Most people of a certain age remember Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity movement of the early 1980s and the day the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. Others may recall Czechoslovakia’s inspiring Velvet Revolution a few weeks later, or the bloodier Christmas Day executions of Romania’s odious Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Yet when you tell people that the tiny Baltic country of Estonia engineered a Singing Revolution to cast off their Soviet oppressors, the typical response is a blank stare.
James Tusty, a commercial and corporate filmmaker whose father emigrated from Estonia in 1924, first started hearing about the ways Estonians used nationalist folk songs and modern rock to defy Moscow when he and his wife, Maureen Castle Tusty, taught a film course in the Estonian capital of Tallinn in 1999.
The Tustys realized they were in a unique position to tell the world an inspirational story it did not know. The result, a moving 90-minute documentary called The Singing Revolution, became the highest-grossing documentary in Estonian history and has drawn rave reviews upon its limited release in the United States. The film is scheduled to be shown April 18–19 at the Cleveland Museum of Art and April 18–24 at the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C.
Editor in Chief Matt Welch spoke with James Tusty in January.
Q: How did songs become an essential part of the Estonian revolution?
A: Music has always been part of Estonian history. For thousands of years the Estonians have been singing folk songs. They have one of the largest collections of folk songs in the world, even though they’re a very small country. So it was very natural that music would become part of the weapon that they would use to fight the Soviets. They have this song festival every five years called Laulupidu, which is 30,000 singers coming on stage to sing in harmony. And it’s not any 30,000 people who want to sing; these people audition, so it’s the best 30,000 singers.
Well, in 1947 Stalin had already come in and occupied Estonia. He declared the song festival a “bourgeois tradition,” and he declared the first annual Soviet Song Festival, making the Estonians sing songs in Russian that glorified Lenin and Stalin and Marx. But the Estonians snuck one by. That song became the unofficial national anthem in Estonia, and for the next 50 years they always sang it to close the Song Festivals.
Q: So what happened in the late ’80s?
A: In June of 1988, there was a rock concert with, I don’t know how many, tens of thousands of youth who were there singing into the night. The Soviet authorities got worried, and they shut down the concert. So the people walked three miles to an open field to continue singing, and they sang until five or six in the morning. And it went on for a week. Every night more and more people came until there were maybe 100,000 to 150,000 people singing these rock ’n’ roll songs, as well as some traditional songs. The Soviet police saw this, but they didn’t know what to do. And the Estonians just kept on pushing that envelope, until eventually they contributed significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Q: What broader lesson did you learn from this story?
A: What this film is about is humankind’s indomitable drive for independence. If there’s a reason to see the film, it’s to start understanding liberty and freedom at a base level. I reduce freedom to this reality: I don’t want my neighbor telling me what color to paint my living room. Let’s get it down to that, and then let’s move out from that slowly, and talk about what political systems give us all the individual freedom we need.
This is not a political film. This is a story. And you will cry in the beginning and feel uplifted in the end, I promise.