Estonia Sets Its National Pride to Music

Every five years in this tiny Baltic republic, thousands of singers and dancers celebrate the identity of their homeland

The thousands of singers swayed back and forth in time with the music, their hands clasped together and thrust upward as if in pursuit of the soaring melody coming from the multitude of singing voices.

My homeland Estonia is my love, the beauty of the world.

Come what may, I shall never abandon you.

And one day I shall find my final rest in your soil.

It was the culminating moment of an elaborate, three-day song and dance festival involving almost 25,000 young people from across this tiny Baltic republic earlier this summer.

A holiday spirit permeated the events, in what one organizer calls "our national party."

Held every five years and alternating with an even larger adult version, the event is part of a long-standing tradition Estonians say has helped them maintain a distinct identity as a small country throughout a long history of troubled relations with larger neighbors, including rule by the Soviet Union.

"These festivals are the most important events in the cultural life of our country," says Kurno Kaiklem, a spectator who has attended several festivals. "They've let us express who we are as a people, no matter who ruled us."

'What is my homeland?'

"There's the psychology of big nations like Russia, the USA, France," says chief choreographer Mait Agu, the driving force behind the dance part of the program. "Then there's the psychology of small countries like our Estonia. There are only about 1 million Estonians in all the world. We come together every five years asking the question, 'What is my homeland?' And here you can see part of the answer."

The most prominent spectator at the final concert went a step further; President Lennart Meri described the festival as a kind of "security policy" until Estonia may be admitted into NATO - something it desperately wants to do, given the bitter memories of harsh repression during five decades of rule by the Soviet Union.

"You cannot conquer a people who are united in a national identity through culture," Mr. Meri said during a break in the concert.

"In former times," he adds, "these events let us feel it was the people who gave the orders to the Soviet occupation forces. For three days every five years, we were set free through our songs."

Clearly moved by this new, post-Soviet generation of singers, the former filmmaker stayed right through to the end of the show, joining tens of thousands of other spectators who sat under a sea of umbrellas due to a persistent drizzle during the last hour of the concert.

But the rain didn't dampen enthusiasm of the many choirs onstage, as each song was followed by thunderous applause from both singers and spectators.

The festival featured three separate dance performances, which took place over a two-day period, before singers and dancers marched together in a long procession from the picturesque old town center of Tallinn to an outdoor park to sing on an enormous stage designed specifically for these festivals.

Throughout, performers and many spectators alike were dressed in colorful national dress, usually flowing red-and-blue-striped dresses or pants with white shirts and blouses. Many of the women and girls upheld an ancient summer tradition by wearing crowns of flowers on their heads.

"This festival lets me feel most in touch with my people and with my country," says Aet Reinhold, who works in a Tallinn art gallery.

"We are lucky that we still have our own culture after all the years of occupation," says Riina Voolpritt, a Tallinn teacher. "It's important for our children to be connected to that. They have worked so hard to be able to come here to participate."

Long-lived traditions

The first such festival took place in 1869, a time when the country was considered a province of the czarist Russian empire but under the economic sway of a German landholding aristocracy.

Festivals were also held during the period of independence between 1918 and 1940, when at times as much as one-quarter of the country's entire population would gather to revel in the mixed repertoire of folk and independence songs.

Apart from the 1941-44 war period, when Nazi forces occupied the Baltic region, the festivals continued to be held through the decades of Soviet rule that began in 1940 - albeit with definite restrictions.

"We were forced to sing songs that glorified [Communist leader] Lenin and the Soviet motherland," says Anne Ojalo, choir leader and director of a folklore center.

"Many of our own songs were prohibited," she says. "But we sang them anyway after the main concert would end, on the way home. There was little they could do to stop it."

During a festival in 1989, singers became bolder in the selection of songs, leading some to dub Estonia the land of the "singing revolution," akin to Prague's Velvet Revolution.

Neighboring Latvia holds similar events every five years. The most poignant of these was in June 1940, when a massive song festival ended just one day before Red Army troops poured over the border to seize control of that country.

In the Latvian capital, Riga, one section of a national Museum of the Occupation contains many photographs from that particular festival showing throngs of singers in national dress, followed by exhibits documenting the mass killings and deportations that came soon thereafter.

Festival organizers in Tallinn did mention one post-Soviet change that has presented difficulties: financing. After state funding all but ended after independence in 1991, some corporate sponsors have stepped in while organizers and choir directors donate most of their time.

The festival was also notable for its complete lack of commercialism, with no souvenir trinkets or even T-shirts on sale.

"We're just happy to be able to come here to Tallinn and dance," said one young performer named Arvo as he waited with colleagues for the cue to head out onto the stadium floor.

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