To be caged like an animal and deported to Siberia as a 14-year-old girl is to know a level of brutality that seemingly stands outside of reality, as one gulag survivor puts it in a new documentary on Estonia.
When the Soviet Union began its occupation of the country, prison quotas were set for Russian soldiers who grabbed any convenient person they could find, the narrator informs audience members during a film segment that reviews key historical moments.
As it turns out, one-third of those deported to Siberia beginning in 1940 were children, according to the film.
“No I did not cry because it was so unreal,” Tiia-Ester Loitme recollects. “You see, when you get up and go to school for a piano lesson that day, but wind up like an animal you have to say that’s bizarre.”
The journey away from tyranny and toward freedom was no less bizarre for Loitme and other Estonians who maintained their national identity despite intense oppression.
The Baltic nation’s carefully crafted, methodical drive toward independence and self determination in the waning days of the Soviet empire is a story that has been largely untold until now.
“Patience is a weapon. Caution is a virtue,” the narrator declares as the film opens.
“The Singing Revolution” (www.thesingingrevolution.com)
highlights the key cultural and political events in the late 1980s and early 1990s that ultimately broke Estonia loose from the Soviet Union. The documentary includes footage of Estonians who gathered together in public to sing patriotic songs in defiance of Soviet authorities.
To have acquired freedom through singing after living through a long period of subjugation is a unique episode in human history that is difficult to explain purely through words and is best captured on film explains Jim Tusty, who co-directed and co-produced the documentary with his wife Maureen Castle Tusty.
“Maureen and I firmly believe the film is not just about Estonia but about humankind’s indomitable drive for self-control, freedom and independence,” Tusty said in an interview. “Even during the harshest conditions under Stalin, when people were being tortured and executed, Estonians never lost their drive for self-determination. I chose to believe this more human than just Estonian.”
As a dual citizen of both Estonia and the U.S., Tusty found himself ideally positioned to put together a documentary that would describe the Baltic nation’s independence movement in a compelling manner that could be universally understood.
The important role singing played in undermining Soviet authority became apparent to Tusty and his wife during a trip to Estonia in 1999. They began to connect with average citizens who had lived through the revolution while teaching a class on filmmaking.
“The Estonians are a very self-effacing people,” Tusty said. “This is just their nature. But we became more intrigued and we began to ask more questions. We were concerned they might feel that two people who live thousands of miles away don’t have the right to tell their story. However, as it turned out, Estonians felt an outside perspective was needed so others could better understand what had transpired.”
Throughout much of its history, Estonia has been forced to endure occupation and subjugation, Tusty observed. Although historians estimate the Estonian people have lived on the land for at least 5,000 years, they were on the receiving end of foreign invasions that included the Germans, Danes, Swedes, Poles and Russians.
After briefly securing independence in 1918, Estonia then found itself on the receiving end of Nazi and Soviet tyranny in the 20th Century. The documentary focuses particular attention on the Molotov-Rippentrop Pact, a secret protocol between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler that divided Eastern Europe, including Estonia, into “spheres of influence.”
The sad and often brutish existence Estonians endured helped to sharpen a unique set of skills that would come into play when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the mid 1980s, Tusty maintains.
“What the Estonians mastered was the art of pushing the system exactly as far as it could be pushed,” he said. “So they started to test the system under Gorbachev when they saw openings.”
The first crucial test came in 1986 when Estonians organized a protest against a strip mining project to see how far “glasnost” would actually extend. Strictly speaking, it was not legal to hold protests in the absence of permits under the Soviet system, Tusty pointed out. Nevertheless, the Estonians went forward and ignored this stipulation.
“It was not political or confrontational,” Tusty said. “There were no criticisms of communism. Instead it just about the environment and the protest was successful, the mining project was stopped.” On its surface, the event did not seem particularly significant or momentous at the time, he continued. But in retrospect it became evident the protest marked a crucial turning point, Tusty added.
“Gorbachev made one very, very basic fundamental mistake,” Trivimi Velliste, an independence activist observes in the film. “He didn’t realize that whenever you give free speech to people, then things get out of hand. The ghost gets out of the bottle.”
Shortly after the environmental protest, an emboldened group of activists staged a more politically charged demonstration in Hirve Park, located in the capital city of Tallinn. They took the opportunity to openly denounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and to commemorate the victims of Stalinism.
But it was the singing that proved to be the coup de grace. Soviet officials who worked to forbid musical expression not in keeping with their government’s official doctrine were overwhelmed when they attempted to silence defiant crowds. Founded in 1869 the Song Festival known as “Laulupidu” helped Estonia to maintain its cultural identity throughout the 50 year period of Soviet occupation.
In 1947 Gustav Ernesaks managed to bypass Soviets censors and to insert a tune patterned after the lyrics of a century-old national poem called “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love.” It became the country’s unofficial national anthem.
“The tradition of singing is innate to the culture and it goes back thousands of years,” Tusty said. “What the Estonians did was really very clever. After all, how do you jail someone just for singing?”
As Estonia prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the festival in 1969 the Soviets forbade their captive citizens from singing the patriotic tune Ernesaks has previously inserted. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Estonians took the stage and invoked the music in direct contradiction to Soviet orders.
Heinz Valk is an activist credited for coining the term “singing revolution.” When the forbidden song found expression in the face of adversity in 1969 it showed the Estonian spirit was alive and that it was possible to come together as a nation, he observes in the film.
In contrast to the “destruction, burning, killing and hate” of previous revolutions, the Estonian drive toward independence was started with a “smile and song,” Valk says in the film.
The documentary was produced in cooperation with Moving Picture Institute (MPI), a film company founded in 2005 by Thor Halvorssen, a human rights advocate who served as first executive director and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). MPI’s stated goal is to "guarantee that film's unique capacity to give shape to abstract principles - to make them move and breathe - is used to support liberty."
“The Singing Revolution is one of the best stories never told,” Halvorssen said in an interview. “It is such an inspiring account of what happened in history’s first truly peaceful revolution. The Tustys have done a magnificent job worthy of critical acclaim. MPI is thrilled to co-produce and support such a valuable and important film.”
The “increasing belligerence of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and his recent declaration of a “cyber-war” against Estonia shows the film remains highly relevant, even the aftermath of the cold war, Halvorssen noted.
“The film plays a crucial role in communicating the suffering of the Baltic states at the hands of the Soviets,” he continued. “Little to nothing has changed in the minds of the Russian government and its lackeys: they are convinced that they are entitled to Estonia. It was a brutal and seemingly endless occupation and it underlined how culture saved a nation. Artists and freedom lovers should flock to this film.”