Minneapolis, Minnesota

Can culture save a nation?

This question is posed and answered resoundingly by James and Maureen Tusty in “The Singing Revolution,” their 2006 film celebrating the non-violent process leading to the re-establishment of Estonian independence in 1991.

The film will show at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis through July 10. I learned of it and attended at the invitation of a friend who fled from the communists in Estonia in 1945. After years in other countries, my friend was admitted to the United States in 1964.

Estonia is the most northern of the three Baltic states, and is bordered by Russia on the East, the Baltic Sea on the West, and Latvia on the South. After maintaining relative independence from 6,000 B.C., Estonia succumbed to a 19-year invasion by the forces of Pope Innocent III in 1227. Thereafter, it endured domination by aggressors from all directions.

Music has been a central part of Estonian culture for centuries, and the Great Awakening of the 1860s led to establishment in 1869 of the music festival called Laulupidu. The festival is held in July every five years in Tartu, and features 25,000 to 30,000 singers massed at the same time on an outdoor stage.

The first festival introduced “Land of my Fathers, Land that I Love,” a national poem set to music that became a staple of the country’s cultural life.

Estonians took advantage of the chaos surrounding Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution to establish their independence from Russian rule in 1918. Russia renounced “in perpetuity” all rights to Estonia’s territory in the 1920 Treaty of Tartu.

Estonia blossomed culturally, politically, and economically for 19 years.

Until. Among other provisions, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, divided the territory of Europe between the empires of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. After Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, Stalin invaded Estonia and took over the government of its one million inhabitants. In June 1940, the Russians rounded up the country’s political and business leaders and killed them outright or shipped them to hard labor in Siberia.

In 1941, the Germans invaded while on their way to Russia. By 1945, the Russians returned. At the end of World War II, a fourth of Estonia’s population had been lost through execution, imprisonment, deportation, and escape.

The first, post-war Laulupidu was held in 1947. For the occasion, Gustav Ernesales composed a revised version of “Land of my Fathers, Land that I Love.” It slipped past Stalin’s censors and became the country’s unofficial national anthem. Subsequent festivals concluded two days of odes to the glories of socialism with a round of Estonian folks songs culminating in mass singing of “Land.”

That did not change even for the festival’s centennial in 1969 when the Soviets banned the song. At the end of that year’s festival, 25,000 singers refused to leave the stage until tens of thousands of people sang “Land” several times.

The festivals kept hope alive in the nation’s soul. In the years following the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as president of the Soviet Union in 1985, the Estonian people put his policies of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (free speech) to the test, first emboldened to sing forbidden patriotic songs at public gatherings.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had never been recognized by international law, was challenged openly, and assertions were made that Estonia never had ceased to be an independent nation.

Jump ahead to 1991 and the death throes of the Soviet Union. Soviet renegades placed Gorbachev under house arrest in Moscow. Competing factions in Estonia united to declare independence before the arrival of Soviet troops sent to crush the independence movement. Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, faced down the military to declare Russia’s secession from the Soviet Union.

The rest is becoming ancient history.

The Tustys mix interviews, archival footage, and filming from the 2004 Laulupidu to tell an inspiring story of patient endurance and triumph. In one climactic scene, unarmed people link arms to confront tanks and rifles at the television tower to keep “what is really happening” on the airwaves.

One wonders how many Americans would stand up to tanks to keep CNN, Fox News, and the rest of them broadcasting.

“The Singing Revolution” received its first showing in Tallinn, December 1, 2006. The film’s website contains history, music, and more.

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