Saturday, June 14, 2008


Chris Endy, a historian of some note, and coincidentally my step-son, told me of a thesis expressed some time ago by a political scientist who set out to defend nationalism. His idea was that nationalism is good because it makes it possible for each nation to contribute something special and unique to the world. If this is right, then what can Estonia claim to having contributed to the world?

The answer is not Skype (invented in Estonia) or even Baltic herring in sour cream with boiled potatoes (which is still a state secret). Chris believes that Estonia’s contribution to the world is the power of song, and he might be right.

The tradition of song in Estonia runs deep into the roots of the culture. The first Üldlaulupidu (National Singing Festival) was held in Tartu in 1869, and these have continued every four or five years even through the darkest of times. Choirs of all kinds from all regions of Estonia gather in Tallinn at the Lauluväljak (Singing Field) to raise their voices as one people. The present stage where the song festival is held holds 20,000 singers, and there is room for an audience of 300,000. That is about thirty percent of all the Estonians in the country!

The song festivals continued to be held throughout the Soviet time. Stalin thought, incorrectly it turned out, that cultural identify ought to be encouraged because this would convince more people to embrace communist ideals. He also thought that cultural events can be shared by others in the USSR and that this would promote solidarity. Thus every song festival in Estonia during the occupation had its requisite visitors and participants from the far-flung reaches of the empire. But Stalin made a strategic blunder. Cultural events only highlighted national differences and kept alive the hope of freedom and self determination for each of the captive nations. That tradition fed directly into “The Singing Revolution” eventually ending the Russian occupation of Estonia and the formation of a free republic.

The revolution started innocently enough. During the Old Tallinn Days in 1988 a stage was set up in the town square where concerts were to be held. The performers were increasingly enboldened by the reactions of the people, and by the apparent inability of the KGB or the police to do anything. The 15,000 people finally decided that the town square was too small, and marched the three miles to the song festival site. They sang old songs and stayed through the June white night. By word of mouth, the event encouraged others to come the next night, and after six days there were over 150,000 people in the singing field, holding hands and singing. Then an amazing thing happened. A drummer from a rock band got on his motorbike and rode around the field holding aloft the Estonian blue/black/white flag! This was the first time many of the participants at the singing field had ever seen the national flag. Then, as if on signal, others unfurled the flags that they had secretly kept hidden for 45 years, and the field was awash in blue, black, and white.

The national singing festival was scheduled for the next year, 1989. At the festival the mood was one of excitement and optimism for the future, but also of fear in the knowledge that the Soviets still had the power to crush dissent. Although people were no longer being arrested for flying the national flag, the country was not yet free and independent, and the organizers of the festival did their best to temper the enthusiasm. But at the end of the festival, the crowd would not leave, and instead started to sing the national anthem which the communist authorities had forbidden them to sing. The 20,000 on stage joined in -- all without a conductor! At the end of the three verses, they started again from the start, refusing to quit. After the third time through, it was evident to all that Soviet power had been dissipated. It was a revolution in song – a singing revolution.

The events that followed are complex and I don’t have the time to recount them all. They are beautifully told in the film “The Singing Revolution”, presently playing in 60 theaters in the United States, and by the accompanying book written by my brother, Priit Vesilind. For more information, go to

-- Aarne

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