The Singing Revolution
May 14, 2009 5:16 PM   Subscribe

Some revolutions are about hate. Others are about revenge. But there was at least one that was about hope and music. The Singing Revolution is the story of how hope and music saved a nation.

After World War II the Baltic States had been fully incorporated into the USSR after military occupation and annexation in 1940. Many years later in 1985, hoping to stimulate the failing Soviet economy and encourage productivity, particularly in the areas of consumer goods, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced "glasnost", which rescinded the limitations on political freedoms. This gave rise to huge problems in the Baltic States, which had been occupied unlawfully in the build-up to war in the 1940s.

From 1987, a cycle of mass demonstrations featuring spontaneous singing eventually collected 300,000 Estonians in Tallinn to sing national songs and hymns that were strictly forbidden during the years of the Soviet occupation.
"We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”
Artur Talvik, participant.
These gatherings helped unite the Estonian people, ignited a renewed wave of passion for their national identity and furthered the country's desire for freedom. In September of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the Lauluvaljak to continue their protest and to hear Trivimi Velliste, an historian who later served as the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, make the first public demand for independence.

The Singing Revolution, as it later became known, lasted over four years, with various protests, rock concerts and acts of defiance. In 1991, as Soviet tanks attempted to stop the progress towards independence, the Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia proclaimed the restoration of the independent state of Estonia and repudiated Soviet legislation. People acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations from the Soviet tanks. Through these actions Estonia regained its independence without any bloodshed.
posted by Effigy2000 (7 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Joe Beese at 7:05 PM on May 14, 2009

That's funny, I nearly posted something about this last August, when I saw a screening of the film in Kansas City, with the film's producer in attendance. It's a well-done film, and I especially applaud it for doing a very good job of telling of a little-known historical occurrence in entertaining and honest* fashion. The film manages to be very inspirational and heartwarming while being crazy interesting and informative at the same time.

* (The film's producer explained the problems he encountered in "simplifying" some of the events in the film. For instance, like many Eastern European countries post-Communism, there were a plethora of miniscule and often unfathomable political parties, along with some strange alliances. Obviously, to get into the detail would have detracted from the watchability of the film, but this was handled really delicately, so that even after I saw the film and read up on Estonian history, I couldn't honestly find anything worthy that seemed to be excluded.)

I've often pondered the relationship between the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the sorts of governments that were in power during Communism. I've failed to find any. Some of the most brutal and restrictive governments had bloody revolutions, such as Romania. Others, like Estonia (which was under direct Soviet rule) didn't. Relatively "open" governments saw both fairly peaceful (Hungary) and horrific (Yugoslavia) transitions away from Communism. So to me, it seems a matter of either luck or a result of an incredibly complicated set of variables, depending on how much you want to think about it!

In the case of Estonia, I think it had a lot to do with simple good luck, which makes The Singing Revolution a little bit of a fantasy . . . though of course, I'm also a rather jealous of their "luck," having been through a bloodier situation myself. So I'd be rather cynical of the movie, if it weren't for one thing:

The Estonians really are nuts about singing! I've met many, and I've yet to meet one who wasn't perfectly happy to burst into song in just about any situation, and at the drop of a hat. Most of them have astonishing voices, and crazy-deep repertoires which include folk songs from hundreds of years ago, and even many folk songs from extinct or near-extinct cousin languages. Effigy2000 doesn't mention it, but the Estonians who gathered to sing for peace equalled about 30% of the entire population! That's roughly the same as if 90,000,000 Americans got together to peacefully protest in one spot, if you can imagine that.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:01 PM on May 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Fascinating. I'm streaming the samples of music from the documentary website as I type this, and I'm absolutely enthralled. I'm thinking I may have to add the dvd to my wish list.

Or I could host a party:
2. You can show the film plus some of the extras provided in Collector's Edition 1.0. You could screen the ludicrous Stalinist propaganda film clip, or the amazing 1939 Nazi newsreel that features the joint Nazi/Red Army celebration about the conquest of Poland. You could play additional interview comments on the song festival or on the role of culture in the Soviet Union. Any one of these could generate interesting additional discussions.
Interesting additional discussions, indeed.

Thanks for sharing. My mind is temporarily blown.
posted by paisley sheep at 9:56 PM on May 14, 2009

This didn't just happen in Estonia. Similar events happened in all the Baltics, and my favourite part is The Baltic Way, when "The estimates vary, but Reuters News the following day reported that about 700,000 Estonians, 500,000 Latvians, and 1,000,000 Lithuanians joined the protests. " Remember that these are tiny nations. 500.000 Latvians are 1/3 of the natives!

