Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Singing Revolution: Past and Present
Singing Revolution: Past and Present

Singing Revolution: Past and Present

Singing Lithuanian civilian defenders flash victory signs at Soviet soldiers preparing to occupy the Vilnius Press Center, January 11, 1991. Photo by Paulius Lileikis. Courtesy of the Central State Archives of Lithuania, LCVA 0-1-8094.  Photo Credit: The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution (Seattle and Copenhagen: University of Washington Press and Museum Tusculanum Press, 2014), p. 301.

Singing Lithuanian civilian defenders flash victory signs at Soviet soldiers preparing to occupy the Vilnius Press Center, January 11, 1991. Photo by Paulius Lileikis. Courtesy of the Central State Archives of Lithuania, LCVA 0-1-8094. Photo Credit: The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution (Seattle and Copenhagen: University of Washington Press and Museum Tusculanum Press, 2014), p. 301.

Twenty five years ago, in September 1991 the Soviet Union recognized Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as independent countries. This was the dramatic conclusion to years of public activism.  These events began in 1987, when Balts reclaimed their rights to free speech and public assembly, and reached its climax in March 1990, when they elected governments that declared renewed independence. Over four long years of struggle, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians proved that determined nonviolent political action could accomplish seemingly impossible feats. Never before had three small nations achieved such dramatic political success in a nonviolent political struggle against a nuclear superpower fifty times their size.  A popular Latvian proverb expressed their movement’s ideology: Ar garaspēku pret karaspēku (With spiritual power against military power). Gene Sharp, historian of nonviolence, remarks that what the Balts did a quarter century ago “stands as a major milestone in the history of the modern world.”

The Singing Revolution was so named because Balts identified songs as the unifying symbol and nonviolent weapon of choice in the struggle for national self-determination. “A nation who makes its revolution by singing and smiling,” wrote Estonian artist Heinz Valk in 1988, “should be a sublime example to all.”  That summer, the ice of Soviet censorship was broken when singers at political demonstrations and concerts revived the illegal National Anthems of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Only a few months earlier, persons who dared to publicly carry the flags of the independent countries were arrested, but by July of 1988, police were powerless to stop thousands of persons who displayed flags. Mass euphoria prevailed as the Baltic public learned many more long-repressed rock, choral and folk songs that gave voice to their patriotism, religious belief and the simple joy of free speech. In 1989, when a million Balts joined hands in a well-publicized human chain from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius, a group of rock singers from all three nations created a trilingual smash hit about three sisters – the Baltic nations – awakening to defend their rights. And in the summer after the March 1990 declarations of independence, Balts placed independence on display at three national choral song festivals. These were public displays of self-organized, participant democracy: Tens of thousands of singers from all parts of each country merged in happy processions through the streets of the reclaimed capital cities, congregating on stage to sing in harmony. Step by step, Balts steadily moved forward. “Is liberty coming?” asked a speaker on Estonia’s stage.  “No, liberty is not coming,” came the answer, “We are going towards liberty. And we know that someday we will reach it.”

The Soviet crackdown came in January 1991. Armored vehicles and soldiers patrolled the streets, first occupying the portals of free communication – telephone switchboards, printing presses, radio and television broadcasting facilities. At the Vilnius television tower, Soviet troops forced their way through a wall of civilian defenders, killing fourteen and wounding hundreds more. Balts set up human barricades around their elected national parliaments to defend their last bastion of democracy. President Vytautas Landsbergis urged Lithuanians to suppress anger, and not to engage the violent tactics of their adversary: “Look into the eyes of the person who is close to you, and sing.  Song helped us for many centuries…. But let us leave the evil feelings and crimes to them…. Let’s not pay attention to that shooting, let’s sing!” 

Nonviolent tactics give the adversary a choice: Public singing events, and civilian defenders singing and smiling on barricades pose no physical threat to the armed soldiers they face; each soldier must choose between attacking or not attacking, between obeying and disobeying orders. Soviet leaders, both local military officers and commanders in Moscow, were offered a choice between a civilian bloodbath and peaceful resolution. The better angels of their nature prevailed, and they chose to withdraw from the city streets. From January to August 1991, Soviet special forces units targeted Baltic border posts, killing border guards in brutal displays of power, but they failed to provoke a violent response from the Baltic publics and governments. And in December of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

Baltic success entered the international narrative of nonviolent resistance, passing to future people a glimmer of hope that seemingly impossible political change is nevertheless possible.  Today, remembered at commemorative concerts, the Singing Revolution’s folksongs, rock songs, and choral songs still carry the spirit of that resistance, as an audible (and singable) window into the world of brave humans who confirmed that spiritual power can overcome military power.

