The Singing Revolution – Powerful voices help free Estonia

The Columbus Dispach
Frank Gabrenya
July 25, 2008

Mountain View Productions
Annual song festivals fire up the nationalistic fervor of Estonians.

The Singing Revolution. Directed by James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty. Written by the Tustys and Mike Majoros. Photographed by Miguelangel Aponte-Rios.

Revolution by force of voice.
MPAA rating: unrated
Running time: 1:34 (in Estonian and English with subtitles)
Now showing at the Drexel Grandview theater
We know from history books and films that no country drives out a larger, stronger occupier without a lot of bloodshed.
Estonia, on the other hand, freed itself of the oppression of Soviet communism by singing.
So goes the simple description of The Singing Revolution, a documentary that chronicles a virtually unknown chapter in the late-20th-century collapse of the Soviet Union.
Like a lot of other plots, though, that’s the simplified version. As the film relates, Estonian freedom required much more than large numbers of people gathering to sing nationalistic folk songs in defiance of Soviet decrees.
Still, as a vivid dramatization of how major change can be effected without force of arms, the feature by co-directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty is rousing and reassuring.
Estonia is the smallest of the Balkan nations (along with Latvia and Lithuania), nestled between Russia and the Baltic Sea, south of Finland. For centuries, it was invaded by a succession of conquerors, including Poles, Germans and Russians.
Finally, in 1920, an Estonian republic emerged and enjoyed a brief period of independence.
Then World War II erupted. After Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact, the Soviets entered in 1939 and brutalized the nation of 1 million people. Hundreds were executed, and thousands, one-third of them children, were shipped to concentration camps in Siberia.

When Hitler broke the pact with the Soviets, the Nazis took over and practiced their brand of savagery.

After the war ended, the Germans were gone, but the Soviets returned to stay for decades.
Estonia was one of the eastern European nations that became part of the Soviet Union. Life was hard, goods were scarce, and terror was epidemic. As part of their suppression, the Soviets banned expressions of Estonian culture.

What they couldn’t ban was the annual song festival in Tartu that originated in 1869 and drew hundreds of thousands for a three-day festival of choral music. At the centennial festival in 1969, the throngs defied Soviet orders to sing nationalistic anthems, as archival footage offers grand evidence.

During the next 20 years, Estonians continued to raise their voices in mass defiance, but other critical factors led to the eventual downfall of the Soviet empire and Estonian freedom. All the finest singing in the world wasn’t as important as the economic collapse of the Soviets’ totalitarian brand of communism and Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness), which allowed the people of the Soviet satellites greater freedom of expression.
The song festivals continued, but they were abetted by oratory, strategy and peaceful demonstrations. As interviews with key figures attest, many Estonians didn’t want to rile the Soviets and suffer the reprisals visited on Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and ’60s. Some preferred the Soviets to the unknown challenges of self-democracy.

The film tells its moving story through interviews with those who lived through the period, coupled with glorious scenes of acres of Estonians massed at festivals, raising their voices in a wonderful expression of civilized spirit.

Most telling is an interview in which the ultimate Estonian hero is described as a shrewd barn keeper who sits quietly by his fire, waiting until the time is right.

It isn’t mentioned, but the old gent might be singing under his breath the whole time.