Movie Review: ‘Singing Revolution’ Estonians’ songs sent Soviets packing

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Barry Paris
july 11, 2008

By singing, the people of Estonia helped win their freedom from the USSR.
The “power of music” is purely personal and metaphorical, right?

Wrong. In days of yore, it could be highly political: The Marseillaise, Sibelius’ “Finlandia” and Haydn’s (expropriated) “Deutschland Uber Alles” come to mind — all of them effective calls to national resistance.

In days of not-so-yore, too, as we come to find out in “The Singing Revolution,” a very powerful and very musical documentary by husband-and-wife team James and Maureen Castle Tusty chronicling the Estonian people’s struggle to throw off Soviet occupation.


‘The Singing Revolution’

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained
Narrator: Linda Hunt.
Rating: PG-13 in nature for some violent images.
Web site:


Tiny Estonia (pop. 1.1 million) was the first wild card in the communist deck — the one that brought down the whole Soviet house of cards in 1991. It’s a lovely little Baltic country, like its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, but unlike them has an idiosyncratic Finno-Ugric language (one of only four non-Indoeuropean languages in Europe) left over from the tundra herdsmen who first settled the place 5,000 years ago.

From those roots, Estonia endured an endless series of German, Swedish, Polish and Russian conquests. A heady but brief period of independence after World War I was brutally curtailed by the cynical 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty in which Hitler and Stalin divvied up Europe — assigning Estonia to the tender mercies of the latter. By the 1950s, Estonia had lost some 25 percent of its population to forced-labor camps, Siberian gulags and ethnic-cleansing massacres.

The Tustys’ doc concentrates on Estonians’ heroic defiance of their Russian occupiers through the step-by-step re-establishment of independence from 1986-91. How did they do it? In a nutshell, through peaceful protests — and mass musical demonstrations of unity. Despite relentless Soviet efforts to repress and Russify Estonian culture, Estonians sustained their beloved tradition of choral singing, epitomized by the huge quintennial Laulupidu music festival. It was there, in 1947, that Estonian composer Gustav Ernesaks first performed his “Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love,” set to the patriotic words of 18th-century Estonian poet Lydia Koidula. In defiance of Soviet edicts, the Laulupidu choirs — and an astonishing singalong audience of 300,000 — would then and later drown out the Soviet brass bands by singing the new (banned) national anthem.

“Without any political party and without any politicians,” says Mart Laar, Estonia’s first post-Soviet prime minister in the film, “young people came together with old people to sing and give this nation a new spirit.”

You’ll fall in love with him and with the fabulous choir director Hirvo Surva, not to mention the gorgeous children whose pristine-pure voices he hones to perfection.

The filmmakers deftly interweave archival footage and contemporary talking heads with Linda Hunt’s low-key, euphonic narration to fine historical as well as dramatic effect. The most astonishing spontaneous manifestation of communal spirit we’re treated to — and greatest testament to the extraordinary gentleness of this people — is footage of a crowd of loyal Soviet reactionaries storming the capitol building in Tallinn. When the trapped, pro-independence officials inside issue a radio S.O.S. to the public, thousands of Estonians show up — not for a violent confrontation but to form an honor guard letting the die-hard Russians depart in a dignified retreat.

“The Singing Revolution,” a true tale of how culture saved a nation, should be required viewing in history classrooms worldwide, with its revelation that music and sheer force of will can topple tyrants. You can get regime change without bloodshed, not from outside but inside, where the song itself comes from. One little country, 1 million voices in unison: the right to bear music, more potent than to bear arms.

Opens Saturday at Harris Theater.