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Revolution by Song: Choral Singing and Political Change in Estonia

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After being subsumed by the Soviet Union during World War II, Estonia suffered greatly during occupation. But one area that the Soviet authorities could not completely control was Estonia’s tradition of “Song Festivals”. Sung primarily in the Estonian language, these choral festivals lasted through Soviet rule, and became the bedrock for preserving Estonian culture. Moreover, this singing tradition spilled over into Estonia’s fight for freedom, as Estonians used song as a peaceful, non-violent means of protest. Estonia’s “Singing Revolution” lasted roughly from 1987–1991 and resulted in independence for Estonians. This paper will assess this period of Estonian history by using survey data and over 30 participant interviews gathered by the authors. These structured, in-depth interviews assess the meaningfulness of the Song Festival tradition and crystallize the role of these festivals in post-independence Estonia. More specifically, the authors also will connect discussion of these song festivals to the social capital literature made famous by Robert Putnam. The authors argue that song festivals and choruses were a significant component of fostering social cohesiveness and civic engagement among Estonians – both native and abroad – and thus served as a bulwark against the intrusion of Soviet ideology.


The collapse of the Soviet Union is one of the monumental episodes of the 20th century, resetting the world politically, economically and ideologically. Perhaps the most fascinating turn of events in the build-up to this collapse lies in the myriad of avenues through which revolutionary activity was fomented and spurred throughout the Eastern bloc. From Romania’s very violent turn of events over Christmas in 1989, to Czechoslovakia’s relatively peaceful “Velvet Revolution,” change in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union proceeded in very different ways. One of the more remarkable stories of revolutionary activity was that of Estonia’s so-called “Singing Revolution,” an effort by native Estonians to protest Soviet occupation through song. Though Estonia is not the first (nor will it be the last) country to use song as a form of political and social protest, the Estonian experience is germane for what it says about the position of music within Estonian culture and language. In addition, as the authors argue in this essay, music – particularly choral music – was a central organizing tool for Estonian protest. Borrowing from the voluminous work on civic engagement and social capital in the political science discipline, the authors will contend that the Estonian “Singing Revolution” was a combination of cultural re-awakening and political strategy that fostered community activism. Estonian choral music and singing during the Soviet collapse not only rekindled a notion of “Estonian-ness,” but also provided a platform for many individuals who were otherwise not politically active to engage in social and governmental protest.

For this article, over thirty Estonian song festival performers were interviewed, many of whom participated in the political struggle of the mid to- late 1980s. These interviews provide an enriching narrative of Estonian views on song and its relation to social and political change. Moreover, these interviews offer further insight into the differences between Estonian choral protest and other countries’ use of song protest. This matter is particularly relevant given recent musical protests, such as Russia’s feminist-inspired Pussy Riot, and the musically-charged protests lodged by Syrian youth against the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad (MacFarquhar 2011). In all of these instances, although music was the medium by which grievances were transmitted, the songs were varied in audience, content, arrangement and perhaps most importantly, participants.

This essay is organized into three parts. First, an overview of the Estonian political situation in the 1980s is examined, with special attention paid to the effect of Soviet occupation on Estonian politics and society. Second, the history of the song festival tradition will be analyzed, including interviews with participants. Lastly, the third section links both the political history of Estonia and its history of song festivals to the literature on social capital. Though it is truthful to argue that “singing” was a major catalyst in ending Soviet occupation, the manner in which this unfolded requires further distillation. Thus the third section explores how song choirs became important networks for political and social change within a closed-off environment like the Soviet Union. The authors also will touch briefly on how singing allowed social networks to be fostered across Estonian expatriate and émigré communities in the USA and Europe, and what this meant for the preservation of Estonian culture as a whole.

Occupation and Revolution in Estonia

Estonia’s tortured relationship with outsiders dates back centuries, as it was settled and occupied by countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia for roughly 700 years, in what Kyllike Sillaste entitled Estonia’s unfortunate history of “conquest and survival” (1995, 119). However, by 1919, Estonians declared their independence, wrote a constitution, and enacted a democratically-elected parliament. This first “independence period” brought the flourishing of Estonian schools, business and culture, an era that lifted Estonian society to a level comparable with “Western” neighbors such as Finland. Even so, twenty years following independence, in 1939, the dream of freedom was halted. German and Soviet forces used Estonia as one of their theaters of war during World War II, with both militaries taking turns ruling parts of the country. By the culmination of the war, Soviet forces dominated Estonian territory and incorporated Estonia into the Soviet Union. For Estonians, the period from 1945–1953 was especially traumatic, termed by Estonian political scientist and politician Rein Taagepera as the “years of genocide” (Mertelsmann and Rahi-Tamm 2009, 308). “Approximately 8,000 were arrested for political reasons during the first year of Soviet rule” noted Olaf Mertelsmann and Aigi Rahi-Tamm. “Of these, only a few hundred survived” (2009, 310). Anatol Lieven, in his book The Baltic Revolution, argued that the Estonian population had declined by 25-percent in the 1940s, and further speculated that “it is difficult to exaggerate the amount of damage done to the Baltic States by Soviet rule” (1994, 82).

The penetration of Soviet influence into Estonian political and cultural life was particularly galling and unsettling for Estonians. Not only were they unable to control their political fortunes or to possess autonomy over political decisions, but Estonian language and customs were struggling to maintain a foothold. “As early as 1959,” wrote political scientist David Smith, “over 50 per cent of the school-age urban population of Estonia were native speakers of Russian, receiving their education in Russian language schools, where little or no Estonian was taught” (1999, 296). Other scholars estimated that by the 1980s, less than 70 per cent of the population were actually “Estonians,” as years of industrial plans and collectivization campaigns brought growing numbers of outsiders to the region (Sillaste 1995, 122).

