Estonia’s Singing Revolution

A long-standing tradition among Estonians, singing festivals served an important role in the country’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union

Tallinn Estonia Songfest
Overlooking the Song Festival Grounds from the cheap seats is a statue of Gustav Ernesaks, who directed the Estonian National Male Choir for 50 years. Courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

When just a million people lived in this humble county lodged between Russia and Germany (and dealt with tyrants such as Stalin and Hitler), it was a challenge to simply survive as a nation. Estonia was free from 1920 to 1939. Then they had a 50-year German/Russian nightmare. While forced to be part of the Soviet Union, Estonian culture was besieged. Moscow wouldn’t allow locals to wave their flag or sing their patriotic songs. Russians were moved in and Estonians were shipped out in an attempt to “Russify” the country. But as cracks began to appear in the USSR, the Estonians mobilized by singing.

In 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the Song Festival Grounds outside of Tallinn to sing patriotic songs. (Singing has long been a national form of expression in this country; the first Estonian Song Festival was held in 1869, and has been held every five years since then.)

On August 23, 1989—the 50th anniversary of a notorious pact between Hitler and Stalin—the people of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia held hands to make “the Baltic Chain,” a human chain that stretched 360 miles from Tallinn to Vilnius in Lithuania. A Tiananmen Square-type bloodbath was feared, but the country kept singing.

In February 1990, the first free parliamentary elections took place in all three Baltic states, and pro-independence candidates won majorities. In 1991, on the eve of an expected violent crackdown of the Singing Revolution, the makeshift Estonian Parliament declared independence. At that time Moscow was in disarray after hard-line Communists failed in their attempted coup of Mikhail Gorbachev. Suddenly, the USSR was gone, and Estonia was free.

Watching the documentary film The Singing Revolution before your visit will enrich your experience (

For all the details on Tallinn, Estonia, please see Rick Steves’ Scandinavia.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

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