Military defense of independence and democracy

Disengagement from Soviet military structures began in 1989, when Lithuanian men supported by Sąjūdis boycotted Soviet conscription.  Soon after declaring independence in spring of 1990, the Baltic governments ended shipments of supplies to Soviet military bases that remained on their territory.

During the Soviet military attacks in January 1991, the Baltic governments organized civilian-based defense programs that would soon transform into ministries of defense. Later that year they established armed forces; Western advisers helped craft legislation and administrative structures to ensure civilian control. Starting in 1993, bilateral training programs built interoperability of Baltic and American non-commissioned and regular troops. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia embarked on a determined path to membership in the NATO alliance: They joined Partnership for Peace in 1994, completed Membership Action Plans in 1998-2002, and entered the alliance after treaty ratification by NATO member states in 2003-2004. Public support for the armed forces did not waver after the first Baltic casualties in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today in Estonia and Lithuania, most of the population and nearly all elected political parties support policies of military conscription, and in Latvia, voluntary participation in the National Guard (Zemessardze) increased after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Have the three national cultures, and along with them national identities changed since the Singing Revolution?  No. It may seem a paradox that even at the height of the nonviolent movement, a core repertoire of songs were war songs – Lithuanians sang about glorious 15th-century battlefield victories of Grand Duke Vytautas, keeping alive memories of the post-WWII partisan resistance fighters who also sang them; Latvians recalled the famed WWI Latvian Riflemen’s songs; Estonians, too, sang pledges of bravery and loyalty unto death. Singing mustered courage and affirmed unity in struggle.

Balts most certainly were not and are not pacifists who would reject armed defense of their nations. They did, however, believe that in 1988-1991 nonviolent tactics could accomplish more than violent action. Nonviolent resistance can, and did, erode the power and will of an occupying force. Nonviolence affirms public norms for political action that may continue after the political objective is reached, laying foundations of peaceful democracy and rule of law.

But civilians cannot repel a foreign invasion. Preparing for the worst, Balts also worked to acquire the combat training and access to weapons purchases that are available to NATO members; potential invaders (conventional or hybrid) may be deterred as much by the costs of occupying territory as by the counterattack of NATO allies. Dainis Īvāns, a leader in the Latvian Singing Revolution, writes, “Even if one imagines for a moment that Russia’s tanks might arrive in Riga and our military forces, together with our allies, might retreat, the greatest challenge for the invaders would be holding ground the next day in face of general nonviolent resistance, which I’m certain would happen regardless of KGB-style repressions.” 

The power of songs

Threats of violence against the Baltic people continue today in hostile military exercises on their borders. Balts are prepared for both military defense and nonviolent resistance.

And they continue to sing, not only as a means to independence or a response to violent threats, but as an end in itself. Singing is at the heart of the national mission, a core objective when Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians created their independent republics in 1918 and renewed them in 1990. Song festival traditions that began in the 19th century blossomed upon the end of Soviet power twenty five years ago, and flourish in the 21st century. In 2003, Baltic song celebrations were inscribed in the UNESCO list of masterpieces of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

In July of 2014, the international organizing board of the World Choir Games announced the first-ever award of the World Choir Peace Prize to the three Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Accepting the award, Latvia’s Minister of Culture reiterated: “The Baltic Singing Revolution demonstrates that nations can fight for freedom and independence without violence and bloodshed. The power of song against the might of arms.” That month, Latvia hosted the World Choir Games, attended by 27,000 singers from seventy countries. The biennial event stresses the importance of international friendship in song; and yet, one of the choirs representing Russia marched in the festival procession holding high Imperial Russian flags: one displaying an attacking bear, and the second a slogan, “We are Russians. God is with us.” The specter of war loomed even at this peaceful gathering of singers from around the globe.

July 15, 2014, World Choir Games, Riga, Latvia. Choir from Russia displays imperial flag with inscription, “We are Russians. God is with us”.

An Estonian Singing Revolution song retains its poignant edge at concerts today, asking,  “Can this song continue to hold us together?” Can another miraculous turn of history once again prove the truth of an 1873 poem that lives on in the Latvian repertoire, “The power of songs drove away war”? Balts seem to believe it is possible. At the dress rehearsal of the 2014 Estonian National Song Celebration, the conductor urged the choir to enunciate a new song in its premiere: “Sing it clearly, sing it so that it can be heard all the way to Lasnamäe!” (a Russian-speaking neighborhood of Tallinn). The song, titled Touch, speaks gentle words of love: “I will touch you with the peace and joy within me; Touch me with the power of your goodness!  Heaven’s highest roads open up before us when we come together; leaving our troubles behind we can sing.”