As in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, and throughout the Soviet Union, things began to rapidly change for the people of Estonia in the 1980s. While it is true that economic and political softening brought by glasnost and perestroika augmented changes in Estonia, the tipping point occurred in 1987, over environmental problems related to open-pit phosphate mining in north-eastern Estonia. As political scientist Andres Kasekamp points out, environmental concerns were a catalyst for revolutionary spirit in all three of the Baltic States, and especially in Estonia (2010, 161). However, environmental harm related to phosphate mining was not the only issue, as the mine also sought to employ over 100,000 workers who were not from Estonia (Smith 1999, 297). From 1987 onward, Estonians proceeded down a political path that would radically alter the prospects for future generations. This path included large-scale social activism that rallied native Estonians against what they saw as Soviet and Russian occupation.

From 1987–1990, Estonia formed several new political and civic movements, including the Estonian Popular Front – an organization led by Edgar Savisaar and composed of many reformist communists – the Estonian National Independence Party, a group that argued that Estonians never relinquished their independence to the Soviet Union to begin with, and the National Heritage Society, a “proto-political force” that, among other things, challenged Soviet authority by restoring Estonian monuments and the Estonian tri-color national flag (Lieven 1994, 217–220). Additionally, Estonians took to the street to protest, when, in 1989, they locked arms with Latvians and Lithuanians in a 400-mile long human chain connecting Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, an action known as the “Baltic Chain.” This protest commemorated the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had given the Soviet Union control over the Baltics (Sillaste 1995, 123). By 1990, many communist governments throughout Eastern Europe – in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania among others – had collapsed or were on the brink of collapse. Soviet-occupied spaces such as Estonia and the rest of the Baltics followed suit. In April 1990, Estonia “simply cancelled the Soviet annexation, and declared that Estonia was in a period of transition to full independence” (Lieven 1994, 242). A provisional government was formed around members of the Popular Front and headed by Savisaar.

Not all shared in the independence struggle in 1990, however. Thousands of Russians who feared their own political and cultural extinction formed the group Interfront, and staged a sort of insurgency against the new government, attacking the Estonian parliament building (the Riigikogu) located on Toompea Hill in Tallinn. Savisaar went to the radio broadcast tower in an attempt to alert the public, declaring: “Interfront gangs have surrounded Toompea Castle and are attacking. I repeat – Toompea is under attack!” (Vesilind 2008, 146). Estonians flooded up the hill, chanting for freedom, and surrounded the Interfront group. Remarkably, no one was injured or hurt in the protests and counter-protests. The Russians filed out peaceably, and Estonians returned to their homes.

This episode marked a turning point in the Estonian independence narrative. Estonians remained united behind this cause and let little stand in their way. The following year, in August 1991, the Soviet Union was collapsing upon itself – Gorbachev was removed from power, a coup was being staged in his place, and Boris Yeltsin was moving Russia towards independence. Clumsily, Soviet tanks were still moving in the Baltics, having killed 14 Lithuanians in an effort to take television communications away by knocking out and scrambling their TV tower (Vesilind 2008, 148). The tanks then rolled on into Latvia, and later, Estonia. But, Estonians staged physical and human blockades to protect the tower, and two young, Estonian border policemen stood guard until the Soviets retreated, never to return. Estonia was a free country again.


A key component missing from the previous narrative (and existing literature generally), is a substantive discussion of the contribution made by Estonian singing, especially the long-standing tradition of choral music within Estonian society. Ultimately, one cannot fully understand the Estonian independence movement without referencing singing. In 2008, this notion was made famous by James and Maureen Tusty’s documentary The Singing Revolution and Priit Vesilind’s accompanying book of the same name. Though research into Estonia’s choral traditions and song festivals has been advanced by a number of scholars (Thomson 1992, Puderbaugh 2006, Brokaw and Brokaw 2008), The Singing Revolution documentary broadcast the Estonian independence saga to wide and far-reaching audiences beyond academic communities. Not only was there limited distribution of the film in theaters, and thousands of copies of the film sold and distributed to libraries, but PBS (Public Broadcasting System) picked up the documentary as well, airing the story to millions of Americans through their televisions.

Drawing on the inspiration of Tusty’s film, the work done by many scholars on this topic, and the courage demonstrated by the Estonian people in the face of cultural and linguistic annihilation, the authors continued to delve further into Estonia’s singing revolution. In particular, the authors were not only interested in the history behind the singing, but also the effect of this singing in the lead-up to independence. In the following section, Estonian singing traditions are examined, both through secondary research and through 34 semi-structured interviews conducted by the authors via surveys, emails, and face-to-face contact. The interviews were conducted in English, over the course of four months in the Spring and Summer of 2013. All face-to-face interviews were conducted at the LEP-ESTO festival – a convention that brings together native and ethnic Estonians – in San Francisco, California. The interviewees were a diverse lot – from teenage to senior citizens, from Estonian-natives to first- and second-generation people of Estonian heritage residing outside of Estonia, and from veteran choral performers to prideful on-lookers. This diverse selection was culled intentionally, to achieve a variety of perspectives on Estonian singing, and to demonstrate its meaningfulness to the Estonian people.

