Can culture make a difference? It did once upon a time…
In a Christmas season where war is all around us, I have a gift recommendation that celebrates the power of non-violence – a Gandhian update for the 21st century.
I’ve become friends with Estonia, thanks to the savvy and sophisticated Estonians I’ve met in the course of my work, the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves‘s witty Twitter spat with Paul Krugman (I wrote about it here), and my article on the Estonia’s Museum of Occupations – though I’ve only been as close as neighboring Lithuania and had a quick drive through Latvia.
Nevertheless, I attended a recent Stanford screening of The Singing Revolution, a 2007 documentary film by James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, from a sense of solidarity and duty, rather than any real enthusiasm. I thought it was going to be, well, a bit drippy. I was wrong.
It was sensational – powerful, moving, uplifting, with an absolutely gripping storyline. And the music is downright addictive.
Estonia, a nation of about 1.3 million people, is one of mankind’s oldest residences, yet has lived under almost continuous occupation in modern times, with the Swedes, the Poles, the Danes, the Russians, and others taking turns. In the 20th century, the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, swallowed the small nation that had enjoyed a brief, interwar independence.
What did the Estonians have to resist such a brutal and murderous totalitarian power? Their weapon of choice was song. Estonians like to sing. Obviously, not everyone is a singer, but training in choral music is pretty much nationwide, and everyone is at least exposed to it. And after all, most people can sing, even if badly. It’s better than baseball.
Even the New York Times was impressed:
Under the Soviets, especially, Estonian culture was brutishly suppressed, but it welled up every five years in July, when Estonians gathered in Tallinn for the Estonian song festival, which often drew upward of 25,000 people. The images of these festivals are moving already; the force of the singers and the precision of their conductors are stunning to behold.
But the emotion swells further when Estonians defy their occupiers by singing nationalist songs. This bold act reclaimed Estonian identity and set the stage for a series of increasingly daring rebellions under the Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who advocated glasnost and got more than he bargained for.
“If 20,000 people start to sing the same song, then you cannot shut them up. It’s impossible,” said one participant in the uprising. The New York Times again: “Imagine the scene in Casablanca in which the French patrons sing “La Marseillaise” in defiance of the Germans, then multiply its power by a factor of thousands, and you’ve only begun to imagine the force of The Singing Revolution.”
The DVDs are available here (and if you recognize a familiar voice in the narration, it’s Linda Hunt).
Meanwhile, please do yourself a favor. Watch this video. It will make you happy. Promise.