Estonia Sings

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The first post-war Festival of Song and Dance was celebrated by Estonians in the summer of 1947. Weakened first by the 1940 incorporation of the Estonian Republic (established 1918) into the Soviet Union and then destroyed by the Nazi invasion of 1941, Estonian culture had its first chance to rebuild under Soviet rule. The times were bitter, with the collectivization of the Baltic countryside, Sovietization of intellectual life, and the migration of Soviet Russians into Estonian cities. Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993), who led efforts to revive the festival, and whose name would become forever linked with it, treaded the fine line between acceptable Soviet patriotism and unacceptable Estonian nationalism.

In Soviet times, the festival would serve as the focus of Estonian national identity, just as it had for almost eighty years. First celebrated in 1869 in the university town of Tartu, later moved to the capital of Tallinn, the festival asserted Estonians’ right to a national culture, based on their own traditions and language, during a time when tsarist authorities were pursuing a policy of Russification. Its cornerstones were familiar from other small-people nationalisms that cropped up in nineteenth century Europe, including performances of a “folk” epic, the Kalevipoeg, compiled from oral fragments in 1857, and “folk” songs written for the festival. Convening every five years, the festival drew massive audiences for its equally massive choral performances. The 1947 festival was the twelfth, and it drew about a quarter-million of the total 1,125,000 Estonian population. In later years, the all-festival chorus reached tens of thousands of performers in the great orchestra shell built in a field outside the capital.

Soviet authorities forced overt signs of Estonian nationalism out of the celebration. Marchers in the pre-festival parade carried Soviet slogans, and in early years abstained from wearing Estonian folk dress. The orchestra shell sported banners proclaiming the fraternity of Soviet nations. Ironically, the Soviet language of nationality gave Estonians a powerful vehicle for their own national aspirations. Newsreels show how the collective chorus celebrated its folkloric culture and sang of its love for the homeland (rodina in Russian-Soviet parlance), all within the bounds of Soviet discourse. Yet because the entire audience understood the homeland to be Estonian, and not Soviet, the experience was one of overwhelming national solidarity. The swell of national resistance that culminated in national independence in 1991 was called “the singing revolution,” because it began in similar singing festivals.

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