Estonia’s Singing Revolution

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:

[If you've received this post by e-mail, you may need to click on the post title to see the music clip.  This will take you to the blog website.]

*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.






Word With a Past: How Did Germany Become the Hun?

The original Huns were a tribe of nomadic horsemen from Central Asia who rode fast and fought hard.* When they reached Europe in the second half of the fourth century, the Huns triggered a mass migration of Germanic tribes that contributed to the fall of Rome in the fifth century.  Under the leadership of Attila, they invaded Italy in 452--and were defeated by an alliance of Germanic tribes in 455.

The Huns may have been the barbarian's barbarians, but they certainly weren't Germanic.  (Unlike the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths and the Franks.)  So who pinned the name "the Hun" on Germany as a term of abuse?

Ironically, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who first linked Germany to the Huns.  Speaking in 1900 to German soldiers waiting to sail to China to help lift the siege of Peking in the Boxer Rebellion, Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops to fight "like the Huns under their King Attila a thousand years ago" so that "the name of Germany shall become known in China to such affect that no Chinaman will ever again dare so much as to look askance at a German."  Ruthless was the name of the game, according to the Kaiser:  "Pardon will not be given, prisoners will not be taken.  Whoever falles into your hands will fall to your sword."

Way to go, Wilhelm!  The Allies couldn't have come up with a nastier description if they tried.


*Sometimes it seems like Central Asia had an inexhaustible supply of armed horsemen ready to ride across the Russian steppes or the Hindu Kush and change history. Think Ghengis Khan's Mongol hordes.



The Christmas Truce–1914

For most of us, the most vivid images of World War I are the trenches on the Western front.  Men dug into positions on either side of a no-man's land of craters and burned out buildings.  Barbed wire and sandbags provided little protection from enemy shelling or snipers; they provided no protection from rats, lice, flooding, or the dreaded "trench foot".  The battlefields were noxious with the smell of rotting corpses, overflowing latrines and poison gas fumes.

Trench warfare was hell.  It also made possible one of the most extraordinary events of the war:  the unofficial Christmas armistice of 1914.  The truce began when some German troops decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and sang carols.  British troops responded with carols of their own. On Christmas Day, some groups ventured into "no-man's land" to share food, sing carols, hold joint services for their dead and play soccer  matches.

One German soldier, Josef Wenzel, described the scene in a letter to his parents:

One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads.  The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.  It was a very moving moment--hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree.  All my life I will never forget that sight.

It is estimated that 100,000 men took part in the Christmas truce. In some places, the truce lasted only through Christmas day.  In others, it lasted until New Year's Day. In some sectors, the war continued unabated.

The Christmas truce did not recur in 1915.  Both the British and the German high commands were appalled at the blatant fraternization with the enemy and gave strict orders against future incidents. After all, how do you fight a war if the men at the front decide not to fight?

Peace on earth, good will to men.