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Timeline: The Singing Revolution Part 3 - Estonian I Am

In September of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the singing festival grounds to protest Soviet occupation.
Ivo Kruusamagi
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Creative Commons Atrribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License - no changes
In September of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the singing festival grounds to protest Soviet occupation.

We’ve been telling the story of the Estonian “Singing Revolution” and how non-violent, musical protest changed the course of a culture and a nation.

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By the mid 1980’s, the Soviet Union was suffering from economic stagnation. Productivity was low, morale was down and this global superpower was in danger of losing its status on the world stage. The leadership of the USSR was changing as Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Party. In order to inject new life and vigor into the USSR, Gorbachev instituted two major ideas of reform, perestroika and glasnost. These reforms, seemingly borrowed from capitalism, basically meant that there was the opportunity for economic choice and a free exchange of ideas. To put it very simply, this was a step towards a free market and freedom of speech.

In the next couple of years, some of the member states of the Soviet Union put these new ideas to the test. In February of 1987, the USSR announced a new mining project to take place in Estonia, basically strip-mining the mountains for phosphorite. Phosphorite mines had been polluting the air and water of Estonia for many decades and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Protestors stood up and talked back to the Soviets, even to Gorbachev’s face when he came to visit. There were demonstrations, slogans and yes even “phosophorite songs.” By September, the plans for the new mine were scrapped and the Estonian people started to realize their own power.

Using glasnost, this free dissemination of information, as their motivation the people of Estonia began to speak publicly again, but this time about politics and their history. Standing in public squares, the bold would question the legality of the German/Russian Pact of 1939 which was the basis for Soviet occupation. All the while, the KGB stood by listening, watching and waiting for any sign of violence. It didn’t come. The Estonians gathered in larger numbers, and continued to speak the truth of their past, their heritage and the oppression they were experiencing. They spoke and they sang.

This was the first time in 50 years that the Estonian flag had been displayed freely and openly. The next night, dozens of flags were on display waving back and forth to the beat of the music.

In June of 1988, around 100,000 Estonians gathered for five nights of non-violent protest and singing. The songs were political and patriotic anthems with titles like “The Baltics are Waking Up” and “I am Estonian and I will remain Estonian.” One night during these gatherings, an individual drove by on a motorbike with the Estonian flag waving behind. This was the first time in 50 years that the Estonian flag had been displayed freely and openly. The next night, dozens of flags were on display waving back and forth to the beat of the music.

This marked the beginning of the so called “Singing Revolution;” a revolution not of bloodshed or conflict, killing or destruction but of “singing and a smile.” With this unified purpose, the Estonian people began to push for independence. In September of ’88 they organized a demonstration at the singing festival grounds. This was to be a public forum for political discourse and song. Around 300,000 were in attendance. That was about a third of the Estonian population at the time. There were no weapons, only speaking and singing and this was their power. Through their raised voices they demanded a return to Estonian nationalism, political freedom and a restoration of the Estonian language and flag.

In our next episode, we’ll see how the Soviets responded to the “Singing Revolution.” Until then learn more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.

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