Before proceeding, the authors must clarify the general use of the words “song festival” in the Estonian culture. In short, there are many different types of Estonian song festivals. The most notable of those forms is the Laulupidu – literally meaning “song festival.” Laulupidu occurs every five years – the last being in 2009 and the next one in 2014. The festivals are the largest gathering of Estonian choirs in the country and typically are the festivals to which our respondents refer. However, there are many other song festivals in Estonia, including the Estonian Night Song Festival (Öölaulupidu), the Estonian Youth Song and Dance Festival, the Viljande Folk Festival, and more recently, the Punk Laulupidu, among others. These festivals occur in the intervening years between the larger, more prominent Laulupidu, though they are no less important to some Estonians.

Singing and Song Festivals in Estonia

Estonia has a rich folklore and storytelling tradition that dates back centuries. The most famous of these stories was that of the mythological giant Kalevipoeg (Kalev’s son), a tale that tells the national story of the Estonian people. But other, less famous, stories began to be collected in the early 19th century. Jakob Hurt, a German pastor dubbed the “King of Folkfore,” persuaded Estonians to begin collecting and writing down the literally hundreds of thousands of stories and tales passed through the generations (Thomson 1992, 15). This ongoing project created a repertoire of Estonian narratives that became crucial to preserving Estonian culture, but also served as a natural springboard to the composition of Estonia-specific songs. During what is known as the “National Awakening” period of Estonian history, poets such as Lydia Koidula constructed a narrative from which future generations of composers would borrow. Koidula’s place in Estonian history is so significant that following independence her picture was placed on the former 100-kroon bank note (Thomson 1992, 76).

Coupling the growth of folklore literature with an already rich tradition in music and choir singing, Estonia began hosting a Song Festival (Laulupidu) in the nineteenth century. The first festival began in 1869 and was organized in part by Johann Voldermar Jannsen, a newspaper publisher who created the Estonian-language newspaper (Postimees) and was also the father of Koidula (Vesilind 2008, 32; Thomson 1992, 75). In the university city of Tartu, and in conjunction with the national awakening, the festival was held in an effort to raise the national consciousness of the Estonian people and to encourage them to embrace Estonian as the official language of the state. “I think that in general the first song festivals were not so much about politics,” said Estonian song festival participant Merit Künnapuu, “than cultural awakening and identity” (Künnapuu, Merit. Survey Interview. 22 February, 2013). Tartu saw 51 male choirs consisting of 845 musicians, with 10,000–15,000 in the audience during the first year of the Song Festival (Raun 2001, 75). Singing came naturally to the people of this small Baltic country; “you get three together and they start singing” said Mari Truumaa, an Estonian-American (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by Authors. 29 June, 2013). The festivals then played out uninterrupted for three decades before Estonia was rattled with revolution and war. The singing resumed during Estonia’s first period of independence from 1923–1938, but was halted due to Soviet occupation and the introduction of communism. The 1938 festival was in fact the last festival that was entirely an Estonian project, “rife with Estonian nationalism” (Puderbaugh 2008, 33)

Thought of as “one of the darkest sides of Stalinism,” the decrease in cultural output and expression is what weakened Estonia the most in the early years of occupation. In typical communist fashion the Soviets fought for “ideological purity” and banned many aspects of Estonian culture including literature and the arts (Raun 2001, 186). What they did not ban at first, however, was soon molded into something that was no longer Estonian in nature, but Soviet-inspired and then Estonian-produced. In this way, literature could be published only if the author was an Estonian Communist Party member (ECP), theatres could produce only Soviet Russian or Soviet Estonian works, and composers were encouraged to create music that reached the masses of people. This same concept was used to neatly package the Estonian song festival tradition into something that was Stalinist in spirit, and as this event encouraged a mass participation it offered the perfect opportunity to establish the new principle of “national in form, socialist in content” (Raun 2001, 188).

Kai Põld, an Estonian born before the Soviet era of occupation and attended every song festival since his childhood, expressed a sentiment that many of his fellow countrymen felt when their twenty-year bout for independence was contested with the onset of WWII: “What can one do when there are one million Estonians and 150 million Russians? What more than wait. So we worked and sang and waited” (Põld, Kai. Email Interview, May 22, 2013). While Hitler began his invasion of Central Europe, the small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were disregarded by the rest of Europe and left “for 50 years to the barbarian Soviet Union,” as Leonardo Meigas, a veteran of all song festivals dating from 1965, acrimoniously recalled (Meigas, Leonardo. Email interview, 4 July, 2013). Communism had settled effortlessly into Estonia, and with a population of only 1.3 million it infiltrated all aspects of everyday life, making it impossible for the Estonian people to embrace their own cultural heritage and long-enduring traditions.

Many families fled the country during the 1940s, narrowly escaping the desolation the Soviets would reap upon their homeland and its people. Truumaa’s family – for example – lived in the city of Tartu in Estonia, but left for the United States in 1952 after being displaced persons in Germany for six years. Upon her marriage in 1965 she claimed that “at the time there really was no hope of Estonia, at least in my lifetime, to become free” (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by authors. June 29, 2013).

The Soviet Union, however, underestimated the strength and perseverance of Estonians. While their plight was not unique in the grand scheme of war and occupation, their sentiment toward the situation was. Estonians collectively refused to acknowledge their perceived hopelessness with the same pessimism that potentially could have become their downfall, but instead came together as a nation. Instead of feeling guilt that their sons and daughters could grow up knowing nothing beyond foreign oppression, they channeled their energies into fighting using their one strength: singing. While defeating 150 million Russians was unrealistic, so was silencing one million Estonians. Estonia was ready to raise its voice.

