How Estonians sang their way to freedom

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 27 16:45:34 UTC 2008

How Estonians sang their way to freedom

A new documentary tells story of how the national tradition of singing
helped unite the masses against the Soviet occupation.
By Gloria Goodale | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the October 24, 2008 edition

A look at the Estonia Song Festival, with thousands of choral singers
and crowd participation.Walk around the verdant green amphitheater
known as the Lauluvaljak, or song ground, here on the outskirts of
Tallin, Estonia, and it's easy to imagine the air alive with music,
reverberating up the grassy slopes from the half-domed, vaulted stage
at the bottom of this natural theatrical setting.

But to grasp what it feels like to be amid an audience 300,000-strong,
singing in Von Trapp family-like harmony with sub rosa political
purpose, you'll just have to pick up the DVD of "The Singing
Revolution," a passion project by documentarians Jim and Maureen
Tusty. Released this week, it is the story of how a tiny country
(population: 1 million) with a 5,000-year-old culture, perched on the
western edge of the Russian giant, used its tradition of song to
finally free itself of foreign occupation, in this case the Soviet
state, in 1991.

This tale of how peaceful crowds managed to fend off Soviet tanks as
they attempted to take over the local television station is operatic
in its drama, says the married couple. "This is the story of the power
of nonviolent resistance to succeed where guns and rock-throwing would
have resulted in death and more political oppression," says Jim Tusty.
The nation was trying to throw off the Soviet yoke, which ensnared it
in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin secretly signed a pact to divide up
the Baltic countries. But, says Jim Tusty, it is also the story of a
relationship between art and politics.

"We wanted to tell this remarkable story ... before the generation
that lived it is no longer around," he says. He adds that a number of
the older Estonians he interviewed say they are grateful to have the
narrative preserved. They see that the next generation – a global,
externally focused cohort in a nation that is now part of the European
Union and NATO – has little awareness of the struggles of an earlier
generation, he says.

The story began for the filmmakers when they taught a cinema class in
Estonia during the summer of 1999 and began to hear about the song
festival and the revolution it had inspired. In the festival, founded
in 1869 and held every five years, choirs from all over the nation
audition to be part of the 20,000 to 30,000-member chorus that takes
the stage and leads the huge crowds that attend.

The music is a mix of modern and traditional folk songs, many of which
have what the team calls the kind of oral traditions that are full of
hidden, deeply patriotic meaning that sustained Estonians through
centuries of oppression. As they investigated the festival itself,
they discovered the role that the traditional songs played during the
critical years leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union, 1987
through 1991. Rather than engage the Soviets directly, as Hungary,
Latvia, and Lithuania did, all with disastrous results, the various
political groups united in song.

"They never wanted to give the Soviets a reason to arrest or hurt
anyone," says Maureen Tusty. Paraphrasing one of the Estonians who
survived the brutal years of Soviet gulags, her husband adds, "Art
used to be serious when real political participation was not
possible," but now, with meaningful political activity allowed, the
arts have become trivial and the next generation is not interested in
the power of this culture to make a difference.

Beyond that, the filmmakers say the film has a role to play in a world
that is getting increasingly violent, particularly a Russia with more
aggressive foreign policies. They have assembled a three-disc
educational DVD version (available at,
complete with maps and historical data. But, Jim Tusty hastens to add,
they are not advocacy filmmakers. "We just believe in this story,
which has its own message."

• Los Angeles-based writer Gloria Goodale toured the Tallinn festival
grounds in 2007.


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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