May Music be Your Weapon: the role of song and oral history in Estonian national identity 9 min read
Throughout centuries of foreign domination, Estonians and their culture were often ignored, dismissed, and oppressed. Music – singing in particular – represented a crucial way to keep the Estonian language, customs, and national awareness alive. This was especially important in the long period between the thirteenth and late nineteenth centuries where the German language was dominant in literature, culture and politics. Estonian heritage was considered something superfluous, or dangerous, to be extirpated. Estonian culture and mythology were preserved mostly in the form of songs and legends, transmitted orally from generation to generation.
The earliest examples of such music tradition are the runic songs (regilaul), dating from the last millennium BCE, before the separation of the Balto-Finnic tribes. They followed the regivärss poetic meter and were mostly sung in monophonic unison, unaccompanied and characterized by a recitative and lyrical style and by exchanges between the lead singer (the Sõnolinõ, or Mother of the Song) and the chorus.
The runic song tradition is kept alive till today in the island of Kihnu, on the Western coast of Estonia, and in the Seto Region (Setomaa) in the South-Eastern part of the country, where the Setu people also developed a polyphonic way of singing. Songs accompanied the activities of everyday life and ensured the transmission of stories and values, bonding people together and forming the basis for a national community based on shared heritage and experiences.
The turning point in the history of Estonian music in society was the nineteenth century ‘Great Awakening’ (Ärkamisaeg), when artists, musicians, and writers rediscovered Estonian language and culture; inspiring the national momentum towards the country’s first independence from Russia in 1918. It was in that period that the practice of communal singing began to pursue an artistic goal, also as a consequence of the influence of Central European and Scandinavian culture, as well as German popular songs and choral music.
This new style of choral music presents many differences from the more ancient model, no longer concerning chores and everyday activities, but historical and social themes. The new widespread expression of Estonian national identity and pride led to the first Song Festival (Laulupidu) in Tartu in 1869, which is considered a real “milestone in the Estonian national development and cultural self-determination”.
The Great Awakening of Estonian culture and folklore is to be framed in the wider context of the European nineteenth century ‘Spring of Nations’ season of Romanticism and national awakening. In Estonia, it culminated in the affirmation of a revival of paganism, based on rediscovered indigenous beliefs, embodied in the 1861 Kalevipoeg patriotic epic by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, who chose to use some elements of genuine Estonian folk song origin in his fictional reimagining. Kalevipoeg-the giant hero who fights to avenge his mother’s kidnapping and to bring freedom and happiness to his people represents the spirit of Estonian national revival.
A later attempt at restoration of ancient customs was made by the ‘Taara-belief’ religious movement, founded in 1928, which aimed at recovering the local religions of Scandinavian and Finno-Ugric origins in strong opposition to Lutheranism, which was brought by Germans and, therefore, considered as “foreign” and not readily accepted till the nineteenth century.
Soviet domination, cultural persecution, and a song of hope
After Stalin and Hitler signed the non-aggression Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, on August 23, 1939, the Soviet leader threatened the Baltic States with invasion if they refused to allow the deployment of Soviet units on their territory. Estonia had no choice but to accept this condition. The USSR eventually occupied the country in June 1940. Consequently, it killed and deported the members of the national intelligentsia and the ‘bourgeois nationalists’, labelled as ‘public enemies’, in a successful attempt to Russify the domestic political stage.
Nearly fifty years later in the wave of anti-Soviet liberation movements in the Eastern bloc, Estonia regained its independence. On August 23, 1989, around 2 million citizens of the Baltic states gathered and formed the so called ‘Baltic Way’, or ‘Baltic Chain of Freedom’, a 600 kilometres long human chain crossing the three countries, to show the Soviet power their unity and interior strength by peacefully protesting in a wonderful example of inter-state solidarity. Protesters were holding hands and singing patriotic and traditional songs. The events describing the process of liberation of Estonia from the Soviet rule are referred to as the ‘Singing Revolution’ with music often being presented as the vector of change: ‘most people don’t think about singing when thinking about revolutions. But in Estonia song was the weapon of choice’.
Today this would seem the most harmless and simple and repercussion-free way of protesting, we should remember that at that time singing patriotic songs, and in general showing any national sign or symbol referring to the pre-Soviet era, was strictly forbidden under the threat of deportation. Music, such an important element in the country’s cultural life and identity, was intended as another instrument of control, and for spreading Soviet ideology. Consequently, not only was singing out loud an authentic risk but singing patriotic songs was an act of extraordinary bravery permeated by deeper meanings of determination and freedom.