I'm most familiar with Latvia, as my wife is from there, but the singing tradition is alive and well there too. It seems like most everyone in the country is member of one choir or another. They also have dainas, a tradition also present in Lithuania, small verses that have been passed along word-of-mouth.
posted by Harald74 at 11:07 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great post. I had no idea about this fascinating tidbit of history. I will definitely have to check this movie out.
posted by leviticus8908 at 12:37 AM on May 15, 2009

Soviet tanks? I was there during the August coup in 1991 and I don't remember any tanks. OK, I was 4 at the time. But even talking about it with my parents later, we don't remember any real disturbances. If you read "Soviet tanks" and think "Tienanmen Square," you have the wrong idea--the coup organizers couldn't get people to take them seriously in the middle of Moscow, much less in the Baltic States. During their initial press conference some of them were visibly drunk, and it was clear that this was a doomed last stand for the Communists. If they did try to make an effort to assert Soviet power in the Baltics, it was purely a symbolic one; no one had any intention of repeating Hungary or Czechoslovakia.
posted by nasreddin at 1:15 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

If they did try to make an effort to assert Soviet power in the Baltics, it was purely a symbolic one; no one had any intention of repeating Hungary or Czechoslovakia.

The true story, of course, is a little more complicated. I'm reading The Enemy At Their Pleasure by S Ansky (the original title translates as The Death Of Galicia. It's a real-time account of the Jewish Pale Of Settlement during WWI, in which the population was truly "shot by both sides." I can sum up the behavior of the Czarist soldiers as such: They got drunk, smashed things up, raped women and generally paid no attention to anything like human rights or even the demands of their own commanding officers. (This is also widely documented elsewhere.)

Despite their incredible heroics in such battles as Stalingrad, the Russian troops under Stalin, in WWII often behaved about as well. After the war, Stalin's immediate betrayal of his commitments to such things as "free and open elections" are still remembered in most of what was the "Soviet bloc."

I've spoken to many Hungarians who lived through the revolution of 1956, many of whom described their (illegal) Russian invaders as drunk and ruthless. By the way, they didn't think the Russians would really come back (after they were initially driven out.) But they did.

The story in 1968 Czechoslovakia isn't much different.

When Communism started falling, the response to a possible Soviet reinvasion of some countries by the US and NATO was, pretty much, "meh." (Andrei Codrescu wrote a wonderful piece about how statements by American officials seemed to beg for a Soviet invasion in Romania - where the Soviet Union had only had minimal input prior to the fall of Communism, and no troops stationed there.) This was widely interpreted as carte blanche for the Soviets to do as they pleased and as their history had shown them to do in the past.

To sum it up, the Estonians, like people in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, East Germany (etc) had more than 75 years of history watching the Russians run willy-nilly over whomever they wanted, with no regard for human rights, appearances or anything else. Violence was frequently used as a first resort in a lot of the 20th Century's "dealings" with the Russians. Many Estonians, of course, had living memory of the deportation to Siberia of a relatively large percent of the population - most of them to their deaths.

So to claim that "no one had any intention of repeating Hungary or Czechoslovakia" is entirely disingenuous.

This, um "non-engagement" would have been sort of a first for the Soviets. Take these points:

First, the Soviets were engagement in violent military actions elsewhere at the exact same time as the Estonian Revolution.

Second, the idea that there would be an invasion was more likely, in the minds of nearly everyone, for the simple reason that "Estonia" did not exist like Poland or Hungary. It was not even nominally an independent nation, but rather a part of the Soviet Union. Illegally, but still.

Third, what about the Soviet-sponsored violence during the independence of other Baltic states, Latvia (where the Soviets killed civilians) and Lithuania (Soviet sponsored coup attempt which also killed civilians)? Soviet military engagement killed many civilians in other places around the same time, such as Georgia. It's a bit ridiculous to assume that anyone would think that little Estonia would somehow have been magically immune.

Fourth, the Soviet Union essentially refused to leave Estonia, even after Estonia's independence was recognized by most of the world. It wasn't for several years (until 1994) that the Soviets left. It wasn't if they made a "symbolic" show, packed up and then left.

Fifth, in fact, Russians still fuck with Estonian economic and democratic systems via internal espionage, interference with internet and communications (etc) twenty years after the fact! Do a Google search and you will find plenty.

Sixth, Soviet military leaders publicly expressed their shock and disbelief at the non-receipt of orders to "clamp down." Again, there's plenty of info on this, and if I remember properly, footage of exactly these claims is included in the film! Additionally, there is plenty of footage of heroic Estonian actions against the Soviet threat in the film. And yes, footage of SOVIET TANKS roaming the streets of Talinn!

I agree with nasreddin, that this was something like a doomed last stand for the Communists. But no one really knew that at the time, not even military and political experts with the USSR or the USA. And even if they had, history has shown that desperate last stands can offer up the bloodiest and most vicious battles. So no one was taking the possibility of a repeat of Hungary or Czechoslovakia lightly at all.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:30 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

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