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Timeline: The Singing Revolution Part 1 - Can Culture Hold A People Together?

U.S. Public Domain
An aerial view of the Estonian singing festival grounds taken almost a century ago. The singing festival has been observed every five years since 1869.

Has music ever changed the world? Can culture hold a people together? This story explores those questions.


Every 5 years, the Estonian people gather on their festival grounds; this beautiful amphitheater with thousands of seats, expansive fields for an audience and a large Olympic-like torch burning on top of a tower to one side. They come from all corners of the country, young and old, dressed in traditional Estonian clothes. They aren’t there to cheer on a sporting event or for a political rally, they come to sing. Close to 30,000 people participate in the Laulupidu, the Singing Festival. They come to share in the folksongs from their past and in songs about their present and their future.

The Laulupidu was established in 1869 to celebrate the important role that music plays in lives of the Estonian people.

Estonia is a small country of 1.2 million citizens, nestled between the Baltic Sea and Russia. It’s been said that Estonians have inhabited this land for over 5,000 years. Over the course of millennia, they have seen many hardships, conflicts and occupations. Yet, they have survived. This culture is rich in music and stories. They have one of the largest collections of folksongs in the world. Their fairytales aren’t about impetuous knights or sleeping princesses; their folk-hero is an old farmer, wise and powerful who waits patiently and only acts when it’s absolutely necessary.

The 20th Century nearly saw the complete eradication of the Estonian nation, people and culture. In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which promised non-aggression between the two powers. Days after signing, Germany invaded Poland and the events leading up to World War II began. An important part of this pact was a Secret Protocol setting physical boundaries, dividing Europe between the Nazis and the Soviets. According to this agreement, Stalin now had claim to all of the Baltic States; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Within days, thousands of Soviet troops entered Estonia. In one night, over 10,000 people were arrested and shipped to Siberia, only half of them ever returned. The occupation was more like a societal genocide. The Soviets targeted politicians, teachers, artists, anyone with influence to be either arrested or executed. The Gulag had a quota for the number of Estonians that were to be taken away, a third of which were children. The Estonians call 1940 “The Year of Suffering.”

But this was only the beginning. 1941, the very next year, Germany broke the Pact and invaded Russia, taking over the occupation of Estonia. Those who had aided the Soviets were arrested or executed. The young men were forced to join the German army. Only three years later, Germany retreated and the Soviets came back with a vengeance. Now, those who aided the Nazis were called enemies of the state. Thousands of people fled the country or died trying.

In 1945, as the war was coming to an end, Stalin promised Churchill and Roosevelt that there would be free-elections in Estonia. This never happened, but it did pacify the US and the UK. By the end of World War II, a quarter of the population was gone and the iron curtain fell on the people of Estonia as decades of Soviet occupation began.

In our next episode, we’ll continue the story and tell how music brought hope to the Estonian people. Learn more follow the Timeline at

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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