Political uncertainty in Ukraine over recent months, intensified by the shooting-down of Malaysian Airline flight MH17, and the recent abduction of an Estonian security official by Russia, have brought anxiety to many in Estonia, where the Diocese of Rochester is linked with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Such anxiety is not surprising because it was only twenty years ago that Estonians finally shook off the last shackles of half a century’s domination by Russia. And Russia is a direct neighbour of Estonia.
It was in this atmosphere that on two warm days in July, one hundred and fifty thousand Estonians (over one tenth of the population of the country) gathered in the capital of Tallinn for their national song festival which takes place every five years. It was the first time I have listened to a choir of twenty-three thousand and yet, despite the numbers, it felt as intimate as being invited to dinner by friends who wanted to tell you the story of their country, but instead of speaking about it, they sang it. Although I could not understand the language, their singing communicated the joy and aspirations, the pain and despair which have been a part of Estonia’s history. I can imagine that this festival would have spoken particularly deeply to the hearts of Estonians who remembered what it was like under Soviet rule, because it was singing their national songs that played a large part in bringing their freedom. Singing is a major part of Estonian identity.
The five-yearly song festival was established in 1849, but after being occupied by the Soviets in 1944, the songs which they could sing were censored in a move to deprive Estonians of self-expression. For a country whose identity was shaped by singing, to be forbidden to sing your own songs was an assault on the nation’s soul. You were far more likely to hear Russian rather than Estonian songs at the festival. The worst time was in 1950 when Estonia stood to sing but remained silent as a protest. It was a very low time in Estonian history. One elderly man I met told me that in 1949, when he was 16 years old, he was imprisoned for seven years for possessing a banned book called The Real Biography of Stalin. Many dissenters were sent to Siberia and never seen again. Even today, major churches in some towns have boxes of Siberian earth to memorialize this time. One of the canons’ stalls in Rochester Cathedral is dedicated to Aksel Voreema, an outspoken priest in Tartu (Estonia’s second city) who, in 1941, was arrested, tortured and murdered. His body was found in the prison well.
A major change happened in 1987 when Estonians gathered in public places to sing songs, in Estonian, that were strictly forbidden. In 1988 there was a pop festival in Tartu where five patriotic songs were sung against the law. Doing this so publicly was particularly symbolic here because Tartu was home to a huge Soviet air base built to launch attacks against the West. Four months later, this time in the capital Tallinn, a massive song festival was held that drew nearly three hundred thousand people – more than a quarter of the population. By this time, Soviet rule was weakening and political leaders joined in by demanding independence. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Estonia formally gained independence in 1991. Singing their national songs enabled the people to reconnect with their national soul. The events which led to Estonian independence are called the Singing Revolution and the Song Festival Grounds outside Tallinn were called ‘our last battlefield.’
These events of the past were recalled in the 2014 Song Festival. The struggles under Soviet rule are recalled in Dawn, written in 1948:
Again it’s time to stand up straight
And Cast off our shackles
That everything once created
Could together be born again.
It’s dawn, a majestic blaze.
Victory of the light awakes the land.
Free is the horizon, and the first ray
Will soon touch the land.
The stadium was electric with emotion when over one hundred and fifty thousand voices sang Mu Isamaa, originally written for the first song festival in 1869 and which had sustained Estonians through their most difficult times:
Land of my fathers, land that I love,
I’ve given my heart to her,
I sing to you, my supreme happiness,
My flourishing Estonia!
Your pain boils in my heart,
Your happiness and joy make me happy too,
Land of my fathers.
A former President of Estonia put the songs and singing into context when he said:
Song celebrations are not about fashion. They are about the heart. Like Estonian language and mind, like love. Fashion comes and goes: the nation and the state remain. Songs have been our weapons and Song celebrations our victories.
As well as songs from the past, new songs are composed and popular songs rock the stadium: the singing and the cheering (and there is a lot of cheering) can be heard half a mile away from the stadium. There is a delightful relationship between choirs and audience who frequently sing together and, between songs, will share the ‘peace’ in the form of a Mexican wave. The choir conductors are very dramatic in their gestures (you have to be to connect to a choir of twenty-three thousand) and they are treated like rock stars.
Tallinn is a beautiful city where the old and new naturally co-exist: it has a joie de vivre in the summer (and I have been there in winter temperatures of -15ºC) and particularly over the days of the Song Festival. People in national dress and people in shorts and t-shirts thronged the streets making their way to the festival. There were young and old, from communities across the country and beyond. There were babies in push-chairs and elderly in wheel chairs. There were business professionals and artisans. But it was most clear that when they entered the stadium and began to sing, they were all Estonians.
Link (Diocesan Newspaper) September 2014