It’s always a dangerous thing to write paeans to politicians, because sometimes they turn round and bite you later down the line. Heroes and heroines are still humans, with all their unpredictable frailties. That aside, let me stumble headlong into precisely such a eulogy.
I don’t profess to be an expert on the internal politics of Estonia or the day-to-day policy plans of its leader Kaja Kallas. However, regardless of her politics, on the matter of the defense of freedom, she is what many in Britain would describe as “good stuff,” and I’m sure that assessment will endure no matter what her political career holds for her.
During the last year we have seen a remarkable amount of vacillation concerning the war. Some nations have displayed an ambiguous stance on Ukraine’s defense, and that is surprising, especially after the unambiguous lessons of war in the twentieth century. Still other countries, in their desire to display independence from the West, have taken what they deem to be a morally neutral position, where moral neutrality is a polite phrase for egregious moral vacuity.
Yet there is one leader outside of Ukraine who has stood out as consistent, down-the-middle, reliable, and robust. That is the person and nation I’m writing this homage to.
The internet will tell you quite a bit about Kaja Kallas. She hails from a distinguished line of Estonian politicians. Her father was the 14th Prime Minister of Estonia. Her mother, at six months old, was deported to Siberia in a cattle truck by the communists (always humanity’s loveliest) along with her own mother and grandmother; she lived there until she was ten. Kallas has a law degree from the University of Tartu and a Master’s in Business Administration. In 2018, she became the first female leader of a major Estonian political party, the Reform Party, a position that would lead her to the premiership.
More than just a biography, I think Kaja Kallas embodies many things essential to freedom. It isn’t about particular accomplishments, qualifications, political seniority, and so forth, although all of these things represent the institutional environment in which it can thrive.
The real defenders of the idea of liberty are those with an unwavering commitment to holding forth the simplicity of an idea – the sanctity of, and respect for, the individual; they maintain a laser-sharp focus on this end, no matter what the noise and bustle around them. If you’re a scientist, you could say that on the subject of a free state, they have a high signal to noise ratio.
It’s rude to pry into personal matters, but I’d like to speculate that Kallas’ views on freedom are fashioned from being the scion of a father who led a nation pulling itself out of the Soviet system and a mother who experienced first-hand the horrors of Stalinism.
Often the strongest and clearest supporters of freedom are those who have had personal experience of its denial. The most monolithic of them are society’s antiheroes, who had it brutally snatched away. Solzhenitsyn, Nehru, Havel, Mandela – all of them knew the value of personal freedom first hand (those I name had their finest work inspired by imprisonment. It seems that the repressive confinement of the penitentiary can fire a literary creativity and effervescence in certain individuals. It’s a rather interesting phenomenon).
During the past year, what is notable about Kallas is that she has been present – and by that I mean she has been vocal when and where the opportunity arose to express solidarity with Ukraine. Many leaders of other democratic countries have issued statements on matters of official decisions, but they have rarely shown the same personal conviction and presence; freedom is not the warp and woof of their political outlook.
So, what is it about people like this? They tend to be those with an ineffable grasp of the frailty of the human character, its tendency to tyrannize and control, its natural predilection to collapse into dictatorship and nefariousness, and thus the struggle and effort needed to hold it in check.
These are people who intuitively understand that the individual stands above the state, because the state derives all of its power and legitimacy from the wants and wills of people. Without the state, people may become anarchic, as Hobbes and Locke knew only too well, but they will still form societies of some kind. Without people, trivially there can be no state. The state is an excrescence that grows from all of us. Those who comprise the state should always demure respectfully to this essential truth.
Even if you wanted to challenge the idea that the state stands subordinate to the individual on theoretical and philosophical grounds, our experiences with fascism, communism, and the role cattle trucks played in them should convince you that from a practical point of view, this premise seems a sensible one to adopt, especially if you have a personal aversion to prison camps, you dislike being herded into the back of trucks in your pajamas in the middle of the night at gunpoint, and you enjoy being alive.
Buried beneath this trivial insight is the little fire that burns, a flame that constantly flickers. The personal circumstances that ignite this glow are all dispersed and their expressions manifold. Solzhenitsyn’s work brims with the raw brutality of state power gone awry; Nehru’s writing is beautifully suffused with a gentle longing for India’s character to find its release and a re-awakening from the cultural and administrative insensitivity of the Raj; Havel’s prose rings with the cry of the individual against the impersonal communist totalitarian state; Mandela’s style is one of thoughtful logic, riven with resigned stoicism that exudes a confidence in the self-evident truth of the African struggle against apartheid.
Of course, in Ukraine right now, one hardly needs an essay to explain the situation that brings out these personalities there, and is forcefully apparent in its leader.
As the values of a free state and a free people cannot be expressed in manifestos and state edicts (by its nature, freedom is not a state decree), its protection and nurturing is absolutely dependent on individuals with integrity and self-assured calmness to show the leadership to verbally express it and elaborate its qualities wherever they can. Perhaps this is what has made Kallas one of the most prominent of such European figures outside Ukraine.
Pardon me for saying, but Kaja Kallas reminds me obliquely of Margaret Thatcher – a sort of Iron Lady with a lacquer of Baltic understated subtlety. That’s another person about whom one could have endless arguments in respect of her policies and the particular things that her government did in the domestic and international sphere.
However, you didn’t have to agree with Thatcher to admire her quality of giving short shrift to meretricious Marxism. Similarly, she never lost an opportunity to express her distaste for collectivist ideologies that encourage an unwholesome deference to state authority.
I should say, that was at least one reason why a certain cohort expressed their deep disapproval. People with a fierce independence of mind always irritate those who have a love of institutional conformity and a fear of the free spirit. Thatcher was not one for institutional awards and honors and that was emblematic of her healthy disinterest in old-school cabalism (this too caused involuntary twitching in that half-real, half-mythical club-inhabiting creature, the Establishment).
I don’t know how much Kallas shares these attributes, but she has clearly expressed her indefatigable opposition to the violent coercive potentialities of the state in the international arena.
The world can never have enough people like Kallas and those others I mention here. They provide the bulwark against political leaders whose inclination is to wield the power of states in geopolitical games, while the individual is trodden underfoot. They are the little stalks of green that burst forth from the cracks in the depressing concrete, from the cold hard realpolitik that forgets that the whole purpose of politics in the first place, its very etymology, was to manage the affairs of the city to the benefit of the citizens.
Unless we support political leaders, who exemplify and embody the dignity of the human individual above the often, uncompromising bluntness of the state, then the world will disintegrate into a wrestling ring of egos in which human lives are merely expendable detritus to be cast aside to achieve abstract ideological ends. Kallas’ mother experienced this, Kallas understands this – and the rest of us can learn it.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
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