There have been a number of stories in the press in recent months about Geographically Challenged America. None tops the report about Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder confessing he hadn’t known that people spoke English in London.
"I couldn’t find London on a map if they didn’t have the names of the countries," he explained. "I swear to God. I don’t know what nothing is. I know Italy looks like a boot."
I suppose we’d all have another chuckle if Crowder were asked to find Estonia on a map, but in truth how many can? And for those of us who can, how many of us know anything of significance about this seemingly insignificant little country?
How many of us know that Estonia, one of the smallest countries on the face of this earth, is responsible for one of the most extraordinary, and certainly the most unique, revolutions in modern history? How many of us know that this tiny Baltic nation defeated the Soviet Union — with a song? This is not meant as hyperbole. It is literal truth.
One of the most fascinating documentaries you will ever watch is about to make its debut around the country. Make a note of it: "The Singing Revolution." Go to the Website singingrevolution.com to learn when and where in your city it will air. Should you miss that opportunity, make it a point to rent the DVD the moment it hits the stores.
Some documentaries entertain. Some educate. "The Singing Revolution" will bring you to your feet, cheering. It is the quintessential celebration of the human spirit.
But it is also a story of national sadness. Indeed, few nations suffered as did Estonia during the 20th century. After surviving hundreds of years of occupation from foreign powers, Estonia finally established herself as a European state in 1918. Independence was fleeting, however. The secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin in 1939 granted Estonia to the communists. Within a year, Stalin had tens of thousands of Estonians murdered. There was one Soviet stationed in the country for every 12 Estonians.
Just two years later, Hitler betrayed Stalin, and Nazi armies marched into Estonia. Thousands more perished. In 1944, Stalin re-entered Estonia, ostensibly to "free" the country from the Nazis, promising free elections. The darkness of the Iron Curtain descended instead, and with it came Stalin’s purges. Once a nation of 1 million, Estonia would see roughly 300,000 of her own slaughtered in a national and cultural genocide; 70,000 would flee the country. Another 30,000 Estonians, the "Forest Brothers," would take to the woods to hide, some as long as several decades. Most would be captured and killed.
In 1991, Estonia rejected the Soviets and brought the Evil Empire to its knees by rising to its feet — in song. Filmmakers James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty have uncovered a true story that would escape the clutches of even the most imaginative in Hollywood. "To be an Estonian today," they explain, "is to have been a member of the Singing Revolution yesterday."
Estonia loves to sing. The "Laulupidu," or the Estonian Song Festival, was established in 1869 and served as a rallying point for national pride throughout all the awful years that followed.
In 1947, the Soviets took control of the festival, replacing the traditional music with Soviet propaganda films honoring Vladimir Lenin and Stalin. But composer Gustav Ernesaks pulled a fast one on the communists. He inserted "Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love" into the program. Unbeknownst to the Soviets, it was actually a protest against them. Immediately it became the unofficial Estonian national anthem.
It was through the singing of this anthem, by tens of thousands of Estonians at a time, that national defiance was born and nurtured. From this defiance a cluster of protest groups emerged. And from these organizations came a movement demanding and finally, against all odds — the Soviet empire! — achieving glorious independence.
History will chronicle that the Soviet Union was defeated by the vision and perseverance of three world leaders, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. But every nation in Eastern Europe that freed itself from the yoke of Soviet occupation also has its own story to tell. Many were chronicled by the Western press as they occurred. We followed the heroics of Lech Walesa and Solidarity in Poland; the weekly Leipzig demonstrations in East Germany; Vaclev Havel’s Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
But history overlooked little Estonia — until now. What the Tustys have delivered, after exhaustive research, with spellbinding first-person interviews and heretofore unknown footage of the events as they occurred, is breathtaking.
"The Singing Revolution" is essential viewing for every child whose parents cherish this thing we call freedom. It is essential viewing for every adult wishing to see and hear a national miracle in the making.