Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In the Eye of the Storm

Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand might be half Russian, but in navigating the rough waters of her country's political relations in Moscow, she is entirely Estonian.

And her efforts in her country's toughest foreign posting, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said, have not been in vain.

"Whenever I read another uninformed attack on Estonia ... I think of Marina Kaljurand," Ilves said by e-mail.

"No one sets straight the desinformatsiya about my country better than she does," he said. "And I often wonder how it's possible for anyone who has met Marina to believe all the nonsense one encounters about Estonia."

Kaljurand was born to a Latvian father and a mother of Russian descent whose family had lived in Estonia for generations. She was "brought up Estonian" but learned fluent Russian from her mother.

"I think ... every person is shaped by their environment, and I was raised Estonian," Kaljurand said. "And the fact that I have a Russian mother enriches my perspective."

Kaljurand grew up on books about Alexandra Kollontai -- the world's first female ambassador, who served in Norway, Sweden and Mexico, and was a member of the Soviet Union's delegation to the League of Nations -- but never thought she would have such a career.

Since 2005, she has been negotiating Estonian-Russian relations, which continue to be tense, with unresolved border issues and a dispute over Tallinn's removal of the Bronze Soldier, a memorial to the Red Army.

Kaljurand's job might be the height of foreign diplomacy for her country, but the long journey to Moscow began with a simple cooking lesson.

In 1991, when Kaljurand was a law professor in Tallinn, she was hired by Lennart Meri, the head of Estonia's newly formed ministry of foreign affairs.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Kaljurand standing in the embassy that has housed Estonian diplomats for 86 years.
Kaljurand had no diplomatic experience, but Meri assured her that it was simple: It's just like making pancakes.

"He described very slowly, and very patiently, how he makes pancakes," Kaljurand said, "starting with eggs, adding flour, adding sugar."

With her knowledge of Russian, she gave it a try, starting by translating the Krasnaya Zvezda army newspaper for Meri. Eventually, she became the under-secretary for legal affairs and then ambassador to Finland, Israel, and now Russia.

Diplomacy, Kaljurand said, is very human. Often she deals with neither policy nor laws, but travelers who have lost personal documents.

Seeing citizens of her country cornered into desperate situations, Kaljurand would offer coffee, tea and money for sandwiches. "Sometimes you just have to be a good psychologist and listen to them," she said.

This ability to communicate is one reason why Franek Persidski, the embassy's third secretary, thinks Kaljurand makes a good ambassador.

"She's very open, and it makes no difference whether she's speaking with an official or someone on the street. She has the same ambience," he said.

She meets EU and Russian government representatives at official meetings and functions, and keeps regular contact with foreign diplomats and Russia's Foreign Ministry, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov.

But her posting in Moscow has meant leaving in Tallinn her husband, a businessman, and her daughter and son, aged 20 and 15, respectively.

The decision was tough, but Kaljurand was determined for her young son to study at home, unlike his elder sister, "a typical diplomat's daughter," who grew up all over the world.

Even so, being ambassador in Moscow has its perks.

Kaljurand has met, for example, leaders of the art world who are involved with events related to Estonia.

Through private tours of the Tretyakov Gallery, she learned that Ivan Shishkin's painting of three bears in a forest originally had no bears in it -- hence the title, "Morning in a Pine Forest."

Before seeing "Master and Margarita" at the Taganka Theater in March, Kaljurand learned from the theater's director that the 30-year production has seen many different Margaritas and Pontius Pilates -- but the actor playing Yeshua, or Jesus, had not changed.

Since her early beginnings with pancake diplomacy, the Kaljurand of today has a much deeper understanding of what her work entails.

"You have to respect the people in the country where you are posted," she said. "And, you have to love very much your own country to ... convince foreigners that it's the best in the world."