The Singing Revolution: 2 Million Joined Hands and Sang for Their Freedom

Sometimes, wars are won not with tanks and guns. They are won with pure human determination for freedom.

Every five years in Estonia, there is an event called Laulupidu, where 10s of thousands of singers gather together to sing. This year’s event sounded interesting, and even though I didn’t have a chance to go, I started looking into the tradition. What I found was quite amazing.

Estonians have celebrated some version of this event since the mid-1800s. Collective singing runs in their blood. But, the events that led up to what has been dubbed as the “Singing Revolution” and the “Baltic Way” are enough to send chills down your spine, make you choke up a little, and reaffirm our belief in the best of humanity.

First, the USSR Came

In 1939, the Soviet Navy sent warships to Estonia’s harbors and Soviet bombers began patrolling over the area around Tallinn. Moscow left Estonia little choice other than to allow the USSR to establish Soviet military bases and station 25,000 troops for the duration of the European war.

From there, Russia sought to gain complete control over the Baltic states, ordering for the total military blockade of Estonia while the world watched the fall of Paris to Nazi Germany. Then, they raided the border posts of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia as Stalin claimed that the 1939 mutual assistance treaties had been violated. He gave each country only six hours to form new governments, or else. Of course, the new governments would need to be formed using only a list of persons the Kremlin created.

Given the force that had already been shown by the USSR, the fact they were surrounded on both borders and inundated with Soviet soldiers already inside the country, Estonia had no choice but to try to maintain what little peace there was and decided not to resist.

But, soon after, the bloody takeover still happened. By 1940, the Soviets sought to utterly annihilate any remnants of what the Baltic states had once been, erasing their heritage, and murdering anyone who resisted. Pro-Communist propaganda reigned supreme amid rigged “elections” with voters given only a single choice in who was to rule over them. Estonians were threatened if they didn’t appear to vote in newspaper headlines that read “It would be extremely unwise to shirk elections. … Only people’s enemies stay at home on election day.”

According to official election results, the Communist “Union of the Estonian Working People” bloc won 92.8% of the votes with 84.1% of the population attending the elections. ~ Wikipedia

After denying any intention of setting up a Soviet regime in Estonia, they began using the election results as “proof” that this was what the Estonian people wanted. The Soviets then began openly speaking of Estonia’s incorporation into the USSR. The first order of business for the new government: Petition to join the Soviet Union.

And, so, as the story goes for this form of authoritarian Communism, the famines, genocide, deportations to the gulag, environmental destruction, and forced assimilation began. For the next several decades, Estonians would find themselves on the brink of annihilation. Only a few remained resistant, in secret, of course. Some, called the Forest Brothers, hid in the forest for years. A documentary called “The Singing Revolution” was made that explores the story much more in-depth.

The Singing Revolution & The Baltic Way

While under Soviet rule, The Soviets believed the tradition of Laulupidu would be a great opportunity to push their propaganda. So, Estonia was allowed to continue with the one rule that no Estonian songs were to be sung, only songs that honored the USSR. But, in 1947, Estonians had something else in mind. A national poem called Mu isamaa on minu arm (translating as “My Fatherland is My Love”) had been written more than 100 years prior, and now was composed into a song to be sung at the festival. Suddenly, 25,000 voices were singing an homage to Estonia, and this slipped past the Soviets. At that moment, it became the national anthem and remains so to this day. That was the beginning of the Singing Revolution, but it wasn’t the end.

As the USSR began to struggle in the 1970s and 80s, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians began to slowly wiggle in more and more ways to quietly resist the Soviet rule. Gorbachev was allowing some forms of free speech and protest, so long as the dissent was aimed only at the environmental concerns over a proposed phosphorite mine. The Baltic states saw it as a way to slowly and gently slip in other forms of dissent over the USSR.

The series of events lasted more than four years, with several more singing protests of increasing boldness expressing anger for what the Soviets had done to them. On August 23, 1989, a day that marked the 50th anniversary of the pact that Russia and Germany had entered into during WWII leading to the occupation of the Baltics, the Baltic Chain of Freedom formed. Consisting of more than 2 million people across all three countries, it spanned across 419 miles and connected each country’s capitals of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.

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Source: Wikipedia

The people would be silent no longer. They stopped fearing backlash from the USSR and pushed hard for their freedom. The human chain was garnering worldwide attention and the voices of the people were being heard for the first time in over 50 years.

But, it wasn’t without some violent clashes. Tensions ran very high. After Estonia declared it illegal to fly the Soviet Flag and feeling like they were being pushed out of their home of Estonia, Russian protesters once stormed Toompea Castle, threatening to tear apart the leaders of the revolution. It looked as though there was going to be a coup.

An emergency radio broadcast from the Prime Minister went out to Estonians to come help. And, within minutes, Estonians were rushing there in droves. Suddenly, the Russians found themselves trapped inside the gates, with thousands of Estonians surrounding them outside the gates.

The Estonian crowd chanted “Freedom” and “Estonia” and sang while those who watched waited for violence to break out. But, the Estonians didn’t lose their cool. Eventually, the crowd parted and allowed the Interfront protestors to walk away unscathed. That’s just how Estonians roll. Cool, and calm.

No longer able to hide the crimes of the past, Gorbachev had no choice but to admit to the world that their occupation of the Baltics was illegal. Within seven months, Lithuania was the first country to announce it was leaving the Soviet Republic and declared their independence. Latvia and Estonia followed in 1990, and officially by 1991, all three were out from under the Soviets.

To this day, tensions are still palpable between Russians and Estonians, but they coexist together in a new, more powerful than ever before Estonia. Every year, though, Moscow still conducts fireworks displays that celebrate the fall of Tallinn, much to the ire of Estonians.

The Power of Peaceful Protest & Patience

They told their children stories about the history of Estonia only in private and made them swear not to speak about it in public, for fear of execution or imprisonment. It was not easy for them to keep their patience, but they did. They used their intelligence to wait for the optimal time to begin covert resistance. They chose singing and unity over violence and destruction.

When the tanks appeared to squash their spirit, they held firm. When the Interfront crashed the gates, they sent the offenders walking in shame and fear. And, when Gorbachev threatened, they raised their voices even louder.

A Personal Note

I often label myself as a supporter of communism. I support collectivism for the betterment of all, not just for some. But, the failed USSR is not a story of true communism. It is a story of disgusting authoritarianism disguised as communism. True communism has never occurred on a large-scale. Every country who has claimed it, usually only aims to enrich a few, not all.

And, very soon, because of automation and technology, we are going to be faced with making a decision to either watch capitalism do the same thing to the masses that occurred under the USSR, or transition to a new system. One that has never been done before. One that differs for reasons such as there is no need for human labor like the gulags. No need for authoritarianism. For more on that:

It is our choice whether we follow the example of the Baltics and remain vigilant & united, or fall prey to the goons with the guns who seek only to control and enrich themselves.

New World Optimist - I 🖤 asking “What if?” -Leveraging the power of techno-optimism to improve the human condition in exciting and thought-provoking ways.

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