The Singing Revolution.
Mountain View Productions, unrated.
Running time 96 minutes.
The small nation of Estonia, strategically placed at the east end of the Baltic, had been prey for conquerors for centuries. It acquired a serious existential problem in 1939, when Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin divvied up Europe with the Nazi-Soviet Pact. In that deal, Stalin got Estonia and occupied that independent, democratic nation. The odds were long that the Estonian people would emerge from that nightmare, but they did. How they managed to do so is an inspiring story and cautionary tale that until now has escaped notice in film.
The Singing Revolution does not neglect what Hollywood calls the back story, and to its credit, covers a lot of ground. Most viewers will have little knowledge of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and this documentary outlines, with perfect accuracy, everything they need to know, especially that the Pact started World War II. This is a documentary but Stalin looms large as the dramatic villain. The film even quotes him: “Death solves all problems. No person, no problem.” Stalin applied that adage in many places, including Estonia.
Narrated by actress Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously), the film lets Estonians tell the story of their Stalin problem. These include survivors of the gulag and Soviet prison and younger Estonians, a reminder that their stories took place not so long ago, and that all kinds of people, in modern times, can suffer the loss of freedom.
The Singing Revolution, however, is more than talking heads. It gives the grim statistics of the thousands of Estonians the Soviet Communist invaders exiled, imprisoned and executed. Viewers actually see some of the executions and trains to the Gulag in stock footage. Hollywood films, while they now concede mass murder by the Soviet Communists, remain content only to talk about it, and in film out of sight means out of mind.
Estonia was also invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and the film deals with that dark time as well. That regime ended in 1945 and post-war the Soviets occupied Estonia again. With a population of some one million, mass executions and deportations threatened the nation’s very survival, particularly when accompanied by an aggressive campaign of Russification. As the USSR killed and shipped out Estonians, they brought in thousands of Russian colonists.
The Singing Revolution shows what it is like to live under Soviet Communist occupation, with the Estonian language, flag and culture suppressed, the KGB listening in, and fear as the rule of life. Here is the true Socialist Realism. Estonians resisted as they could. Some took what arms they could find and fled to the woods. Remarkably enough, the hardy “Forest Brothers” of the underground resistance endured until 1978, when the last one was captured, a triumph of sheer staying power. In this film, forest brother Alfred Kaarman shows the hidden dugout that served as his base of operations until he was captured in 1953, the year Stalin died. Kaarman was tortured and sentenced to 25 years hard labor. It’s hard to imagine people tougher than this, and one hopes they get a movie of their own.
Obliterating a nation, even a small one, is not an easy matter, even for a totalitarian colonial power. The Soviets failed entirely to suppress or co-opt the Estonian tradition of massive group singing, here wonderfully portrayed, to celebrate their nation, culture and language. The Soviets forced the people to sing Communist propaganda, what various Estonians here describe as “crap songs,” but at one point allowed “Land of My Fathers. Land That I love,” based on a poem. This became a de-facto anthem and helped bind Estonians together under Soviet rule that remained oppressive throughout the occupation, but the evil empire was crumbling.
Estonians took full advantage of Perestroika and Glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev to make the case that the Nazi-Soviet pact was illegal, and that they, not the USSR, should run the country. At a key song festival, activist Heinz Valk told thousands of Estonians that “One day, no matter what, we will win.” They did win, but the Estonian revolution wasn’t all singing.
The film does a good job parsing out the various Estonian national factions, and the anti-independence Interfront, backed by Moscow reactionaries. Things get testy during the 1991 coup in Moscow and once again the tanks and troops roll in. Unarmed Estonians rush to defend the nation’s television tower, and the nationalist factions come together. The coup fails, the troops withdraw, and after more than 50 years the Estonians win back their freedom and independence, with none of the bloodshed of, say, Hungary in 1956. At the outset the film shows a treble clef on top of a hammer and sickle, and that sums it up nicely.
The Singing Revolution is an important film for history alone and should be seen by everyone and used by educators up to the graduate level. Under the occupation, coverage of Estonia and the Baltic states in the West remained sketchy, and the American left, in particular, inclined to the Soviet occupiers, not their Estonian victims. To expose Soviet repression would have destroyed the moral equivalence between East and West, the key left-wing orthodoxy of the time. The timing of this film is also good.
Russia is now rehabilitating Stalin and playing down Soviet atrocities as not as bad as what the USA did in Hiroshima, and so on. The film also emerges the same year as a documentary about Dalton Trumbo, an American screenwriter who actually joined the Communist Party during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when anyone with a shred of integrity left it. Old Stalinists are still heroes in Hollywood, so that one stands to win awards.
No matter, The Singing Revolution tells the truth and will win over viewers, inspiring and instructing at the same time. The lesson is that freedom is not to be taken for granted. Best not to lose it in the first place.
Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.