September 19, 2009
On the way to Estonia, aboard the Explorer, we watched a remarkable documentary called “The Singing Revolution,” about the history and independence of that little country. I suppose I was reading the New York Times around the time of Estonia’s indepdence, 1991, but I had very little idea of what a dramatic, brave, and bloodless revolution Estonia underwent.
The history of the Baltic countries, of course, is dramatic and terrible. Peter the Great loved the place because it was an ice-free port, and visited 11 times. During the chaos of the Russian Revolution, Estonians managed to become independent, only to lose their independence again under the secret clause of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). From then on, they were caught between these two superpowers. They suffered deportation to Siberia and work camps; twenty percent of the population was shot by the Russians or sent to Siberia, 7% fled. When the Germans invaded, they had to join up or be shot; when the Soviets came back, they were punished for having collaborated. When the Soviets “liberated” the Estonians again from the Germans, they sent all the students and intellectuals to Siberia again, and Estonians lived under strict Soviet rule until 1991. They lived double lives, keeping traditions at home and singing folksongs, and pretending to be good Soviets in public, not daring to even confide to neighbors or friends.
The Singing Revolution, and the accompanying book by Priit Vetilind—an Estonian National Geographic writer who is on board—described the daring steps toward independence Estonians took during the opening of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika.
In Estonia, we had a chance to meet some of the people from the film, a couple whose grandparents had been sent to Siberia, and Trivirus Velliste, who was head of the independent party and then Estonia’s Ambassador to the UN after independence. He described the small steps they took under Gorbachev, always pushing the limits of perestroika and glasnost. They started an Estonian heritage society, at first doing seemingly innocuous things like cleaning up old cemeteries and restoring monuments. “We’d take a small step, nothing would happen, and then another step,” he said. Gorbachev was sensitive to US media coverage of violence against the Baltic states, especially after Lithuanian protestors were televised being crushed by tanks. So they kept pushing: The Estonian flag was banned, so they flew three flags with the blue, black, and white colors side by side. When they had to sing Soviet songs at the Singing Festival, and Estonian folksongs they loved were banned, they sang the folksongs anyway. The story is moving and triumphant, about the willingness of people to stand up for their culture despite everything, and the amazing fact that the culture can not only survive, but thrive.
A few key moments in the chronology, from singingrevolution.com:
CHRONOLOGY OF THE REVOLUTION
1986 TO 1994
§ 1986: Non-approved environmental demonstrations concerning the development of
phosphorite mines test the limits of glasnost.
§ August 23, 1987: Political demonstration protesting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pactheld in Tallinn’s Hirve Park.
§ October 1987: An Estonian flag is put up at a demonstration in the War of Independence cemetery in Voru. It is not taken down.
§ December 12, 1987: Founding of the Estonian Heritage Society.
§ January 1988: The Estonian National Independence Party is formed.
§ April 1–2, 1988: Heritage Society demonstration in Tartu where blue, black, and white banners are flown.
§ June 10–17, 1988: Night song protests: a hundred thousand Estonians gather each night for a week to sing protest songs all night.
§ June 1988: Gorbachev replaces hard-line Estonian Communist leader Karl Vaino with childhood friend and relative moderate Vaino Väljas.
§ Summer–Fall 1988: Organized primarily by the Heritage Society and the Independence Party, 860,000 Estonians sign a petition disavowing the legality of the Soviet occupation and declaring themselves citizens of the Republic of Estonia.
§ September 11, 1988: Mass demonstration (“Eestimaa Laul”) organized by the Popular Front. 300,000–400,000 people attend.
§ January 1989: The Estonian Supreme Soviet declares Estonian the national language of Estonia.
§ February 24, 1989: Estonian flag is raised over Pikk Hermann Tower for the first time since Stalin took over Estonia in 1940.
§ August 23, 1989: The Baltic Chain: more than one million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians hold hands across 600 km to protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
§ December 24, 1989: In a dramatic political debate in Moscow, Gorbachev is forced to admit that secret clauses in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
§ August 19–21, 1991: Attempted coup d’état in Moscow by Communist Party hardliners.
Gorbachev taken under house arrest. Yeltsin leads opposition to the hardliners.
§ August 20, 1991: A joint vote of the Congress of Estonia and the Estonian Supreme
Soviet (now the Estonian Supreme Council) officially restores the Republic of
§ August 21, 1991: The coup collapses in Moscow.
§ September 17, 1991: Estonia admitted to the United Nations.
§ August 31, 1994: The last Russian troops leave Estonia.
Tillann is a medieval jewel, with steep roofs, a beautiful orthodox Russian church, cobblestone streets, and walls separating the high town, where the nobles lived, from the low town, where there were commoners. In the morning, the huge cruise ships had disgorged their passengers and it was impossible to enjoy the town. In the afternoon and evening, the town came alive, with kids skipping across the plaza, people drinking beer in cafes and wandering around, a goreous little town.
We had a yummy meal at Restoran Nevskij, a Russian place with cushions and a parrot, with red caviar and champagne…
Photos by Casey McSpadden