Most revolutions have a symbolic moment that defines them: the Boston Tea Party, storming the Bastille, Gandhi’s march to the sea. In Estonia, the struggle for freedom from Soviet Russia began on June 10, 1988, when 300,000 people stood up and sang.
After two hundred years of control by Tsarist Russia, Estonia became an independent nation in 1920, one of the post-World War I legacies of Woodrow Wilson’s belief in national self-determination. Independent Estonia was a success, with a booming economy and a western-style democracy.
Independence didn’t last long. In September, 1939, Stalin threatened to invade Estonia unless the country allowed Russia to establish military bases within its borders. Faced with the recent example of Poland, Estonia agreed, clinging to Stalin’s promises that Estonia would retain its national sovereignty if it opened its borders to Soviet troops. Estonians soon found out that Stalin’s promises were worth no more than Monopoly money. In June, 1940, the Soviets took over the Estonian government, killing or deporting most of the country’s leaders. Stalin announced that Estonia had “volunteered” to become part of the Soviet Union.
Like other countries under Soviet control, Estonia suffered under the program of cultural genocide known as “russification”. Tens of thousands of Russians were settled in the country in an effort to dilute the ethnic Estonian population. Russian became the official language. The Estonian flag was outlawed. And nationalist songs were banned from the Estonian Song Festival (Laulupidu)–at least in theory.
Amateur choral singing was an important element of the Estonian national identity. The first Laulupidu was held in 1869, part of the Estonian nationalist movement under Tsarist rule. The soviets didn’t try to outlaw the Lauhupidu, but they did try to control what the Estonian choirs sang. One song in particular was a point of struggle. In 1947, Estonian composer and choir director Gustav Ernesaks wrote a musical setting for the nationalist poem Mu isama on minu arm ( Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love), written by Lydia Koidula a century earlier. The song quickly became Estonia’s unofficial national anthem, and was just as quickly banned from the song festival program.*
In the mid 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev changed the relationship between Russia and its satellites with his policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Estonians began to press for greater freedom from Soviet control. A handful of rock songs joined Mu isama on minu arm as rallying cries for Estonian independence.
The desire for independence came to a head on June 10, 1988, when Soviet authorities closed down a rock concert in the Old Town Square in Tallinn, the country’s capital. The crowd walked several miles to the song festival grounds, where the concert evolved into a massive sing-a-long of illegal patriotic songs. For six nights, hundreds of thousands of people gathered to sing, sway in unison, and wave Estonian flags that had been hidden in attics and basements for almost fifty years. It was the first step in the non-violent “singing revolution” that ended with Estonian independence on August 21, 1991.
Choral singing is just as important as ever in Estonia. The next Laulupidu will be held in 2015. In the meantime, enjoy this sample of Estonian choral music:
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*In the 1960s, Estonians began singing Mu isama on minu arm at festivals whether it was on the program or not. One hundred thousand determined singers can easily drown out a hundred-piece brass band.