Sylvia Thompson and Michael Keller Receive Estonia State Decorations

March 1, 2016

At the end of February in California, CA, Eerik Marmei, Estonia’s Ambassador to the United States, presented Orders of the Cross of Terra Mariana to Sylvia K. Thompson, President of the Kistler Ritso Foundation and Michael A. Keller, University Librarian at Stanford University, on behalf of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of the Republic of Estonia. The ceremony took place at the annual Estonian Independence Day celebration in Sunnyvale, hosted by the local Estonian Society and bringing together more than 200 Estonians and friends of Estonia.

Each year, the President of Estonia bestows 99 state decorations to people who have significantly contributed to the country’s development, among them a handful of non-citizens. Sylvia Thompson and Michael Keller received the awards for their exceptional work with the Estonia’s Museum of Occupations (soon to be renamed the Museum of Freedom, Vabamu) and building the Baltic studies program at Stanford University.

“I am honoured and delighted to present the Orders of the Cross of Terra Mariana to Michael Keller and Sylvia Thompson for their dedication and service to the state and people of Estonia”, said Marmei. “Their commitment to cultural and academic exchange between the United States and Estonia is highly valued and appreciated”.

Dedicated advocates and stewards of cultural heritage

Sylvia Thompson has an active role as a leader of nonprofit organizations. She is the President of the KistlerRitso Foundation, a non-profit foundation founded by her mother Olga Ritso Kistler, an Estonian refugee who, like tens of thousands of her compatriots, fled her homeland in the fear of the returning Soviet Army in 1944. The foundation focuses on educating the public regarding the occupation, resistance, freedom, and recovery of the Republic of Estonia.

In addition to building and running the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn, Estonia, the Kistler-Ritso Foundation supported numerous Estonian and Baltic events, films and projects. In 2011, it gave an endowment to Stanford Libraries, making it possible for Stanford to hire a curator for Baltic studies and begin building its Baltic program. This year, Sylvia Thompson supported the museum with additional 260,000 EUR, which is likely the single largest private donation in Estonia in 2016.

In her speech on Saturday, Sylvia Thompson stressed the importance of not only focusing on Estonia’s tragic history but also on its remarkable recovery during the past 25 years and the importance of maintaining the country’s independence and freedom.

“Estonia is remarkable not for its victimhood—sadly, there are far too many victims of evil in this world. Estonia is unique for its non-violent “singing revolution” and its quick ascent to one of the most successful democracies in the world today”, said Thompson. “Freedom and democracy are fragile, and require constant vigilance—we must all work together to ensure that Estonians never again have to endure the horrors of occupation”.

“We are proud that Sylvia Thompson has continued the work of her mother Olga Ritso Kistler at the Museum of Occupations (Vabamu)”, said Merilin Piipuu, the director of the museum. “Her support, input and warm heart help the museum to reach the next, more focused development level. It is just unbelievable how much Sylvia has helped the museum. She is a role model to all Estonians in Estonia and abroad!”

Michael Keller is Stanford’s University Librarian and serves as a member of the Supervisory Council of the Kistler-Ritso Foundation. He has been the driving force behind the creation of Stanford’s Baltic program, and an active supporter of the development of the Museum of Occupations. Last year, Keller also became Estonian e-resident.

Under Keller’s leadership and with donor support from Kistler-Ritso Foundation Stanford Libraries has established a growing Baltic studies program, which includes resources on Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian, as well as on Finnish history, literature and culture. In addition, Stanford Libraries actively collaborates with Baltic institutions and organizations by conducting projects and organizing seminars, conferences and other events to support collection development.

“I am delighted to be the first of many Stanford officers to be closely involved and supporting the Museum of Occupations that we now call the Museum of Freedom, Vabamu”, said Keller in his speech.

Keller made note that the Stanford Libraries, particularly through the curatorial expertise of Liisi Esse, has amassed a rich collection including published works about Estonia, testimonies of Estonians surviving the occupations, Estonian government documents, Estonian movies and music, and records of Estonian ex-patriots, and has developed working relationships with Estonian libraries and archives.

“We will help Stanford students and professors study Estonian history, literature, science, technology, and culture. And in doing that for Stanford, we will draw other universities into this field. We seek always to help you and your countrymen preserve Estonian freedom and to celebrate Estonia’s success”, said Keller as he concluded his speech.

“Estonia is extremely fortunate to have Mike as a true friend and a strong advocate of everything Estonian”, said Liisi Esse, Stanford’s Curator for Baltic studies.

“It is because of Mike’s keen interest towards Estonia and the other Baltic states and his ability to recognize important developments in the present and in the future that Stanford Libraries is the first academic library in the U.S. to have a Baltic curator on staff, and has one of the strongest Baltic collections in the continent. It is a great pleasure to see him being rewarded for his ongoing support”, said Esse.

Estonian ceremony

The official ceremony of presenting the state decorations took place on 23 February in Tallinn, Estonia. The President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves addressed the recipients of the decorations by thanking them for the services they have provided to Estonia.

“You are all visible and stand in the spotlight, either through your professional work or as a supporter of your community. There are also more faraway friends and supporters of Estonia, whose acts have made Estonia more visible, audible, safer and more secure”, said President Ilves.

“You have put your soul into your work and the efforts you have made for your home and Estonia in general will help propel us forward. These are efforts that drive Estonia onwards. You will make our country and each and every one of us much bigger. Stronger, better”.