“Singing is the best therapy in everything. You can sing about your joy, pain, longing, grief, dreams... and express yourself through music,” said Estonian native Kertu Vallerind, who has performed in every song festival since 1976. “And to do that together with thousands of other singers, it’s such a powerful feeling. It makes you feel that you can move mountains, and you can in your soul!” (Vallerind, Kertu. Email Interview. 7 June, 2013). In late June 1947, following a conscious collaboration with the Soviet government, Estonia was allowed to resume their century long tradition and continue the beloved Song Festival, but with very strict guidelines. This was the first song festival since the 1938 festival, which was a wholly Estonian performance. However, in 1947, Soviet influence on the musical program was apparent to all Estonians.

The repertoire started with God Save the Tsar “A lot was forbidden,” said Vallerind, referring to absence of many Estonian choral classics. But Estonians eluded the Russians by hiding messages in verse. “The censor couldn’t stop you as the message was hidden carefully into the text and melody – through ‘flowers.’ The censor didn’t notice it or they just couldn’t find a proper reason to decline” (Vallerind, Kertu. Email Interview. 4 June, 2013). For many people, it was not the words they were singing or the communist propaganda that united the country, but the feeling of togetherness through choral music. Estonians were able to experience a sense of cultural identity that was not present during the majority of their occupation. “It was a tool that we used to show to the Soviets that they did not manage to kill our culture and spirits and that if we wanted to restore our freedom then there was nothing that would stop us,” said Künnapuu (Künnapuu, Merit. Survey Interview. 22 February, 2013).

Eva Türk, an Estonian born during the end of Soviet occupation, recalled: “My grandmother used to say some decades ago when we were a part of USSR: ‘Attending the festival makes me feel Estonian again...’ I think that this says a lot” (Türk, Eva. Survey Interview. 22 February, 2013). Even so, the 1947 Soviet-influenced festival was not the same as the pre-war performances. First generation Estonian-American Aavo Reinfeldt said that if he had to describe those first festivals “the words I would use would be gray, somber, unified sadness” (Reinfeldt, Aavo. Personal Interview by Authors. 29 June, 2013). As David Puderbaugh argued, the purpose of the festival from the Soviet perspective was to attain three main objectives. The Soviets wanted to create a sense of comfort in the wake of war and devastation, to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany, and to show off the Soviet economic and societal advancements made in Estonia (Puderbaugh 2008, 35).

Though the 1947 festival was still shrouded in communist ideology, 28,000 people came to sing and another 100,000 filled the audience, the largest turnout in Estonian history. With the Soviets keeping a close watch on the repertoire, Estonians spent two days singing compulsory songs centered around socialist themes, such as the nobility of hard work and the glorifying of the deeds of Stalin, Marx, and Lenin. “It was better to continue our national events than not do it,” said Põld (Põld, Kai. Email Interview. 22 May, 2013). Accordingly, it was when Gustav Ernesaks took the stage that Estonia was exalted for the first time in years. Ernesaks led the choir in “Mu isamaa on minu arm,” a poem written by Koidula during the national awakening movement and a song that is considered the unofficial national anthem of Estonia. Put to a new arrangement, thousands of Estonians sang this song in their native tongue, expressing hope for the future of their homeland through the lyrics. The Estonians sang: Mu isamaa on minu arm // kell’ südant annud ma // sull’ laulan ma // mu ülem õnn // mu õitsev Eestimaa. This translates in English as: 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! The song slipped past the Russian censors and the true message it conveyed was lost in translation.

Ernesaks is arguably the most famous conductor in song festival history, and an enormous statue of him graces the song festival grounds in Tallinn today. Perhaps not surprisingly, during the 1940s and 1950s, some Estonians looked upon Ernesaks with great suspicion, as a sort of Soviet traitor. Someone like Ernesaks would have been among the handful of Estonians permitted to travel throughout the Soviet Union, and his attempt at conducting Sovietthemed material proved problematic for his reputation at the time. “[He] was considered a collaborator,” Põld said, “But nobody told him that he was treated like a national hero, for he started [sic] continuing our song festival tradition” (Põld, Kai. Email Interview, May 22nd, 2013).1 The following year three conductors were declared “enemies of the people” and arrested. Ernesaks was able to escape arrest and possible deportation because of his high public profile in society, both among the Estonian people and Soviet dignitaries. Still, during the 1950s, the song was banned from the song festival and did not reemerge for a decade (Puderbough 2008, 41).

