Two million people holding hands and singing patriotic songs across three countries. This was the Baltic Way- the Singing Revolution of the Baltic States. For four years, between 1987 and 1991, the peoples of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania fought Soviet occupation essentially by singing. Thirty years later, I had the opportunity to visit and learn from these amazing countries that showed the world another way to fight oppression.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have distinctive national languages and cultures, but they share a long history of occupation by foreign powers. Beginning with the Baltic Crusades of the 12th Century, the region has been periodically occupied by Germans, Danes, Swedes, Poles, and eventually by Czarist Russian for nearly two centuries.
In 1917, following the abdication in Russia of Czar Nikolai II amid the turmoil caused by World War I and the Communist Revolution, the Baltic nations moved to gain independence. The Baltic people had to fight German and Russian Bolsheviks occupiers, and independence took a heavy human toll. To put it in context, Estonia, who had a population approximately one-fourth the population of the American colonies in 1776, suffered twice the number of casualties that the U.S. endured during its war of independence.
During World War II, in 1940, the Soviet Army invaded the Baltic nations, took over the government and killed or exiled virtually all the political and business leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Stalin then annexed the Baltic countries claiming they had “volunteered” to become part of the Soviet Union. Tragically, the international community did not come to the Baltic’s assistance, and the Soviet occupation would last fifty years.
The Soviet policy of “Russification” that followed was equivalent to cultural genocide; it sought to alter the Baltics’ collective psychology. Russian became the official language, national flags and patriotic songs were forbidden, and thousands of Russians were brought in to dilute the small ethnic population of the Baltic States.
But the Baltic people share a love for song, and songs can be powerful weapons. The idea of singing as a method of resistance has a long history in the Baltics. In the nineteenth century singing was used to defy the Tsar. Later, when the Baltic people were denied freedom of speech under Soviet rule, they found a way to rebel by singing banned patriotic songs. During the Soviet occupation, singing became their weapon of choice.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, the peoples of the Baltics began to test his policies of economic restructuring (perestroika) and free speech (glasnost.) On 23 August 1989, as part of a Singing Revolution that lasted over four years, the Baltic people created a human chain of two million people spanning from Estonia, to Latvia, to Lithuania in defiance of the Soviet occupiers.
In 1991, when the Soviets sought to regain control over the newly independent Baltic nations, singing was the only defense available to the three nations, and citizens responded with massive singing gatherings. Gorbachev, facing the prospect of having to kill thousands of unarmed civilians, ultimately backed down and the Baltic nations retained their freedom.
Yet, the Russian presence remains. In Estonia and Latvia, the ethnic Russian population exceeds 25 percent of the total population. Following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea, the Baltic nations are very suspicious of the Kremlin’s ambitions in their region and are seeking to better integrate their ethnic Russian populations. The Baltic States are members of NATO, but they fear a repeat of the 1940 Soviet invasion when the free world did not come to their help.
Most of us do not think of singing when contemplating revolutions, but the non-violent Singing Revolution ended up victorious over a violent armed occupation. The improbability of three small nations defeating the mighty Soviet military through song is a valuable tactical lesson for freedom lovers everywhere. But Putin is not Gorbachev, and singing may not deter Putin’s tanks. If Russia marches on