Singing Revolution: The Sound of a Free Nation

Eric Wendt

Singing Festival In Estonia

A lot stood between Estonia’s University of Tartu and Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1991, not the least of which were hundreds of advancing Soviet tanks. Laura Reitel (’08), an NWU political science and history alumna from Tallinn, Estonia, remembered her parents whisking her away to a back room as the tanks rolled down her street.

If the term “music festival” makes you think of Woodstock, consider this. Tens of thousands audition to perform in Estonia’s festival, known as laulupidu. The best join a 30,000-member chorus, which sings together on a single stage at these national festivals.

Those tanks and troops pushed into Estonia—a tiny state of 1.3 million people on the Gulf of Finland—to stomp out the independence movement there.

That freedom movement took hold in the late 1980s at music festivals in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. If the term “music festival” makes you think of Woodstock, consider this. Tens of thousands audition to perform in Estonia’s festival, known as laulupidu. The best join a 30,000-member chorus, which sings together on a single stage at these national festivals. Their combined voice makes Janis Joplin’s sound downright meek.

Estonia’s laulupidu dates back to 1869, but the festival changed dramatically under Soviet rule. Estonia’s nationalistic folk songs were replaced by those praising the Soviet state. Singing the old songs could lead to an arrest (and a long train ride to a Siberian labor camp).

The old songs went underground. But, as the Soviet Union weakened, those songs came trickling back to the surface. When the songs reappeared with growing force at concerts and festivals in the late ‘80s, it put the Soviet police in a difficult spot. They could easily stomp out small groups. But the crowds drawn to these songs were huge. Shut down a concert and it regathered only larger and louder in a nearby field.

The tanks came in 1991 to stop the music.

But by then, Estonia’s Singing Revolution had grown. And what are tanks to a million voices singing?