In 1960, as the Fifteenth Estonian song festival was winding to an end and people were filing out of the song festival grounds, following a repertoire that contained the customary Soviet songs, the opening lyrics of Mu isamaa on minu arm were heard quietly trickling through the audience. A tune that had not been heard publicly in over 10 years quickly picked up with vigor until thousands of Estonians were singing the song that had first struck a cord with the Estonian people in 1869 at the first song festival. The people knew what they wanted and were rebelling in the only way they knew how. One participant recalled: “Why people are still crying, singing ‘Mu isamaa on minu arm?’ Because having homeland is more important than having home. Losing it you can’t buy a new one” (Meigas, Leonardo. Email Interview. July 4, 2013). Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the song festivals continued, each with a mixture of Soviet and Estonian songs. But following the backlash over phosphate mining in 1987, Estonians began to organize more and more public protests centered around their singing culture. A prominent example is the June 4th, 1988 rally, where close to 100,000 people marched and sang songs, working their way from Old Town Tallinn, and weaving down the street toward the Song Festival grounds, about a four kilometer walk (Puderbaugh 2008, 41). Noted Meigas: “In 1988, spontaneous night festivals of young people singing old forbidden songs [fed] our belief and hope to live in our free homeland someday again” (Meigas, Leonardo. Survey Interview. February, 20, 2013). The song protest participants were a diverse lot, ranging from formal conductors, to noted Estonian rock stars like the late Alo Mattiisen. Without sacrificing one life or shedding an ounce of blood Estonia had managed to restore its independence peacefully. Though it would be an overstatement to suggest that song alone brought forth revolution, it is not hyperbole to remark that choral music in some ways saved Estonia. Most Estonians do not deny the importance of the song festival tradition during the Soviet period, nor the challenges it presented to communist authority. “In the Soviet period, under the Russification pressure it was the only legal public way to demonstrate mental and cultural togetherness of a small nation,” said Meigas (Meigas, Leonardo. Survey Interview. February 20, 2013). After the Soviets left and the Republic of Estonia was once again independent, some Estonians worried that the tradition would diminish in its breadth and significance, since there was no longer a direct cause to precipitate the act of engaging in song. “The one in 1990 [song festival], it was like everyone was convinced they would become was a tremendous nationalistic movement,” said Truumaa. “And I thought, well now that everyone is free maybe not everybody is going to participate, oh no! It was raining on the parade, everybody was doing it anyway. We were sitting in the rain. Whenever it started raining everybody put their ponchos on... They said there were over 20,000 singers...” (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Liina Steinberg, an Estonian veteran of six song festivals, believes the song festival tradition is “the most visible part of Estonian culture.” As she states: “...Estonian music can be enjoyed without knowing the Estonian language – so the song festivals provide everybody with a more tangible example of Estonian culture” (Steinberg, Liina. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013). Türk furthers the sentiment by saying that the song festivals give her “a feeling of being one of many – it is part of my cultural consciousness” (Türk, Eva. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013). This is important as even Estonians – admittedly so – are typically regarded as being a very reserved group of people. In this regard, Künnapuu said: “I think we don’t really appreciate each other that much and we rarely refer to those cultural ties in our everyday life. It seems to me we mostly come together and feel united when in trouble” (Künnapuu, Merit. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013).

Stories like Liina’s, Eva’s and Merit’s were told to the authors in numerous ways by numerous interviewees. One of the key themes that emerges from the authors’ interviews with these diverse individuals of Estonian heritage is the notion of music as a source of collective action, or more broadly, as a vehicle for bringing people together in common pursuits that transcend the songs themselves. It is important, though, to distill what is unique about the role that song played in fostering these larger pursuits in Estonia and for Estonians living outside of their native land. Such an understanding, it follows, will permit a thorough recognition of the sources underlying – and the after-effects of – forms of civic engagement across other cultures. To directly address these matters, the authors turn to a discussion that links the unique traits of Estonian song with existing literature that addresses the notion of “social capital.”

Singing, Engagement and Social Capital

What separates much of Estonian protest music from music in the rest of the world is the use of choruses as the primary framework for musical expression. While it is true that Estonian song festivals occasionally feature solo performances – Tõnis Mägi’s version of Koit is an excellent example – most of the music is structured around the choral traditions of the country. The most rudimentary (and perhaps most important) quality of a chorus is the amount of participation that it engenders. When respondents noted that 20,000 singers would sing all at once this was not an exaggeration. Including the audience, which would frequently join in, over 100,000 Estonians could sing in unison at a song festival. The group-dynamic of choral singing in the Estonian case also helps to make sense of the success and peacefulness of the revolution in the country.

To understand this idea, Robert Putnam’s books Making Democracy Work (1993) and Bowling Alone (2000) provide some insight. Putnam’s work on the concept of social capital was developed in these books, the first about civic engagement in Italy, and the second about declining civic engagement in the United States. Social capital – as he defines it – is “features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (1993, 167). Putnam’s work set off a firestorm of debate in the political science community about the extent to which these social networks impacted politics, and whether increased social capital was, on balance, a healthy component of political communities. While the authors do not wish to delve too far into those debates, we do think the social capital literature has relevancy to this particular project on Estonian choral singing.

In this regard, Matthew Baggetta at the University of Indiana examined in detail the use of choirs as important social networks. In his study of Boston-area (USA) choirs, he argued that choral groups offered “opportunities to interact with others, experience [in] governance, and [connection] with community institutions” (Baggetta 2009, 194). Baggetta also touched upon two other important components of choir groups in his research. First, he noted that choirs create great opportunities for individuals to assert “organizational management,” as member-volunteers often are tasked with organizing and planning choral practices and events (2009, 187). “Choruses are relatively complex managerial undertakings,” Baggetta stated, “with substantial budgets, limited staff presence and significant amounts of volunteer labor” (2009, 189). Second, Baggetta highlighted the collaborative nature of the choral experience. Choirs frequently interact with other musicians (vocalists need instrumentalists, for example) and people of various ages and skillsets. Choirs also frequently perform in the community, connecting not only with other artists but also with people who hold only a passing interest in music (Baggetta 2009, 189).

