Review: The Singing Revolution
July 29, 2008 § Leave a Comment
When Estonia won its independence from the Soviet Union after half-a-century under its thumb, it was largely through peaceful resistance that was fueled by one of the most important obsessions of their culture — singing. In the film “The Singing Revolution,” directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle provide a thorough overview of the the Soviet chapter in Estonia’s history that highlights its musical enthusiasms.
Estonia existed for centuries as the whipping boy of the Baltic — a population closely related to the Finnish on its northern border that passed through Danish, Swedish and German rule before gaining its independence in 1918, alongside the Russian Civil War in the aftermath of World War I. That wasn’t followed by a long period of self-rule — it was subjected to a one-two punch in 1944, first from Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union. What followed was the attempting unraveling of the Estonian national identity by the Soviet masters, sadly not an unusual story and one punctuated with the typical vile Soviet trappings of imprisonment and mass murder.
Estonia, however, never gave up that they would one day walk away from the shadow of Stalin, despite the influx of Soviet citizens coming to share space with their new comrades, and despite the public humiliation that saw the Soviet Union replace all references to the Estonian cultural history with the newly enforced celebrations of Stalin and the State. One way in which the Estonians kept up the good fight was in the form of the Forest Brothers, a group of modern day Robin Hood figures who functioned as an underground resistance literally — they hid and lived in the forests in crafty underground bunkers. Another way the Estonians kept the dream alive was through their Laulupidu Song Festival, a tradition since 1869 that they refused to give up.
Through the festival, the Estonians grabbed a small piece of public time that allowed them to revisit the culture they were forced to leave behind through a selection of traditional Estonian songs that were performed following the imposed program of Soviet propaganda songs. This was the elixir that wound through the society’s natural resistance to their Soviet masters and intoxicated throngs of them when, in 1969, 30,000 Estonian citizens sang together, creating a sonic mark on the political landscape that would not disappear.
The story of the Estonian move towards freedom and away from the Soviet system — a broken one before it even really started, it seems — unfolds through a parade of first hand accounts. Musicians, politicians, resistance fighters and ordinary citizens who lent their voice to the massive song of resistance all pipe in about the torrent that did not really end until 1991 and, even though, retained its strength and only really transformed into a celebration of victory that doesn’t seem very likely to forget the nation’s fortitude.
“The Singing Revolution” serves as not only a fascinating investigation of one of the arenas in which old stye dictatorial communism fell, but also as an example of what people can do when they are patient, crafty and immune to apathy. It can’t help but be anything other than an inspiring political story, and an important one that teaches the lesson of creative problem solving through peaceful means — something so many people still need to learn.