The little country of Estonia was occupied by outside forces for the better part of seven hundred years. Holland, Sweden, Germany, Russia—all have at one time or another controlled the destiny of the people of Estonia. Then in 1920 the Estonians won their liberty. For a time, they raised their families and tilled their fields and sang in their churches as a free nation. But their independence was short lived. The Soviets invaded in 1939, executing thousands of Estonians, sending others by cattle car to slave labor camps in Siberia. The Soviets took everything they could from the people of Estonia. They made it illegal to fly the blue, black and white Estonian flag. They took their churches. They took their farms and collectivized them. And in a process called “Russification,” the Soviets relocated tens of thousands of Russian workers to Estonian soil, their ranks increasing over the years from eight percent of the population to over forty.
The Soviets took the Estonians’ farms and their churches and their freedom of speech, but they could not take away the folk songs that had been passed down from generation to generation. Singing their folk songs had always kept the Estonian spirit alive. “We had no weapons but singing,” says one Estonian. “Being together, singing together, this was our power.”
In their own way and in their own time, and using their voices alone, the people of Estonia fought for their independence. Estonian activist Heinz Valk called it “the Singing Revolution.” He says of that time, “Until now, revolutions have been filled with destruction, burning, killing and hate, but we started our revolution with a smile and a song.”
Every five years since 1869, over twenty thousand people from all over the land dress in their country’s traditional attire and take the stage for a day-long song festival they call Laulupidu. In 1969, however, under the thumb of Soviet communism, Estonians were forced to celebrate the festival’s one hundred year anniversary wearing plain, no nonsense, Soviet-approved apparel and singing the songs of their oppressors. But when the official program was over, something happened. The choirs refused to leave the stage. They began singing the Estonian national anthem. Twenty thousand people lifted their voices in song, overwhelming the brass bands that Soviet officials had ordered to play to drown them out. Despite the risk of a crackdown by Soviet officials, the people of Estonia refused to stop their singing.
All through the seventies and eighties, Estonians lived in fear of speaking their true minds. But every four years they sang in their song festivals. Then, in 1985, when Gorbachov came to power and introduced Perestroika (“relative freedom”) and Glasnost (“free speech”), small clusters of Estonians began to speak out against the Soviet occupation. When nobody was hauled off to jail, their numbers grew. In 1988, a group of activists organized a demonstration celebrating the Estonian history and culture that the Soviets had tried to wipe out. Since it was illegal to fly the Estonian flag, they hung three flags side by side, one blue, one black, and one white.
Two months later, when the Soviets shut down a concert, one hundred thousand Estonians gathered off the festival grounds and sang songs about the country they loved. A motorcyclist sped past the crowd, the Estonian flag whipping in the wind behind him, and suddenly everywhere blue, black and white flags unfurled and flew.
Emboldened, the Estonian Supreme Council worked within existing laws to push for the return of its nation’s sovereignty. It made Estonian the official language, instead of Russian. It replaced the red hammer and sickle flag with the Estonian flag. And it registered all Estonians as citizens, thus defying the legitimacy of the Soviet occupation.
In May 1990, The Estonian Supreme Council made it illegal to fly the Soviet flag. The next day, a Russian group called Interfront marched on the Estonian capital and broke through the gates. They tore down the blue, black and white flag and raised the Soviet hammer and sickle. As they prepared to storm the building and take hostages, the prime minister beseeched the Estonian people by radio to come to the aid of their country. Within minutes, thousands of Estonians had descended on the capitol city of Toompea, closing ranks around the Interfront mob so that the only way out was through the Estonian crowd. Shouting “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” and “Out! Out! Out!” the crowd parted to allow the Interfront rebels to safely retreat. Not a drop of blood was shed.
When their capitol was secure, activist Marju Lauristin stood out on the balcony of the building and thanked the people. “We were sure that if you came to help us that you would do it in the way you did. With your intelligence, your songs, your heart. That is when we are at our strongest. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” And the people of Estonia raised their clasped hands to the sky above, and sang.
You can watch a spellbinding documentary about this remarkable movement. Look for The Singing Revolution on Netflix or at your local video store.