home Arts & Literature, Commentary, Europe, Music, Politics Song as resistance: The strange story of Estonia’s singing revolution

Song as resistance: The strange story of Estonia’s singing revolution


“Mu isamaa on minu arm.” The unofficial national anthem of Estonia translates as “Land of my fathers, land that I love.” It began as a poem written by Estonian poet, Lydia Koidula, during the 19th century, a period known in the country as the “National Awakening,” and played a critical role in Estonia’s independence movement from Soviet occupation over 120 years later in a non-violent resistance known as Estonia’s Singing Revolution.

The tradition of singing, particularly choral music and folktales, is deeply embedded in Estonian culture. Previously passed down orally through generations, during the 19th century National Awakening the country’s leaders began an effort to collect and write down the stories and songs in the Estonian language. The country’s most well-known national story folktale, about Kalevipoeg, a mythical, ancient Estonian ruler, was transcribed into verse and published. During the same period, the first two Estonian language newspapers were founded, promoting the new cultural renaissance. In 1869, Koidula’s father, a publisher of one of the new newspapers, organized the country’s first Song Festival as part of the national consciousness raising and to encourage the use of Estonian as the national language. Fifty-one male choirs consisting of 845 musicians and an audience of 10,000 – 15,000 people attended.

That 19th century effort to nationalize music, folktales and language contributed to the foundation of The Singing Revolution, in which song became an effective non-violent weapon of resistance.

Songs are not a unique form of protest. From the anti-war and Civil Rights songs of the 1960s and 70s in the United States to the Punk movement in the U.K. and the songs of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, songs have been used to express emotions, vent anger and call people to action. It was the unique history and style of Estonian music that made it an effective resistance tool.

  • Traditional Estonian music involves choral singing. Unlike protest songs in many other movements where the musicians sang and the audience listened appreciatively, in Estonia singing happens in a deeply embedded choir tradition. It’s a collective act involving the physical gathering of citizens from all walks of life to raise their voices in unison.
  • The tiny country of 1.4 million people has over 700 official choirs and almost every Estonian has been part of or been an audience member for a school or community choir.
  • The protest songs weren’t newly created for the revolution; they were historic national songs, occasionally modified, passed down through generations to celebrate country and promote a unified Estonian culture and language.
  • The 19th century National Awakening about the importance of culture and the Estonian language contributed to a national attitude that carried into the successive 20th century occupations of the country. Despite decades of being a pawn in the war of dominance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and brutally occupied by both countries, Estonians view themselves and their country as a nation that was never conquered.

Though the Soviet Union certainly tried. From 1943 -1991 during its final decades of occupation, the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain strategically isolated Estonians along with its Baltic neighbors. They were denied access to Western news and the ability to travel outside its boundaries. Those who had not escaped already were stuck and if caught escaping, punished with deportation to Siberia or worse. Any travel into the country was heavily controlled and monitored by the KGB.

Particularly during the Stalin years, the Soviets imposed a form of cultural genocide on the country. Estonian artists, university faculty and teachers were among the first to be dismissed from jobs or deported to Siberia. The Russification of literature, music and the arts happened with restrictive requirements that new works of art were to be published in Russian using Soviet themes.

During those years, singing patriotic songs was a punishable offense. While the Soviets allowed the Song Festival to be held under their watchful eye, the music was strictly censored. Songs had to promote Communist virtues and leaders such as Stalin and Lenin. But Estonians who participated in those Song Festivals say that Estonian nationalistic messages were hidden in the melodies that only they could recognize from generations of choral tradition. And they say the collective act of singing, no matter what they were forced to sing, restored and reinvigorated a sense of Estonian unity.

At the 1947 Song Festival, Estonian conductor Gustav Ernesaks took to the podium and led the crowd of 28,000 singers and 100,000 audience members in a song arrangement that had slipped by the Soviet censors, “Mu iaamaa on minu arm,” the poem written by Lydia Kiodula over a century earlier. Soviet authorities, so confident in their occupation of the country, didn’t recognize that “Land of my fathers, land that I love” was about Estonia, not the Soviet Union.

Kiodula’s song continued to be sung in secret choirs and in a spontaneous demonstration by Estonians as they exited the Song Festival grounds during the 1960 Song Festival. By 1987, the first year of The Singing Revolution, mass demonstrations involving national songs took place in Tallinn. In May, 1988, performers in the university town of Tartu included patriotic songs in the Tartu Pop Music Festival.

