Estonia is a small country, one of three Baltic States between Russia and Europe. Its strategic location has subjected it to almost continuous occupation throughout its long history. Gaining independence in 1920 the Estonians had less than two decades of freedom before World War II began. Then the Soviet Union invaded and, except for a short Nazi occupation, Estonia was firmly held behind the Iron Curtain for the next 50 years.
The documentary film The Singing Revolution tells the story of Estonia’s struggle for freedom from Soviet domination. It is a remarkable and nearly unknown history. But there is an almost unique subtext to the story. Estonians have a very strong tradition of choral singing. In 1869 a national song festival, the Lauliupidu, was begun and held at roughly 5 year intervals. In 1947, during the first Lauliupidu under Soviet occupation, an Estonian composer set to music a century-old national poem “Mu Isamaa on minu arm“ (“Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love”). It was sung at the festival and instantly became the unofficial National Anthem and a rallying cry for Estonian independence.
These festivals were not just various regional choirs participating in some competition or exhibition. They were (and are) mass singing events with an average of 30 thousand participants and even more attendees. This in a country with a current population of about 1.3 million.
In 1969 the Soviets forbade singing “Mu Isamaa” at the festival, as they had finally come to realize its significance. But the tens of thousands of singers on the massive festival stage sang it anyway – multiple times – in defiance of the authorities.
The term ‘Singing Revolution’ was the name given to the escalating protests from the 1980s until independence in 1991. Singing was always integrally woven into the mostly non-violent resistance effort. In 1988 a massive song festival was held with nearly 300,000 people attending and participating – almost one quarter of the entire population. Political leaders spoke – calling for independence. Think: Woodstock meets Nationalism. Estonia’s eventual freedom was, in part, due to external events and actors in Russia – Gorbachev, glasnost, Boris Yeltsin. But the internal pressure came from the unremitting national will, galvanized through singing.
The filmmakers began shooting at the 2004 Lauliupidu - with insufficient funds. But otherwise they would have been forced to wait until the 2009 festival. Compilation and editing took two years. On December 1, 2006, the film premiered in the Estonian capital. It has since been shown extensively in Europe but only in a limited 2008 U.S. release. Consult their web site for a list of future dates and locations.
As I watched the film this past week it took only about a minute for me to recognize I was almost completely ignorant of all these events, even though I’m sufficiently old that they all took place during my adulthood. An entire story of suffering and striving for independence. And I knew nothing. Well, to paraphrase comedian Steven Wright – you can’t know everything. Where would you put it? And I’m certainly not alone. Our ‘gaze’ is limited by time and opportunity, not to mention our selective interests. But even if we diligently sought for such stories, how many other equally poignant and tragic stories have long been lost to our collective world-memory?
We cannot, of course, plug all the holes of our ignorance. And, for me, the primary value of this story was not to fill in an Estonian-shaped history hole. I was asking myself, what is it about music that can carry this much power, emotion and hope? Enough to help motivate an entire nation to resolutely press forward toward fulfilling their dream.
There is an important parallel to consider I think – for Christians generally and Adventists specifically. Why is hymnody in all of its forms so valuable in transmitting the message and hope of our faith? Have you ever sung A Mighty Fortress in a large congregation and felt transcendent emotion? How about Amazing Grace? For me the defining Adventist hymn is We Have This Hope, written by the recently deceased former King's Heralds member, Wayne Hooper. He composed it in 1962 and it was the theme song for the 1966 General Conference in Detroit, Michigan. Now the Detroit area is where I grew up. And as a teen I attended that GC. I remember almost nothing about it. But I do remember the entire Cobo Hall arena singing We Have This Hope. And I was enthralled. Such is the value and depth of music. Blaise Pasal once wrote “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”. And he was not criticizing reason, rather recognizing there is much more to being fully human. It seems to me that music travels straight to our souls along this ‘Pascalian’ route. Which is why it has such power and also carries its own danger.
To get a taste of this power in its Estonian context, here is their national song “Mu isamma on minu arm” as performed at the 2004 Lauliupidu.
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.