We Sang Our Way to Freedom: The Singing Revolution of Estonia

Toompea, Tallinn

As part of our online book club, ‘Travel Europe Through Books,’ we’ve been reading The Last Train From Estonia, the harrowing personal story of Jaak Jurison. In it he describes his experiences, first growing up in peaceful Estonia, then witnessing first-hand the Soviet invasion, purges, and censorship in Estonia that coincided with the Second World War. Later his family fled to what they felt to be a better option–Nazi Germany–which is helpful to them in some ways, but harmful in others. This memoir reads like a journal. It’s not as thrilling or fast-paced as a thriller, but definitely calls up some incredible events and heart-racing action.

An Estonian Account of Soviet Aggression

Written in 2016, just two years after the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, The Last Train From Estonia exposes some of the tactics used by Russia to take control of a neighboring country. A quote on the book’s back cover by William Small, the former President of NBC News, demonstrates how this book is relevant to all of us now:

“A must-read book for those who are concerned about the present conflict in Ukraine, where history seems to be repeating itself. The Russian annexation of Crimea has an uncanny similarity to the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States in 1940. Professor Jurison’s grasp of that part of the world is most impressive.”

Last month in my post called Lending Support for Ukraine, I explained how the EURO-Maidan Revolution rolled out in Kyiv in 2014. Those events have led to the current war in Ukraine, where Russia is attempting to dominate and suppress their neighbor. Ukrainians are now fighting for their land and freedom. This month I want to show how Estonia chose a different (but not necessarily better) way to free themselves from Russian oppression.

Old Tallinn. Estonia. Panoramic view to Toompea buildings from Oleviste church in Summer

The Story of Estonian Independence

Estonia was dominated since the 13th century by various conquerors. After the first World War, Estonia declared independence, but still had to fight German forces in the south and the Soviet army in the east for another two years, until the Tartu peace treaty was signed in 1920. They enjoyed relative peace and freedom for the 20 years that followed that agreement, but in 1940, and again in 1944, Estonia again came under Soviet dominion through military annexation and occupation. It wasn’t until Russian President Gorbachev instigated his program of glasnost (openness) and prerestroika (restructuring) in 1985 that things in Estonia finally began to loosen.1

In 1987, the Soviet government’s plan to excavate phosphorite in Estonia caused great concern among its citizens about its consequences for the environment and society. A group called the MRP-AEG met in the Old Town of Tallinn with intentions to expose and condemn this Soviet decision. This was the first spark of real autonomy in Estonia since 1944.

In the years that followed, the Estonian tradition for song festivals brought the “Five Patriotic Songs” of Alo Mattiisen into public awareness. Premiering in May 1988 and resurfacing in August of the same year, these songs, combined with the Estonian desire for independence, led to a special demonstration. A human chain of 2 million people called ‘The Baltic Way’ stood hand in hand from Tallinn to Vilnius and Riga in August 1989. They sang their songs for freedom.

The Calvert Journal tells more about these songs:

“Composed in early 1988, the five Fatherland songs captured the growing aspiration for an Estonian national identity and created a unified national spirit. Comprising both heavy, heroic rock anthems or soft ballads, they conveyed a wide spectrum of emotions: wistfulness for an independent Estonia, anger at the occupying forces, courage, and determination to stand up for the beloved fatherland.”

Mattiisen used poems and songs from the 19th century in his music, drawing from the era called ‘the Great National Awakening” (1850-1918) when a yearning for Estonian national identity led to the creation of nationalist poems and songs. It was in this era that the Laulupidu Song Festival began, which continues to draw tens of thousands of Estonians annually.

Estonia’s Singing Revolution lasted over four years, and included popular protests and acts of defiance. Eventually the Supreme Soviet of Estonia created the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration on November 16, 1988. In 1991, as Soviet tanks rolled in to try to stop this push for independence, people acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations. These actions led to an Estonian Independence that was won without bloodshed.

Singing For Freedom in October Revelations

V M Karren’s recent book October Revelations, a historical thriller, also includes references to Estonia’s Singing Revolution. The novel focuses primarily on government corruption in Russia in the 1990s, and the efforts of free elements in the press to expose and condemn these abuses. One free-thinking journalist named Yulia Krasnova finds herself in grave danger after exposing the actions of a corrupt official of the Russian government in her newspaper. Her editor, Ludmilla Pushkarova, sends her to stay with a friend in Estonia, Tomaas Taagrepera, so that her whereabouts may be concealed. Ludmilla and Tomaas had met while working together for freedom in Estonia. Here are a few excerpts from Tomaas’ conversation with Yulia in the novel, based on actual events that occured in Estonia:

“When Estonia brought the legal argument to the Soviet Supreme Court claiming that the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty from 1939 violated the Soviet Union’s Constitution, Ludmilla Pushkarova was our loudest supporting voice in Moscow,” explains Tomaas.

“Gorbachev allowed the court to proceed. A year or so later, Estonia was an independent nation. And this was many months before the August Putsch and before the Soviet Union dissolved on Christmas Day 1991′

Yulia responds: “But people died in Vilnius and Riga. How did Estonia escape the bloodshed?

“A wide, joyful smile spread[s] across Tomas’s face. ‘We sang our way to Freedom.'”

He then proceeds to take Yulia on a tour through the old Toompea – Estonia’s seat of government for many centuries. He explains about the Toompea Loss, the Estonian Parliament building, which issued a declaration in May 1990 that it was no longer legal to fly the Soviet Hammer & Sickle. Russian supporters came to the Toopea Loss to protest, filling the square and shaming the Parliament. At this point, the Estonian Prime Minister was on the radio calling all Estonian patriots to come defend Toompea. They came in the thousands, chanting “freedom, freedom, freedom”–and trapped the Russian supporters inside the Toompea Square. Then the Estonian crowd started singing their national songs.

According to Tomaas, the Estonian patriots made a human corridor for the Russian supporters to leave Toompea Loss. They locked arms and pushed the crowd apart, making a corridor wide enough for a column of five across to exit with their dignity intact, and no bloodshed or further violence.

None of this was covered on the press in Russia, and as Yulia notes in the novel, they were completely unaware that these events occurred.

Tallinn, Estonia, 6th July, 2019: Singers on a stage at Estonian folk singing festival, called ‘Laulupidu’ held every 5 years

History Repeating Itself

What similarities can we see in these events and what is happening in Ukraine? What can we learn from watching history repeat itself? In both cases–and many others–we see Russia invading and terrorizing a neighboring country, demonstrating a pattern of aggression. We see Ukraine’s push for independence and EU membership, just as Estonia did over the past few decades. Estonia gained EU membership in 2004, and Ukraine hopes to gain this privilege in coming years. Previously we saw division within Ukraine over its ties with Russia, but that has diminished as the war has progressed. Estonia also saw some division over the issue, as in the case of the Toompea Loss, but the opposition to independence became swallowed up in the vast majority with the demonstrations and singing. Common experience brings solidarity. We see in Ukraine and Russia a war of information now, just as it happened in the time of Estonian independence. Russians have been kept in the dark, pawns of their corrupt leaders. Here we learn the value of the press and the free spread of information.

At the end of his memoir, Jurison suggests some ways for nations and individuals to prepare for the extreme challenges as he faced, such as war and political oppression. Education, physical preparation, flexibility, grit, teamwork and emotional resilience are all qualities he mentions as saving forces. These are qualities that take time and discipline for individuals and societies to develop; reaching for these tools at the onset of war is already too late. Some have developed them over time and have been prepared. Estonians did then, and Ukrainians show now, their indomitable character as they stand for freedom.

What will we take from their hard-won experience?

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