An open letter from Priit Vesilind

Priit Vesilind

I made my career at National Geographic magazine as writer and editor, and agree with Alan Mairson that “Society Matters.” When Alan began this website I agreed to be a consultant. Circulation then was down to about half of what it was when the Society celebrated its 100th birthday in 1988. I was intrigued: Could encouraging outside voices really stimulate and help the Geographic? It seemed quite presumptuous.  But I wished Alan luck, because for thirty years insidethe magazine I had seen how slowly change could grind.

I assumed that Alan would use Society Matters to offer ideas on how to stop the bleeding circulation, or suggest ways to hold and gain readers in the age of social media and cell-phone mobilization. The website started with those goals and messages, but I had the impression that Alan wasn’t sure if anyone at the magazine was listening, so he took a risk and began challenging and scolding the editor and other staffers. That risk did not pan out, and I believe that Alan lost his audience as he lost several backers. Worse, his criticism, coming as it was from a staff writer and editor who had been laid off, had no sting.

I think that those of us who love National Geographic, as Alan does, could and should be working to help support and energize the magazine instead of running it down. The magazine matters because it still publishes vital information in clear language, free of cynicism. It clarifies knotty scientific concepts for millions of lay readers, and encourages thoughtful stewardship of global resources. It matters also because it gives voice to struggling or repressed nations and societies around the world that have been without voice. Let me tell you how much the Society mattered to the small nation of Estonia, where I was born.

Before regaining independence in 1992, this Baltic nation of only a million people had been autonomous for only twenty years—between the 20th century’s world wars.  For 700 years it had been occupied by Europe’s past and present imperial powers—Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark. In 1944 Estonia had been forcibly absorbed, along with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, into the USSR. By the 1970s, after 35 years of Communist occupation, after the deportation of 70,000 people to Siberian labor camps, after the influx of Russian laborers, and after the Russianization of schools and government, the Estonian people nearly made peace with their possible extinction. It was the stagnation era of Leonid Brezhnev. Freedom was only a secret whisper.

One day in 1978 the receptionist at NGS’s Washington headquarters called upstairs to tell me that there was a man waiting in the lobby. Dressed in a trench coat and pork-pie hat, his glasses held together with tape, it was Lennart Meri, then an Estonian writer and filmmaker, who would become the first President of independent Estonia. Meri had noticed my unmistakably Estonian name on the masthead of National Geographic and had decided to seek me out. He was then one of a core of intellectuals that was nursing hope for independence.  Meri had seen NGM’s ground-breaking article on Cuba, and was determined to get the story of the Estonian people into National Geographic, the one magazine whose international authority and credibility were beyond doubt.

Meri had a deal for me: If I could get a magazine assignment to tell the story of Estonia, he and his circle could get me access to parts of Estonia that were off limits for other outside journalists.

So it was that photographer Cotton Coulson and I ended up on assignment to the occupied Estonian SSR in the summer of 1979. It was often a cat-and-mouse adventure: We were escorted by the KGB and Intourist, the arm that dealt with Western visitors, but Meri and other Estonians managed to provide us extra trips and interviews, by bald-facedly falsifying our intentions. Toward the end of our assignment, Cotton and I got a telegram from Moscow. It was from Joe Judge, our boss at the Geographic. “Suggest you return home immediately,” he wrote. Judge had just been to the Moscow Intourist office on another mission, and had mentioned to them that “our men in Estonia” might need more support.

“What men in Estonia?” the startled Intourist secretary had asked. “Estonia is out of bounds for foreign journalists.” Judge had blown an elaborate cover set up by Meri and other Estonian dissidents. Moscow had not known we were there. Cotton and I were on the next ferry to Helsinki.

But the story was in the can, and production went forward. In its own earnest fashion, the Geographic research department sent copies of photographs and interviews to all Estonians who were pictured and mentioned, to check the facts. In return they received dozens of letters of denunciation: The KGB had rounded up everyone mentioned or pictured or interviewed. They had interrogated them and forced them to write letters that repudiated what they had said: “I do not know how you got such incorrect impressions of our homeland,” wrote Ulo Koit, director of the KGB agency who had taken us around. “I fear that you have given encouragement to those who are seeking to disrupt our country.” When the April issue of 1980, with “Return to Estonia,” arrived in Tallinn for the few members who had access, the authorities confiscated the magazines at the post office.

The few copies that got through to Estonian subscribers were circulated carefully among trusted friends. The Voice of America in Washington translated the article into the Estonian language and broadcast it to the nation over shortwave radio. Copies of the translation immediately began to filter to Estonians as samizdat, or underground publishing. Exiled Estonian-Americans who read the article wept. It was the first time in a half century that Western journalists were able to travel extensively in the Baltic States. National Geographic had 40 million readers. A vibrant new confirmation of the Estonian identity, one that Moscow could not confiscate, was in the hands of the outside world. Cultural figures who were permitted to travel overseas would secretly take copies of the article with them to show friends: As Estonian symphony conductor Neeme Järvi told me later, “We would tell them, ‘Look, look. This is who we are.’”

