Rising up in song— how the Estonian people won a musical victory against the Soviet Union

From the Marseillaise to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, communal singing has inspired countless mass movements – even the most brutal regimes recognise they cannot shoot people just for singing.
singing revolution
The Tallinn 1988 Song Festival. Around 300,000 people attended the festival which was an important milestone in the Estonian independence movement. Credit: Art Directors & TRIP / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Three weeks into Russia’s war against Ukraine, the chorus and orchestra at Odesa’s opera house gathered outside the building to send a message to fellow Ukrainians, to the Russians and to the rest of the world. In front of sandbags and a Ukrainian flag, they performed the Va, pensiero chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco. To most who watched the video of the performance, it was a nice opera tune. But Va, pensiero is one of the opera repertoire’s most famous acts of rebellion. And popular uprisings over the centuries have been fuelled by communal singing.

In Va, pensiero (also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew slaves), Jewish slaves in Babylonian captivity sing of the land they’ve lost: ‘Oh, my homeland, so lovely and so lost! Oh memory, so dear and so dead!’ Writing Nabucco in the 1840s and 50s, Verdi is thought to have had Italy’s fate in mind: Italy’s northern regions were fighting for freedom from the Austrians and the Habsburgs. And since then, Va pensiero has spoken to oppressed peoples in many other countries. So has Bella, ciao, which Italian workers in the late 1800s sang to protest their harsh working conditions. During the Second World War, the song became the unofficial anthem of Italians resisting Nazi occupation: ‘If I die as a partisan/you must bury me/up in the mountain/under the shade of a beautiful flower/and all those who will pass by / will say “What a beautiful flower/This is the flower of the partisan/who died for freedom”.’ Since then, Bella ciao has been adopted by a staggering range of movements, ranging from Colombians opposed to President Ivan Duque to Italians fighting Covid during the virus’s first brutal months. And like Va, pensiero, Bella ciao is not a solo, it’s sung by people gathering together.

Communal singing, in fact, defines countless revolutions. The easily memorised Marseillaise was composed to inspire soldiers during France’s war against its arch-enemy Austria in the 1790s. During Augusto Pinochet’s rule, Chileans rebelled by singing El pueblo unido. Its tune too is extremely catchy (listen to it once and you’ll start humming along), and like all revolutionary songs it features rousing words: ‘The people united will never be defeated/Arise, sing, we are going to win/Flags of unity are now advancing.’

Arise, sing, we are going to win – that’s what Estonians, too, resolved to do in 1989. Some four decades earlier, in the early years of the Soviet Union’s brutal occupation of their country, they had resumed singing together at the large song festivals they had been holding since the 1860s. Thousands sang in a massive choir and even larger numbers listened. While the singers were not allowed to perform their national anthem or the song Mu isamaa on minu arm (Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love), which they considered their unofficial national anthem, they did sing other Estonian songs. And in doing so, they strengthened their unity and demonstrated to Moscow that they were going to resist its attempts to Sovietise their country, now known as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. (These attempts included deporting Estonians to Siberia and importing Russians to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.) In 1965, the Song Festival organisers defiantly added Mu isamaa on minu arm to the programme – and in the next festival, the audience joined in. The Soviet authorities commanded them to stop, but nobody did, not even when the Soviet authorities dispatched a military band to drown them out. The authorities could hardly arrest thousands of Estonians for singing a song. The Estonians had won a musical victory that was, of course, a political victory too.

The Estonians kept gathering at their song festivals. In 1987, it emerged that the Soviets were planning to excavate phosphorite in Estonia, a move that would result in disastrous damage to the environment. Estonians gathered to protest against the excavation – by singing. They sang at rock festivals and they sang at their Song Festival grounds, which now became their budding rebellion’s gathering point. They sang patriotic songs, they sang newly written ones, and they sang their formerly independent republic’s national anthem. On 11 September 1988, 300,000 Estonians – about one fifth of the country’s population – gathered at the Song Festival grounds to sing together. Watching the concert now is as powerful as it was then. When the concert was over, Estonians knew that they could defy Moscow. Less than three years later, their country was independent once again.

Singing together against an invader or an oppressive regime might seem like feeble resistance. But think about it, singing is peaceful. It can be done in groups – indeed, there’s no limit to how many people can sing together. It can be done anywhere, in living rooms and large halls, in the open air. And songs can express ideas that would be easier for authorities to crack down on if they were published in books or articles. Communal singing is like a positive virus that the oppressors cannot stop from spreading, because even the most brutal regime recognises that it would look like a fool if it fired shots at people who are merely singing. 

Ukrainians will no doubt keep singing outside their opera houses and in their bomb shelters and, despite the horror around them, they can draw inspiration from the Estonians and countless other freedom-seeking peoples. The people united will never be defeated. Arise, sing, we are going to win.

Elisabeth Braw

Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defence and deterrence against greyzone threats. She is also a columnist with Foreign Policy, where she writes on national security and the globalised economy. Before joining AEI, Elisabeth was a senior research fellow at RUSI, whose Modern Deterrence project she led. Prior to that, she worked at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy. Elisabeth is also a member of the steering committee of the Aurora Forum (the UK-Nordic-Baltic leader conference), a member of the UK National Preparedness Commission and an associate fellow at the European Leadership Network. Elisabeth started her career as a journalist, reporting for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and the international Metro group of newspapers, among others. She regularly writes op-eds, including for the Financial Times, Politico, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (writing in German) and the Wall Street Journal. She is also the author of 'God’s Spies', about the Stasi (Eerdmans, 2019) and 'The Defender’s Dilemma' (2021).

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