Choirs in Estonia certainly provide the kind of networking and organizational components Baggetta observed in Boston-area choirs. Survey respondent Viivi Verrev stated that being part of choirs in preparation for a song festival “are great practice in organizing a major event on a tight budget” (Verrev, Viivi. Survey Response. February 25, 2013). Another interesting example of the organizational power of choral groups was relayed by Leonardo Meigas, an aforementioned singer: “Edgar Savisaar, the newly elected Prime Minister, managed to get a message on the radio saying ‘Toompea is under attack. I repeat, Toompea is under attack!’ I left my frightened and crying nine-month pregnant wife waiting at home and I rushed to Toompea, being really ready to meet a conflict. But when I got there, I saw a crowd of perplexed and downcast Russians already descending with their red flags...” Meigas explained that this event happened on a Tuesday, which has been a traditional rehearsal day for amateur choirs who practice in schools, theatres, and other venues with large recital halls. “That’s why many angry Estonian choirs quickly reacted,” Meigas clarified. “Nearly a thousand men got through in 15 minutes to Toompea to protect our newborn independence!” (Meigas, Leonardo. Email interview. July 31, 2013).

Singer Hanna-Liina Vosa, arguably one of the most popular performers in Estonia, got her start singing traditional songs in a song festival choir. While she has had a successful career in theatre, starring in many big name musicals such as Grease, My Fair Lady, and Les Miserables, and even having an audience with and performing for Queen Elizabeth II, she has not forgotten her roots, and performs in many Estonian festivals, most recently singing at the 2003 song festival and the 2009 Tallinn Days in Moscow. “It means a lot to people who are from smaller places in Estonia because they practice, they rehearse the songs all year and then they come together and it kind of expands, but they feel like they really give it their all,” said Vosa. “Because they feel like their voice counts even though there are 20,000 people singing” (Vosa, Hanna-Liina. Personal Interview with Authors. June 29, 2013). Respondent Kerstti Kittus agreed. She noted: “...Choir singing is an important part of social life outside of the big cities like Tallinn and Tartu” (Kittus, Kerstti. Survey Response. February 23, 2013).

As Künnapuu stated, the song festival is an event that has the power to bring everyone together, “[...] no matter the age, gender, economic background; it’s all about the love for the country and to feel that connection and sense of belonging” (Künnapuu, Merit. Email interview by authors. June 5, 2013). In the same breath, Eva-Tiina Põlluste, an Estonian veteran of nine song festivals, noted: “In my opinion Estonians are quite individualists, but sometimes you would like to feel that people around you are similar and thinks and likes the same. So that is what unites us on the song grounds and we can feel that we are the same nation and we breathe in same rhythm” (Põlluste, Eva-Tiina. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013).

Especially following the fall of the Soviet Union when Estonia was free to sing as she pleased, the people needed an event that was going to unite them again as a country and make them forget the evils they had faced to reach that point. As Reinfeldt stated:

Estonians’ spirit does come alive during song festivals because everything aside there is nothing to be afraid of. When you’re afraid you don’t want anyone to overhear what you’re saying. When you’re afraid you don’t want anyone to read your letters. But everyone knows how to sing. Everyone knows how to hold hands. Everybody knows what it means when your emotions sort of take over. And imagine the power of thousands not thinking of negative things, but positive (Reinfeldt, Aavo. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Even those Estonians that moved abroad following independence have not lost their cultural roots, with many returning year after year for the song festival. Besides coming home every five years to sing for their country, those Estonians that have moved abroad often join choirs in other countries, like the European Choir of Estonians that was founded in 2007. One member, Mairis Minka, grew up during Soviet-era Estonia but currently lives in Luxembourg, where she was a part of a few different choirs before going back to her roots and joining an Estonian-based group. “I have been living in Luxembourg ten years and there was a period of my life where I was searching for some choirs but I didn’t match with these Luxembourg choirs,” said Minka. “I was singing there but I didn’t feel well there, it’s not at all the same singing Vivaldi, it doesn’t touch you” (Minka, Mairis. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013). “SILLER” is another choir that seeks to unite Estonians living abroad, translating in English to “a group of Estonians living in Finland.” Co-founder Maria Lume helped start this choir in 2006, because much like Minka in Luxembourg, no matter where they are, “singing is in the blood of all Estonians.” While this group is based in Helsinki, their objective has always been participation at the song festival in Estonia, which they “do not consider an obligation, but rather a privilege” (Lume, Maria. Email Interview. May 27, 2013).

What makes this Estonian tradition all the more unique is the staying power it had with the people. “In Estonia the folk dance and singing is not dying out, it’s getting more and more popular, while in other countries it’s not popular,” stated Tuuli Solom, a member of the Choir of European Estonians who grew up during Soviet-era Estonia, but now lives in Germany. “That’s the phenomenon in Estonia. Even though we do these traditional things we try to modernize it also, it will not stay in the old fashioned way” (Solom, Tuuli. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013). Upon gaining independence, some feared that the song festival would lose popularity, especially with the younger Estonians being a generation removed from the devastation of war and foreign occupation. As Trummaa said of the post-independence festivals: “And I thought, well now that everyone is free maybe not everybody is going to participate” (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Once again, Estonians impressed their adversaries by capitalizing on their newfound independence. The song festivals were considered vital, and a way for the people to sustain their optimism for the future and to promote much needed nationalism among the smallest of the Baltic countries. As Solom emphasized, by modernizing the festival and composing new melodies and songs, such as Rahu (a pop song performed by the famous contemporary group Ruja) and Isamaa ilu hoieldes, (an upbeat rock song written by the late Mattiisen), the tradition has not been left stuck in the nineteenth century. “I think it’s delightful to see how eager the young generation is to perform and wear national costumes,” said Steinberg. “Some smaller cultures face the problem that the younger ones don’t want to carry on the cultural traditions of the nation.” This does not seem to be true, however, in the Estonian case.

