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.

Courtesy of Sky Films, Inc.
Singing revolution: Every five years since 1869, a choir of 20,000 voices or more has performed modern and traditional Estonian folk songs at Lauluvaljak amphitheater in Tallinn.

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.

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