In that period of cultural and social repression, Estonians turned to their cultural heritage, seeking comfort in folk music and traditional symbols. Once again, like in 1918, the neo-paganism revival of the national myths of traditional Estonian cultural elements fostered the claim for a re-independence.
This coincided with a renewed interest and a new wave of affiliation to religious movements of neo-pagan inspiration, such as the mentioned Taara ‘Earth religion’ and the Maausk cult founded in the ‘80s. However, studies of these religions and their practices were banned under the USSR and survived only in a few private households. Worshippers and scholars had to wait until the Perestroika reformist policies to be allowed to display their interest in the native religions.
The Estonian Song Festival Laulupidu, today one of the largest choral music festivals in the world, was under the strict control of the party: from a public manifestation of Estonian musical genius, this occasion became, during the Communist era, an instrumental occasion to show the power and might of Moscow. In the first post-war song festival of 1947, despite the massive Soviet propaganda, the repertoire was still mostly traditional. The reason for this can be found both in the Soviet underestimation of the soft-skill power of culture in national affirmation, and in the ideologically profitable usage of anti-Germans patriotic songs already present in the Estonian traditional repertoire since the pre-war times. The patriotic song ‘Mu isamaa on minu arm’, which would have a leading role in the years of protest to come, was introduced for the first time. Having understood the potential gathering function of the festival for the protesters and music’s driving force, in the 1950 edition the traditional songs were removed from the program and replaced by propaganda ones and Soviet miners and army choirs were brought among the participants.
Mu Isamaa in encore protest
During the 1960 festival, ‘Mu Isamaa’ was removed from the program last-minute, causing disappointment and resentment among choristers and participants, since it had already become a “musical statement of every Estonian’s desire for freedom”. Undeterred, the crowd spontaneously started to sing Mu isamaa and other songs instead of the scheduled ones. After a moment of hesitation, the conductor Gustav Ernesaks climbed up the stage in front of the party authorities and started to conduct. “There were songs that we were supposed to sing about Lenin and Stalin, but when that singing ended people didn’t go away – they started to sing songs that they weren’t allowed to sing. [The authorities] couldn’t do anything because there were like 80,000 people. […] we feel the music very well [together]. We can just look at each other and know. It works – we have the same understanding, the same heart”, said the choral conductor Lydia Rahula.
After that, a series of peaceful singing protests all over the country eventually played an instrumental role in the final liberation of Estonia. Those non-violent protests were symbolically powerful per se, but it is necessary to underline that the reason for their success is also to be found in their timing. The protests took place as a form of national liberation, responding to the wider and more complex circumstances of the gradual decline and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. Particularly important was the Estonian reaction to the military coup of August 1991 in Moscow led by Communist hard-liners, who strongly rejected Gorbachev’s comprehensive, softened reforms and his openness towards the Western block. In Estonia, the unequivocal signal of the system’s internal weaknesses represented a precious opportunity to act towards the final goal of national independence.
The ‘Singing Revolution’
When the authors of the coup sent tanks to Estonia, Estonian protesters formed a ‘singing human shield’ around the Tallinn TV and radio station, to protect the country’s source of free information. Demonstrators sang banned songs and displayed the Estonian flag – another strictly prohibited act under Soviet rule. The failure of the Moscow coup reinforced Yeltsin’s liberal position and determined, at that point, the unstoppable process of deconstruction of the USSR. With the Soviet Union falling apart, Estonia eventually achieved independence on August 20 of the same year.
Music was the most spontaneous weapon people gathered around, having almost nothing else to defend themselves by and protect the non-negotiable value of national identity. Alongside the traditional role of music in Estonian society and awareness, choir singing remained one of the few areas in the Soviet era where private initiative and trust were still present. This helped keep the longing for freedom alive.
In the context of demonstrations for rights and freedom, a massive singing choir is like the peace-loving version of an army. An oppressive power may arrest, deport, punish, kill the individual, silence a single protester and impose censure, but can’t mute the voice of an entire nation singing peacefully, and that unified voice cannot be unheard. ‘This is only possible in Estonia. Every person who does something will be noticed, will not get lost. Every person counts. […] Everyone realizes that we need to keep the connection between generations’, explains the conductor Hirvo Surva.
The Singing Revolution, which inspired Estonia to set itself free from Soviet control, confirms that a nation can be deprived of its sovereignty, its citizens deported, and its language and identity threatened but will survive if its history and culture can be kept alive. Songs have been a life-support system for Estonian identity at times of dire need. Culture and national awareness are sometimes all you have to preserve your identity from extinction. Luckily for the now-free Estonians, this is one of the most effective and enduring powers you can have in your hands.