The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VoC) held its annual Triumph of Liberty Conference and Gala Dinner on November 14th. The event takes place each year to remember the victims of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, and worldwide, while encouraging commitment to confronting today’s revisionist powers and defending the right of all people to live in freedom.
The Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom is awarded annually to notable opponents of communism and this year went to three leaders from the Baltic nations. They were former President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus, Member of European Parliament for Latvia Sandra Kalniete, and Member of European Parliament for Estonia Tunne Kelam. While this article will focus on Mr. Kelam, more information on each honoree is available at triumphofliberty.com.
Mr. Kelam was recognized for his dedication to opposing the Soviet occupation of Estonia and calling out human rights violations there during the occupation. His fight for freedom began in 1972, when he made a formal appeal to the United Nations on behalf of underground citizens’ groups asking for support in ending Soviet rule and organizing free elections. He continued his work over the next two decades, under constant KGB surveillance and at great danger to himself, by organizing unofficial opposition groups and keeping the West informed about the human rights situation in Estonia. He was a founding member of the Estonian National Independence Party in 1988 and was instrumental in restoring Estonia’s statehood. He was elected to Estonia’s first postoccupation constitutional parliament, or Riigikogu, in 1992 and served for 12 years. He also represented Estonia in the Convention on the Future of Europe and was elected to the European Parliament for three terms.
Mr. Kelam’s remarks included citing the U.S. policy of non-recognition of the annexation of the Baltic nations as “a big annoyance [to] Soviet diplomats.” He applauded the VoC for its work in honoring victims of communism as a matter of justice and also a practical concern in ensuring the history of communism’s horrors are not forgotten or repeated. He compared Putin’s rise in Russian politics to the rise of Nazi rule, asking the audience to “imagine that a Gestapo officer would become Chancellor of Germany.” His personal reflections recalled that there was always a choice to not join the Soviet Party. He learned early on from his mother’s example that he didn’t have to vote for the regime. He told of how he “always voted against. My conscience is clean.
He ended his remarks with his observation that “freedom can never be totally suppressed. In this, totalitarian systems have failed.” Although truth is more difficult to recognize today, “being free means taking responsibility for yourself – freedom begins with individuals. If a government becomes ill, citizens can help with its recovery” by rediscovering and acting from their values.
The keynote speaker for the event was retired U.S. Marine Corps General and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace. The program included the recent Presidential proclamation designating November 7th as the National Day for the Victims of Communism and greetings from the Vice President. Remarks were made by the Chairman of VoC Dr. Lee Edwards, and the three honorees, with President Adamkus speaking via video message. Photos and video of the event will be available on the VoC website; a link will be posted on EANC’s Facebook page as soon as it is available.
Director Estonian American National Council