Estonia's 'Singing Revolution' In 1987, tens of thousands of Estonians rallied, singing traditional patriotic songs. A new film documents this turning point in Estonia's struggle for liberation from Soviet rule. We speak to the filmmakers.

Estonia's 'Singing Revolution'

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm James Hattori.

Imagine if David vanquished Goliath, not with a stone but a song.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing)

Unidentified Woman #1: It was an extraordinary show of mass defiance in the Baltic region of the Soviet Union.

Unidentified Man #1: If 20,000 people start to sing one song, then you just cannot shut them up. It's impossible.

HATTORI: In the 1980s, residents of Estonia tried to free their land from Soviet rule using the power of music. A new film, "The Singing Revolution," documents the events leading up to Estonia's liberation.

Producer Derek Rath has more.

DEREK RATH: Estonia lies between Russia and the Baltic Sea. Over centuries of foreign domination, right up through the 20th century, Estonia's culture survived in folk songs.

(Soundbite of singing)

RATH: This is the sound of thousands of Estonians singing in unison. Singing is a national passion marked by a huge song festival held every five years.

Director Jim Tusty...

Mr. JIM TUSTY: There are about 30,000 singers onstage at the same time who are not self-selected. They have to audition. Think of it as half of Yankee Stadium during the World Series singing in harmony.

(Soundbite of singing)

RATH: This festival was never intended to become a flashpoint for a revolution, but it did.

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: Archival footage shows a free Estonia in 1939 about to fall once again under foreign control.

Mr. TUSTY: Stalin and Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that essentially was the document that coordinated Nazi and Soviet efforts to dominate Europe.

RATH: A line was drawn down through Europe. Poland went to Hitler and Estonia essentially disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

At war's end, the Western powers accepted Stalin's promise of free elections for Estonia. Estonia would have to wait for more than 50 years.

Mr. TUSTY: Under these harshest of conditions when people were being arrested and killed and sent to Siberia, Estonians still always held hope for a free Estonia. At some point they wanted control over their own destiny.

But perhaps even more remarkable in my mind is after 40 years of occupation and three generations of a school system teaching you that you are a Soviet citizen and Estonia no longer exists, they still could not squash the desire for self-control and freedom and independence.

RATH: The song festival was co-opted for Soviet propaganda purposes. But the Estonians struck back. They slipped in a new song, sung in their native tongue, "Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love." Its significance bypassed the Soviets. And it became the clandestine national anthem.

(Soundbite of song, "Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love")

RATH: "The Singing Revolution" (unintelligible) right in the middle of the Estonian struggle for freedom. It was the '80s. Glasnost was in full swing. The Soviet economy was in bad shape. And the Estonians became more emboldened.

Co-director Maureen Castle Tusty explains what happened next.

Ms. MAUREEN CASTLE TUSTY: June 1988 is one of the most remarkable impromptu protests that happened throughout this whole period. The hall was just filled with people in this open, open arena. The songs just kept going and going.

And eventually the Soviet authorities shut them down and said you cannot sing here anymore. So people walked five kilometers to the song festival grounds. Thousands of people showed up and they sang protest songs throughout the night.

RATH: Those who were there remember it well.

(Soundbite of singing)

Unidentified Woman #2: So we went there with a friend. And it was great to see that all the strangers, they were just singing like one man. And we were hand in hand and it was great.

Ms. CASTLE TUSTY: At this event, this is where you suddenly have an auditorium, a sea of people waving flags that they have brought from home that they had hid or their parents had hid for nearly 50 years.

(Soundbite of singing)

RATH: Three hundred thousand people singing in the streets did not go unnoticed by the Kremlin. But the Soviet Union was in disarray and indecision ruled.

(Soundbite of singing)

RATH: "The Singing Revolution" takes you right up to the 11th hour. In 1991, with Soviet tanks surrounding Estonia's broadcasting tower, Estonia declared its independence. Twenty-four hours later, Russia did the same. Did the Estonians succeed through political strategy or luck? To an Estonian, it doesn't really matter.

Unidentified Man #2: It's very important that the Estonians were able to save the language. They were able to save the culture. They were able to save the national soul of the Baltic Celts. They were able to save something which can be called Estonianist.

RATH: For NPR News, this is Derek Rath.

HATTORI: You can see the film "The Singing Revolution" now in Los Angeles. It opens Friday in New York City.

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