Proof of this assertion lies in the story of Estonian orchestra conductor Jaan Ots, who was born in 1988, and is currently a rising star within the Estonia orchestral community. Too young to remember the major strife between Soviet Russia and Estonia, Ots feels the passion of the song festival every time he attends. “Music-making together, and so many people together, and good music and good emotions that unite people and this feeling that you get... It’s such an international feeling, it’s not only about Estonians. If you can create a good energy with singing and making music, that’s the most important thing I think” (Ots, Jaan. Personal Interview with Authors. June 29, 2013). “I am not worried about the younger generation,” added Künnapuu. “Maybe 100 years from now [the] song festival will be just another social event but right now it is so much more” (Künnapuu, Merit. Email Interview. June 5, 2013).

For now, the song festival is not diminishing in value or representation. “Knowing the historical, political and cultural meaning of these festivals to Estonians and taking into account that during such a festival about ten per cent of our nation is present,” said Steinberg, “you feel and see history in making.” (Steinberg, Liina. Email Interview. June 5, 2013). An Estonian respondent named Maria, who asked for her last name to be withheld, is a veteran of six festivals. She believes the song festival still helps the people unite in a very special way, and said: “There is a hint of nostalgia in song festivals when singing songs had a political impact, but there’s also a lot of joy and it seems that song festivals help people believe in a better tomorrow (Maria. Survey Interview. March 12, 2013). Added Ots: “There is a kind of atmosphere that you cannot find anywhere else. Maybe you can but it isn’t in any way special (Ots, Jaan. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Künnapuu best summarized the significance of the song festival and choral singing for Estonians both near and far:

These days a lot of people go abroad to work, study or just have an adventure. And many stay abroad. But our song festival is something that always brings people back. No matter the age, gender, economic background; it’s all about the love for the country and to feel that connection and sense of belonging. There are always a lot of expatriate Estonians going to song festivals who emigrated during the cold war. Their life is not in Estonia anymore but I think every Estonian is at least a little bit of a nationalist at heart. And with a population of 1.3 million we need that something that will always bring us together. (Künnapuu, Merit. Email Interview. June 5, 2013).


Estonia is not the first country to use song as a form of political and social protest.2 For example, in her study of the French Revolution, Laura Mason uncovered how a revolutionary song culture was a critical piece of understanding that period of French history. As she noted about Paris at that time: “It was a city that encompassed a cacophony of voices as revolutionaries and royalists filled streets... giving speeches, rioting and throughout all, singing” (1996, 2). The same was true in Cuba in the 1950s, as Fulgencio Batista’s army clashed with the bourgeoning communist movement led by Fidel Castro. All the while, however, Cuban music exploded in popularity both at home and abroad. “Batista’s final years in power are thus associated simultaneously with pleasure and political repression, hedonism and terror” (Moore 2006, 27). Cuba is a particularly interesting case as artists both hailed the coming revolution with songs such as “En eso llego Fidel” (That’s When Fidel Arrived), but also grew to be critical of the restrictions placed upon them, opting for exile rather than for censorship (Moore 2006, 60–67).

Dozens of other examples also could be mentioned, including the folk and rock protests of American music in the 1960s or the recent punk protests of a band like Russia’s Pussy Riot. Music is a wonderful medium for rallying people to engage in activities in which they might not otherwise partake. Valerie Samson’s study of music during the Tiananmen Square protest represents a case in point. “[...] Music was a significant factor in politically arousing protestors to such a degree that they increasingly engaged in risky behavior,” Samson wrote. She also noted that music “enhanced [...] audience participation. [T]hese performances were auditory realization of the abstract concept of democracy” (Samson 2012, 518, 527).

Of course, not all politically-charged protest music is necessarily uplifting or constitutive to healthy communities or democratic practices. This is certainly true of the plethora of neo-Nazi bands in places like the United States, Germany and England. Consider the Croatian band called Thompson. While their music and lead singer Marko Percović Thompson are widely popular on Croatian radio, he has been accused of glorifying the Ustaše, Croatian soldiers that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II (Muršič 2012, 191). The popularity of his music coupled with on-going political and religious tensions in that area, demonstrates how song also can rally communities in very divergent directions.

The Estonian case is special because the music was, as one might infer from the interviews discussed herein, almost exclusively uplifting. It was also inclusive of many participants from different walks of life, a hallmark of what Putnam defines as “bridging” social capital (Putnam 2000, 22–24). More specifically, the songs united people around themes that were universal, like nature, or even the honey bee. For example, the classic song festival tune Ta lendab mesipuu poole roughly translates to “He flies toward the beehive,” and is a song about the return of bees to the hive. Some bees are lost along the way, but others have returned home. The subtext is obvious to an Estonian, but the theme of returning home is a universal one.

To draw a quick illustration in closing: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song Fortunate Son is an appropriate example of 1960s protest music that emerged in the United States around the time of the Vietnam War. The song details how many fortunate sons were able to avoid serving in Vietnam by being well-connected, or having wealthy fathers, while thousands of lower – and middle-class people were sent overseas. The song was direct, blunt, and for many, divisive and scandalous. While it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in Estonia unites around the themes of the song festival – ethnic Russians living in Estonia have their antipathies, for example – the content and melodies of the songs are designed to bring everyone together, and during the independence period from 1987–1991, this was true for many. After countless emails, conversations, interviews and surveys conducted by the authors, the primary realization of this research is not only that Estonians love to sing, but also that, for many, the act of singing represented a central organizing force in their lives. And thus, singing is a critical part of understanding the evolution of Estonian independence.


