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Timeline: The Singing Revolution Part 4 - Independence

After over 50 years of Soviet occupation, Estonia reclaimed its independence through peaceful protest and singing.
U.S. Public Domain
After over 50 years of Soviet occupation, Estonia reclaimed its independence through peaceful protest and singing.

August 23, 1989, almost two million people joined hands in a human chain that stretched for 675 kilometers, connecting the capitals of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. This was the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which the Soviet Union still used as justification to occupy these countries. The event was called the “Baltic Way” and was a peaceful protest against what these citizens called illegal occupation.

We’ve been telling the story of the Estonian "Singing Revolution," how a people used song to affect real, political and historical change.


After the successful protest of the “Baltic Way,” Estonia was emboldened to take even more risky steps towards independence, even under the watchful eye of the Kremlin. They began registering adult citizens under the authority of Estonia, not the USSR. Almost 860,000 individuals declared they were Estonian, not Soviet. In 1990, these Estonian citizens voted for their own independent congress in direct opposition to Moscow.

This angered the Soviets, especially those that lived and worked in Estonia. 40% of the country’s population was made up of Russian/Soviet citizens that had made Estonia their home as part of Stalin’s Russification movement in the past few decades. These Russians living in Estonia organized their own anti-independence movement and even demonstrated at the Estonian capital. This demonstration took a frightening turn, as the Soviets broke down the gates and occupied the Capital courtyard and grounds.

The Estonians responded by coming to the capital building and surrounding it with larger numbers than the Soviets inside. It was a very tense moment. Would this become violent?

Instead of a fight, the Estonians provided a way for their opponents to leave peacefully. They “parted the sea” if you will, creating a path out. They joined hands and started singing together their songs of independence. The Soviets had no choice but to walk peacefully and quietly through this sea of voices, no blood was spilt.

This wasn’t the case in the other Baltic States. Lithuania and Latvia both saw their protests become violent. The blame for this violence fell on Mikhail Gorbachev and in 1991 his supposed failure led to a coup in Moscow. Gorbachev was arrested and the military took over. Tanks began to roll across the Soviet Union.

When hope seemed all but lost, suddenly it was over.

Estonia declared its independence immediately, hoping to avoid armed conflict. The Soviet forces came anyway, quickly moving across the country and exerting their control. The Estonian citizens rushed to protect an important television and radio tower, their main source of information. They stood in the path of the Soviet troops, no guns, no weapons, just their presence to block the way.

When hope seemed all but lost, suddenly it was over. Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, announced that Russia, the largest and most important member of the Soviet Union, was seceding from the USSR. Suddenly there was no Soviet army, those tanks belonged to Russia and Yeltsin was calling them home. The Soviet Union dissolved in just days and Estonia was now an independent nation.

Today, the Laulupidu, the singing festival, continues, every five years. The last observance was in 2019, with 1020 choirs and over 32,000 participants. On the singing festival grounds in Tallinn there is a statue of the composer/conductor Gustav Ernesaks, who wrote the unofficial national anthem “Mu isamaa on minu arm,” still watching over the proceedings. The Estonians get to gather, sing what they want and wear what they want. They won their freedom through peaceful protest and singing. They saved their folk songs, their traditions, their language and their culture with the power of music.

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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