The article had begun with the words, “Freedom. Only the seagulls have it.” A few months later I got a postcard from our Estonian KGB host, Ulo Koit. “I am standing at the harbor in Helsinki,” he wrote,” watching the seagulls.” A few years later Koit was found dead, drowned in the Daugava River in Riga, capital of Latvia. Few people swim in the Daugava.

Through the remaining 12 years of the Soviet Union’s existence, National Geographic continued its support of the Baltic nations. In 1988 it published “The Baltic Sea,” which described the liberating air of Soviet Premier Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies on the eastern rim of the sea. And in 1991 it published “The Baltic Nations,” at the time when the Soviet Union was rotting, and freedom movements from Poland to Tallinn to Leningrad were deflating the corpse. I wrote both articles, with Cotton photographing the Baltic Sea, and Larry Price the final one on the Baltic States.

The 1980 article “Return to Estonia” became an icon, one link in the sequence of events that led to the nation’s freedom in 1992.  National Geographic had given powerful recognition to people with little hope.  In 2001 President Lennart Meri decorated me with a medal, the Third Order of the White Cross.

This year, 2011, when the Society decided to publish an Estonian-language National Geographic, I was honored to travel, along with Society Vice-President Terry Adamson, Assistant Editor Victoria Pope, and photographer Peter Essick, to Tallinn for the launch. The Society needed no introductions. We walked into an enormous reservoir of good will that had been built up, piece by piece, for National Geographic and its missions; we were already part of the Estonian family, part of its history. Estonian National Geographic plans to reprint the entire 1980 “Return to Estonia” article in its December, 2011 issue.

These are the times I still think, despite the Geographic’s deepening commercialization, “No, it isn’t just another magazine.”

The Estonian story is not unique. It’s true that the early magazine often published material that approached the world through the squinty eyes of the Anglo-Saxon overseer. But through the years it also published hundreds of articles in which National Geographic offered encouragement, strength, and recognition to people who were struggling to be understood and heard: the Montagnards of Vietnam, the Kosovars, the Slovenes, the Pitcairn Islanders, the Inupiat of Alaska, the Macedonians, the Asmat hunters of New Guinea, the people of Newfoundland, the Saami of Scandinavia, the Hutterites of Alberta, the Mayas of Mexico, the victims of apartheid in South Africa.

I am immensely proud of my 30-year association with the Society. It may be an old-timer’s pride, using criteria that no longer apply, and values that no longer matter so much.  But I don’t think so. It still means something lasting to be documented by National Geographic magazine. The Society matters.

— Priit Vesilind         

  • guest

    Mr. Vesilind – Thank you for sharing this information. The people of Estonia will always be thankful that you wrote your article in National Geographc. I am glad that it will be published again. 

  • Anon

    It’s too late to change anything, Priit. There is no turning back from what’s happening. You, of all people, should know that. 

    • Well, Anon, I’ll give Priit this much: He’s not “anon” — and never has been, which I sense you already know. 

      As for Priit’s Estonia article, it was National Geographic at its very best: a publication & a writer more than willing to document a proud & resilient people who refused to buckle beneath the Soviet occupation. As a classic National Geographic “participant observer,” Priit got involved. He had a point of view. Dare I say he had a freedom agenda (rather than an environmental one)? There’s a good reason why “exiled Estonian-Americans who read the article wept.” And a good reason why Estonians awarded Priit the Third Order of the White Cross, whereas no similar honor has been forthcoming from the Russians. 

      Is it too late to change anything at NGS? Maybe. But of this I’m certain: If we all remain “anon,” our Society — at least the one that helped free the Estonians — will end up on the proverbial ash heap of history.  

      Democracies and open societies might disappear. But don’t despair: our Society still seems committed to defend the cheetahs.

      • JohnS4449

        It doesn’t matter if we deserve better. The world has has moved on, and you should too. 

        • “Moved on”??
          Moved on from what… to what?

  • NGS alumnus

    Good on you, Priit!!

  • CC9448

    Nicely done. 

  • guest

    “It may be an old-timer’s pride, using criteria that no longer apply, and values that no longer matter so much.  But I don’t think so. It still means something lasting to be documented byNational Geographic magazine. The Society matters.”
    I’m an old-timer too and I agree with you. But times change. New-timers are here to do new things. Maybe it’s time for us to stop criticizing them and get out of their way. 

    • G – I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss “old-timer’s pride” — or logic. Yes, times change. But that doesn’t mean the new is necessarily better or more sustainable. I’m not suggesting NG return to business-as-usual, circa 1970. But I (obviously) think that in the rush for growth, we’ve left some important things behind. 

      Thanks for stopping by & for your comment.

  • Cloverleaf2

    It’s still one of the best magazines in the whole world!

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