Friday, August 19, 2011

Voices of Estonia: The Singing Revolution

Imagine thirty-thousand Estonians all singing in harmony. It may sound like a colossal Coca-Cola commercial, but for the Soviets it proved to be a nightmare. The word “inspirational” now sounds trite from overuse, but it truly applies to The Singing Revolution (trailer here), principle producer-directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty’s documentary account of Estonia’s uniquely musical struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, which airs tomorrow on PBS in New York.

One of the many revelations of Singing is the extent of the Estonian resistance to their Soviet occupiers, most notably from the “Forest Brothers” partisans, last of whom were finally captured in 1978. However, the Estonian singing traditions ultimately proved more galvanizing in the ongoing resistance to the Soviets than armed insurrection. Central to this story is the quinquennial Laulupidu Song Festival, which had repeatedly been the scene of mass defiance to the illegitimate Soviet Rule.

For instance, the Party tried to coop the 1947 Song Festival as a celebration of Stalin’s regime, but an Estonian composer slipped past the censors a song based on the patriotic Estonian poem “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love,” immediately establishing it as the underground national hymn. The 1969 festival was again the scene of national self-assertion, as tens of thousands of Estonians spontaneously broke into their forbidden anthem. Indeed, these song festivals proved to be the model for mass demonstrations against their Soviet oppressors during the waning days of Glasnost, defining the Estonian democracy movement.

Throughout Singing, the filmmakers make the history of Soviet oppression crystal clear throughout eye-witness testimony. It vividly describes the 1939 Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation under terms of the Molotov-Rippentrop (so-called Hitler-Stalin) Pact, which divided Eastern Europe between the two dictators, resulting in mass executions and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Estonians to Siberia.

Still, Singing takes pains to be fair to every party involved in the Singing Revolution. Even Vaino Väljas, the final Estonian Party Secretary appointed by Moscow, is given credit for gracefully accepting the will of the people. Other Estonian Communists, particularly ethnic Russians, were not so civilized, but amazingly, the Singing Revolution would be entirely bloodless.

Singing is a very well put together film, featuring several musical selections shrewdly chosen for both illustrative and dramatic effect. The Tustys collected some amazing archival footage and conducted many insightful interviews. Wisely, they completely eschewed the usual talking head academics, in favor of the people who really lived the story. Linda Hunt’s narration is also quite clear and authoritative, yet also rather warm and sensitive.

More than just a lesson in history and politics, Singing is about courage, both on the individual and national level. It is about the two lone police officers charged with protecting the country’s only radio transmitter tower from the invading Soviet army. It is also about hundreds of thousands of Estonians who took to the streets to protest the Soviets and to protect their Estonian government from rioting Communists counter-revolutionaries.

The stories of Singing are truly moving, especially when accompanied by the stirring large scale chorale music of Laulupidu. These events should be common knowledge, yet the recent history of the Estonian Singing Revolution, the Czech Velvet Revolution, and other such courageous movements seeking freedom from Communist rule, are being ignored, forgotten or otherwise discounted by the ADHD media.

Singing is an excellent antidote. It should be seen by every student in America, as it speaks directly about what it means to be a citizen and to live in a free society. Happily, Singing has been airing on PBS affiliates across the country this month (in a cut somewhat abbreviated from the excellent theatrical release, but still very good nonetheless), including New York’s Channel Thirteen, which will broadcast it tomorrow afternoon (8/20) at 3:00 PM.