“Revolution with a Smile and a Song” – Happy Independence Day, Estonia! by Robert Anthony Peters
Twenty-one years ago, the Soviet Union looked as though it would endure forever. Twenty-one years ago, Estonia appeared to be a pawn of foreign powers in perpetuity. Twenty-one years ago today, independence was declared by this small nation. All because of song.
Estonians had unfortunately gotten used to being pushed around. Since 1208, they had only had a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1940, at which point Stalin declared that Estonia had “volunteered” to join the Soviet Union. Few were pleased. In 1947 a song which set a poem of national heritage to music had slipped by the censors at the national festival. It was quickly banned, but by the 60’s the populace was growing bolder, with an incident of a human chorus more than 100,000 strong drowning out a military band with their own proud song.
This story picks up pace in 1987 when massive protests in Estonia began, in opposition to the slightly relaxed (due to Glasnost) regime of the Soviet Empire. That summer, concerts were held with audiences reaching to numbers over 10,000 per night. Songs which had been banned by the occupation were sung by young and old, proclaiming their patriotism for their own land and people. By 1988, this tradition had been renewed and even after the official part of the festival in Tallinn was shut down, the crowds spontaneously moved to the festival song grounds on the outskirts of town to continue singing their patriotic songs through the night. With 300,000 Estonians in attendance at the “Song of Estonia” festival, leaders for autonomy began to promote independence and eventually the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration was drafted.
It was a long road of education and shows of solidarity that led up to the tense evening of August 20, 1991. Independence had been declared but Soviet forces would not go quietly. They attempted to storm Tallinn TV tower, the headquarters of Estonian TV, but were prevented through nonviolent protests inside and out of the tower. Estonia was freed and no blood had been shed.
How did this happen? “Until now, revolutions have been filled with destruction, burning, killing, and hate, but we started our revolution with a smile and a song,” reflected Heinz Valk, Estonian activist of that time. John Adams, who in writing to Thomas Jefferson queried and answered thoughts with great similarity, “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.” Unfortunately for all involved, the American Revolution was coupled with tremendous bloodshed. Fortunately, for the Estonians, it was completely unnecessary.
Last year, I had the honor of being the inaugural speaker of the Free Minds Film Festival, delivering my talk directly after a screening of the touching documentary, “The Singing Revolution.” Though I had seen it before, it always brings tears to my eyes and I was particularly struck by this comment in it from Mart Laar, first post-Soviet Prime Minister of Estonia: “The young people, without any political party, and without any politicians, just came together … not only tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands … to gather and to sing and to give this nation a new spirit.” Let us look to the shining example Estonia has set as we think of ways to make our world a freer and more peaceful place to live through voluntary means.
Robert Anthony Peters is an actor, producer and speaker on liberty and art. Email him at: email@example.com
Libertopia Oct 11–14 2012, San Diego CA