By June, 1988, after the Soviet- approved annual Tallinn Old Town Festival, participants, in a spontaneous demonstration, walked the four kilometers to the national Song Festival Grounds to sing patriotic songs. By that September’s Song Festival, the resistance momentum had built. Accounts say 300,000 Estonians, a third of the small country’s population, came to the Song Festival Grounds to participate. In defiance of the Soviet dignitaries in attendance and KGB presence, the assembled crowd sang forbidden music. One third of the country singing in a mass choir of defiance became the revolution’s tipping point.

On August 23rd, 1989 nearly 700,000 Estonians joined neighboring Latvians and Lithuanians in a united act of resistance called “The Baltic Way”. An unbroken 600 kilometer chain of two million citizens holding hands from Tallinn, Estonia, in the north through Riga, Latvia, and Vilnius, Lithuania, in the south was organized by the independence parties in all three countries to call international attention to their quest for freedom. Many of the leaders were the artists, writers and musicians who had not been deported or had returned under a less restrictive Soviet occupation. By 1991 all three countries had achieved independence and today are full members of the European Union.

Estonia knew it could not win a revolution over its Soviet occupiers by traditional means. It used the one tool it had to sustain the spirit of its people, to organize them and empower them through dark Soviet times — the choral expression of patriotic songs evoking memories of an independent homeland.

Today Estonia’s festival known as “Song of Estonia” continues to be held every five years on Tallinn’s Lauluvaljak Song Festival Grounds, the scene of the 1988 singing revolt. While the most well-known festival of song, it’s not the only one. It’s supplemented by a variety of choral singing events throughout the country including the annual Youth Song and Dance Celebration, the Estonian Night Song Festival and 700 local choirs.

Its Singing Revolution has been memorialized in a documentary.

Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Creative Commons

2 thoughts on “Song as resistance: The strange story of Estonia’s singing revolution

  1. Singing was indeed used int Estonia as a form of political demonstrations in 1988-1991, i agree with that part. (To call it “resistance” is exaggeration as a totally safe thing to do, nobody was punished for it). But the article seems to be that Song Festivals themselves were a form of resistance and that is a nonsense. Song Festivals were not “allowed” by the regime, Song Festivals were 100% organized and paid by communist regime. The songs were taught to children by government teachers at school during school hours. Government paid the transport and accomodation during the festival and broadcasted it in live TV. The festival grounds on the picture were built specifically for Song Festivals by the regime. I am not a communist or supporter of communist regimes but there is very little to complain about the Song Festivals. There were about one million ethnic Estonians in Estonia and goverment was more that willing the spend money to support their culture. Could you imagine United States government building huge festival grounds in a large urban center for its tribe of one million native languge speakers, teaching their the repertoir in public schools during school hours and organizing and paying for transport and accommodation for hundred thousand people ? I can’t either. Free countries don’t do such things. Its exactly the totalitarian regimes that spend money on huge on big shows like that. Its main theme was not just songs about Lenin and the party, it was a show about “the friendship of people”. Many songs were in the languages of other soviet republics. It is somewhat ironic that under Soviet regime, Estonians were singing in song festivals songs in Latvian and Lithuanian. Now Estonians are NATO brothers in arms with Latvians and Lithuanians but singing songs in Latvian or Lithuanian out of question. There are no festival songs even in Russian, which is the language of 20% of the population of Estonia. The description of the song with Lydia Koidula’s (not Kiodula’s) lyrics and Gustav Ernesaks’ melody was also pretty absurd. “Soviet authorities, so confident in their occupation of the country, didn’t recognize that “Land of my fathers, land that I love” was about Estonia, not the Soviet Union” … sorry, no way. The party organized everything. They knew very well who was Lydia Koidula and what she wrote about. They tolerated 18. century poetry because dead writers were often co-opted by the regime and depicted as Estonian “working class” “class struggle” heroes. This particular song was tolerated probably mostly because if was written during Word War II in the Estonian culture unit of the Soviet Army. Ethnic pride was not always punishable, it was tolerated if it happened in government sanctioned forms. The other reason to tolerate it was the author of the melody. Gustav Ernesaks is considered a hero among Estonians and I do not disagree with that. But he worked also very actively with the communist regime, which gave him numerous government awards like “orders of Lenin” etc. He even wrote the tune for communist Estonian Soviet Republic’s anthem. So now we are reinventing communist festivals as “resistance” just because they were very popular? That is propaganda, no different than the communist propaganda, which used them for their own purposes.

Comments are closed.