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The Singing Revolution


By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/28/2008

At the 1947 edition of the Laulupidu, the Estonian song festival, the conductor finished the program with "Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love," which dated from the 1869 debut song festival, a piece that set 19th-century Estonian poet Lydia Koidula's verse to music. It was a late concession since the occupying Soviet Union forbade the Estonian Republic's official national anthem from being sung. There was no nationalism under communism, you see, as all art--including pieces at the Song Festival, which gathered in one place roughly 25,000 singers from around a country of approximately 1 million people--served the collective glory of the Soviet state. But the Estonian conductor practically sneaked this song into the repertoire, which the censors allowed--perhaps because it is such a simple, nostalgic, and woozily romantic song about land and the like. And for the next half-century, this one song would become a unifying symbol of Estonia's opposition to occupying rule and eventual revolution.

That 50-year time span is the heart of directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty's admittedly mushy but ultimately heartwarming and moving documentary The Singing Revolution. In interviews with activists and participants from Estonia's recent past, the directors chronicle the country's slow climb out of Stalin's repressive rule--as awful here as it was everywhere else--toward freedom, especially during the slow trickle-down of rights during glasnost and perestroika. It's a touching, remarkable narrative--Estonia achieved independence entirely without violence, even so much as permitting an opposition pro-Soviet rally to pass peacefully through their ranks during a standoff--rendered even more potent by so many people who witnessed it still being around to discuss it.

Even better, the documentary offers an informative précis history of Estonia and the Baltic States under Soviet rule, those often forgotten upper European peoples overlooked for the more stirring events of the Prague Spring of 1968, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and 1989's Romanian coup and Velvet Revolution. And one of the most compelling facets of this region were the Forest Brothers, a group of men who took to the woods following the Soviet occupation post-World War II and lived in underground tunnels and enforcements, waging guerrilla war with Soviet troops. A still-surviving former Estonian Forest Brother in the documentary remembers that they felt that as long as they were alive, had a weapon in their hand, and had Estonian soil under their feet, they would never surrender. He was a Forest Brother for eight years before being captured, tortured, and sentenced to 25 years hard labor--but the last Forest Brother wasn't found until 1978. Such is but one of countless compelling tales of everyday humans becoming heroic found in this engaging documentary.

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