The singing revolution

Singing is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of revolution. Revolutions are usually marked by bloodshed, hate, hungerstrikes and other gruesome images. Yet for the Estonians, in their fight against the soviet occupation that began in the 1940’s, singing became a choice weapon that marked the events taking place in the late 80’s, early 90’s, when Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, won back their freedom.

Estonia has a long held tradition of singing with thousands of estonians gathering in the capital’s festival ground every five years for the song festival, with lots of smaller festivals in between. It is a mark of ‘estonianness’. During the years of occupation the festivals continued but the traditional estonian songs were replaced by songs about Marx, Lenin and Communism. On the 100th anniversary of the festival in 1969, the official soviet programme ended but the choir refused to leave the stage and spontaneously started to sing traditional estonian songs, including the most beautiful of all, ‘Land of my fathers, land that I love’. It was a mark of protest, a stating of their identity. Of course the soviets were not impressed. What do you do when a choir of 20,000 voices start singing the most forbidden song and won’t stop!? The soviets told the brass band to drown them out, but they couldn’t and the people just kept singing. Those who were there recount it with tears in their eyes as it was such a heartfelt moment of defiance.

In the 80’s, with Gorbachev in power allowing greater freedom of speech, the move towards freedom gathered pace with protests being held by different political groups. One summer festival in the centre of Tallinn erupted and resulted in 100,000 estonians gathering at the song ground singing their forbidden national songs. These gatherings grew in numbers and frequencey until 300,000 estonians gathered and….sang! Of course there were many other things happening besides singing but it is this one aspect that makes the estonian revolution different to the other revolutions happening at the same time, hence why it was dubbed ‘the singing revolution’. It is interesting that Estonia, with it’s non confrontational attitude, was the only country that avoided bloodshed during the four years of revolution, unlike the neigbouring baltic states. At the bottom of the page you can find the link to the trailer from the movie that depicts these times, with original video footage.

Thinking about the singing revolution has prompted me to think about the role of singing in our own lives. There is something about singing that is the expression of a soul, more than even the playing of an instrument. The Estonians expressed their identity through song. Football and rugby fans express their identity and hopes, encouraging their team to victory whilst belting out the simplest of tunes. What is my song? What are the words of that song that I identify with and sing with all my soul? What is my weapon against outside forces that weigh in on my life? Do I have a song that defies them?

Well. Yes I do. I think singing is one of the most powerful weapons when you feel down. As a follower of Jesus I can choose to look up and sing a song of thankfulness and faith in the midst of trouble and find myself empowered to go forward rather than downwards. ‘My lips shall praise You!’

For those of you, who like me have been to many many churches and are involved in leadership; don’t you think it would make a change if for once, in church, we made the band take second place to the congregation and let the people sing…really sing, choosing songs that are actually singable with words that are full of truth. The estonians displayed courage, defiance and hope when the people sang as one voice, not just one person on a microphone with a big band and everyone listening in as though it didn’t involve them. Praise and worship cannot be and never will be something passive. It can and should be a means of stirring faith in the heart and setting people free.

The singing revolution trailer

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