America to take his place. Väljas was more tolerant of, even perhaps sympathetic to, the movement for restoring Estonia’s independence. He was the last First Secretary of the Communist Party of Estonia. He lives in Estonia today. He has never given a long interview that has made it into English. I think there is one that was published in Estonian, but it is hard to find. I would love to see him interviewed because he could provide some insights into the breakup of the Soviet Union. He has reminisced about his friendship with Lennart Meri, who was president of Estonia from 1992 through 2001.

What does all this have to do with today’s appointment of Karl Vaino’s grandson as Putin’s chief of staff? Probably not a lot. Putin is likely pleased to irritate Estonians and remind them of the Soviet times. This is a small but ever-present theme in Russia. During the 1990s, Estonia was named in Russian public opinion polls as Russia’s most dangerous enemy. Yes, really.


I’ve written this mostly from memory – did some fact-checking with History of Estonia by Tõnu Tannberg et al. I’ll look at Rein Taagepera’s histories later. Update from Rein Taagepera, Estonia: Return To Independence (1993).

Karl Vaino never really learned the Estonian language in addition to his native Russian. In the early 1980s, Estonia was subjected to forced use of the Russian language instead of Estonian in schools and in official use. Vaino is described (in other sources as well) as a nondescript and unimaginative bureaucrat. All this created extreme dislike for him in the Estonian population.

By 1988, the Popular Front of Estonia for the Support of Perestroika (PFE) had been formed and was active in politics. The PFE included “perestroika” in its name to make itself acceptable to Moscow, but it was in fact an Estonian nationalist movement. The precipitating action for Vaino’s removal was his appointing a delegation to the nineteenth Communist Party of the Soviet Union meeting in Moscow and pointedly ignoring the PFE. He was criticized in the press, which he hadn’t expected, and demonstrations took place.

Vaino Väljas had been expected to be chosen First Secretary in 1988, when he was passed over for Karl Vaino. He was born in Estonia (Emmaste Parish, Hiiuma Island, 1931) and spoke the language. He even participated in the Baltic Chain on August 23, 1989. The Baltic Chain was a demonstration against the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which planned to divide eastern Europe between them. Soviet leadership at that time did not acknowledge the existence of that plan.


Photo: Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaino Väljas, probably 1989-1990.



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