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Timeline: The Singing Revolution Part 2 - My Fatherland Is My Love

This statue of composer/conductor Gustav Ernesaks sits on the Estonia singing festival grounds, watching the amphitheater.
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This statue of composer/conductor Gustav Ernesaks sits on the Estonia singing festival grounds, watching the amphitheater.

After World War II, the iron curtain of the Soviet Union fell on all the member states. One of the goals of Stalin’s regime was to bring uniformity across the vast territory that was now under Soviet control. Russification is a term used to describe the cultural assimilation that was taking place. Russian citizens would come by the thousands and settle in these other territories, to influence the labor force and local politics. Smaller countries, like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia saw, not just the end of their independence but the eventual eradication of their culture, their way of life.


In Estonia the practice of Laulupidu, the five year national singing festival, could not be silenced even by the Soviets. In 1947, Stalin allowed the country to organize and participate in their first festival since the beginning of the Second World War. However, the Soviets were going to control every aspect that they could. Soviet propaganda declared that the Laulupidu was a celebration of the Estonian people; thanking Stalin and the entire communist party for their support, prosperity and... you get the idea. The Estonians were told what songs to sing, what clothing to wear and how to conduct the entire festival. They were forbidden to wear traditional clothing and to sing particular patriotic songs; most of what they sang that year was in Russian, like the Soviet Anthem.

It was only at the very end of the singing festival that the participants were allowed to share their own traditional songs, just a few, and this year there was one new addition. The famed Estonian conductor/composer Gustav Ernesaks had written a new song, a setting of a National Estonian poem called “Mu isamaa on minu arm” “My fatherland is my love.”  There, in the midst of Soviet occupation, under the watchful eyes of Stalin’s guards, thousands of Estonians broke into a song declaring their love for their sacred, ancestral land.

Somehow this piece escaped the Soviet censors. It’s set in the Estonian language, it isn’t very long, but immediately this song became the unofficial National Anthem for a country and a people desperate to hold on to their history and their identity. It was subsequently banned, forbidden to be performed again at another singing festival. The next two decades were full of Soviet control and KGB surveillance. The people of Estonia were surrounded by fear on all sides.

In 1969, Estonia was set to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Laulupidu. Again, the Soviets allowed this gathering, but only under strict controls; no traditional garb and no performances of “My Fatherland is My Love.” The festival proceeded as planned. All the songs were sung and everything was over. However, the choirs and the audience refused to leave. All on their own, they started singing their unofficial national anthem, “Mu isamaa on minu arm;” no conductor, no orchestra, just thousands of voices desperate to sing this message at this moment.

"If 20,000 people start to sing one song, you cannot shut them up."

The Soviets reacted by having a brass band begin to play, to drown the chorus of voices, but they failed as the Estonians took up the call and sang the song over and over again. As one participant in the festival shared, “If 20,000 people start to sing one song, you cannot shut them up.”

The Soviets were forced to call the composer Gustav Ernesaks to the stage to lead the people in a final performance of this song, this declaration that the Estonian people and culture was not dead, not by a long shot.

In our next episode, we’ll continue the story and explore the Estonian singing revolution. Learn more and 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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