Joseph M. Ellis. An Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wingate University in Wingate, NC (USA). His research interests are in comparative politics and post-communist transitions, specifically in the former Soviet Union. He has written extensively on the Baltic States and flat taxes, and more recently, on counter-intuitive forms of social capital, such as pick-up soccer and choral groups. He received his BA from Winthrop University (USA) and his MA and Ph.D from Temple University (USA). He would like to thank the Wingate Summer Research Grant fund for supporting this work and Hemant Sharma, Ph.D at the University of Tennessee, for his editorial advice.

Keeley Wood. An undergraduate student at Wingate University majoring in Communications. A native of Sanford, NC (USA), she was awarded a Summer Research Grant from Wingate to conduct research on Estonian song festivals. In addition to her academic prowess, Wood is a three-time All-Conference and a two-time All-Region performer in cross-country. She is also a Capital One Academic All-District athlete.



1This has some parallels to the story of the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the preeminent composers of 20th century and someone who played on both sides of the ideological divide. On the one hand, Shostakovich was a favorite composer and propagandist of Stalin and the Soviet government; on the other hand, his music had a sub-text that went deeper than the surface level, and even was critical of Soviet form. “To Shostakovich, music was the true language of multiplicity, which always expressed the truth, never lied, yet was always subject to interpretation,” wrote Jennifer Gertsel. “With music he felt he was able to say everything and admit nothing” (Gertsel 2012, 156).

2 Estonia’s neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, have very proud and storied singing festivals and choral traditions also. Though the focus of this paper was only on Estonia, a number of works have addressed the importance of song in the lives of Latvians and Lithuanians. See Janis Chakars (2010) “Work Life in the ‘Singing Revolution’”, John Ginkel’s “Identity Construction in Latvia’s ‘Singing Revolution’”, and Guntis Šmidchens (2013) The Power of Song, which compares Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s singing cultures.

List of References

Books and articles

Brokaw, Alan J. and Marianna Brokaw (2008) “Identity Marketing and the Case of the Singing Revolution,” Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing 8(4), pp. 17–29.

Gertsel, Jennifer (2012) “Irony, Deception and Political Culture in the Works of Dmitri Shostakovich,” in Ian Peddie (ed.) Music and Protest (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing), pp. 154–156

Kasekamp, Andres (2010) The History of the Baltic States (London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan), pp. 160–167.

Lieven, Anatol (1994) The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence. (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 82–220

MacFarquhar, Neil (2011) “In Protests, Syrians Find the Spark of Creativity,” The New York Times, December 19, p. A10.

Mason, Laura (1996) Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787–1799. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), pp. 2–17.

Mertelsmann, Olaf and Aigi Rahi-Tamm (2009) “Soviet Mass Violence in Estonia Revisted,” Journal of Genocide Research 11(2–3), pp. 307–322.

Moore, Robin D (2006) Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 27–67.

Muršič, Rajko (2012) “Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Encounters with Popular Music and Human Rights,” in Ian Peddie (ed.) Music and Protest (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing), pp.191–212

Puderbaugh, John (2008) “How Choral Music Saved a Nation: The 1947 Estonian National Song Festival and the Song Festivals of Estonia’s Soviet Occupation,” Choral Journal October edition, pp. 29–43.

Putnam, Robert (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster), pp. 22–24

Putnam, Robert (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), pp. 167

Raun, Toivo (2001) Estonia and the Estonians. (Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institute Press).

Samson, Valerie (2012) “Music as Protest Strategy: The Example of Tiananmen Square, 1989,” in Ian Peddie (ed.) Music and Protest (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing), pp. 518–527.

Sillaste, Kyllike (1995) “Conquest and Survival: An Outline of Estonian History,” World Affairs 157(3), pp. 119–123.

Smith, David (1999) “The Restorationist Principle in Post Communist Estonia,” in Christopher Williams and Thanasis Sfikas (eds) Ethnicity and Nationalism in Russia, the CIS and the Baltic States (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press), pp. 287–321.

Thompson, Clare (1992) The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey Through the Baltic States (London, UK: Michael Joseph), pp. 7–15.

Vesilind, Priit (2008) The Singing Revolution: How Culture Saved a Nation. (Tallinn, Estonia: Varrak Publishers), pp. 32, 148


  • Anonymous, “Maria,” Survey response to Authors, 12 March, 2013.
  • Kittus, Kerstii , Survey response to Authors, 23 Feburary, 2013.
  • Künnapuu, Merit , Email message to Authors, 5 June, 2013.
  • Künnapuu, Merit , Survey response to Authors, 22 February, 2013.
  • Lume, Maria , Email message to Authors, 27 May, 2013.
  • Meigas, Leonardo , Email message to Authors, 4 July, 2013.
  • Meigas, Leonardo , Email message to Authors, 31 July, 2013.
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  • Ots, Jaan , Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
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  • Reinfeldt , Aavo. Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
  • Solom, Tuuli . Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
  • Steinberg, Liina , Email message to Authors, 5 June, 2013.
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  • Turk, Eva , Survey response to Authors, 22 February, 2013.
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  • Vosa, Hanna-Liina , Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.

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