The Singing Revolution tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing forbidden patriotic songs and share protest speeches, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence from the Soviet Union.
Here, filmmakers Maureen Castle and Jim Tusty discuss what inspired them to make the film, and what makes Estonia and its people so special.
Q: How did The Singing Revolution project get started?
Maureen Castle: Jim and I were in Estonia, teaching a three-month film course at the first university to teach film after the departure of the Soviets. People started to share stories with us: casually at first, sitting over dinner, through friendships. But as the tears would flow, these powerful stories and images began to unfold. When we returned home, it was amazing to tell the story outside of Estonia. Maybe history would have been different if the rest of the world understood the Estonian situation in 1939. Maybe this film can help prevent something like this happening again.
Jim Tusty: The story of the Estonian occupation, the Singing Revolution, and then independence were all current events for those then living in Estonia. We were afraid that Estonians might feel that two people who live 5,000 miles away didn’t have the right to tell their story. But we were told by Estonians that this is a story that needed someone from the outside to tell it—someone with no prior bias but who also didn’t have to start from scratch to understand the situation.
I’m a dual citizen—my father was born in Estonia and came over during the pre-Stalin years. Most Estonians who fled Stalin in 1944 formed incredibly tight communities and, to this day, third and fourth generations still speak fluent Estonian. They always planned on going back when it was finally safe to do so. But my father came over in 1924 when he was 10. He came through Ellis Island and wanted nothing more than to be an American. He married a non-Estonian, and English was the language of my household. This would create a unique position for me because I wasn’t raised in one of the strictly Estonian communities, yet I have been very aware of Estonia from early childhood.
Q: What were some of the issues that you thought about while making the film?
Maureen Castle: One of the major questions it brought up to us was if we were there ourselves, what would we have done? Estonians feared a replay of Hungary 1956, when Soviet tanks came in and mercilessly suppressed an independence movement. Up until that time, Estonians held hope that the British and the US would eventually pressure the Soviets to leave the Baltics, but when they saw that the British and Americans left Hungary to its fate, they understood they were alone. It changed the country’s mindset about the future.
The Soviets had a history of doing their dirty work under the cover of another international incident. That way, their actions were less likely to make the front page. For example, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary massacring its citizens under the cover of the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. Similarly, in 1991, Soviet soldiers killed peaceful Lithuanian demonstrators (Soviet tanks killed 14, injured 200 as their tanks ran over those demonstrating) just as Desert Storm started. A short time later, they killed six more people in Latvia. We doubt that was a coincidence. It was intended to teach the independence-minded Baltic people a lesson.
You can hope that you’d stand up to this aggression, but you don’t know until you’re faced with the decision.
Q: Tell us a bit about the events that led to the Estonians standing up to the Soviets.
Jim Tusty: Gorbachev gave Estonians their opportunity when he announced perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (free speech). The Estonians calculated that they could use these concepts to their advantage. By rigorously staying away from violence (which would have given the Soviets a reason to crackdown and jail any protestors), they could push and push at the walls surrounding them until they collapsed.
Estonian lawmakers even made the hammer and sickle (the Soviet official symbol) illegal, and under glasnost there was little the Soviets could do about it! Gorbachev furiously reprimanded Estonia, but his bluff was called and he actually did little.
Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev had a rivalry building about where the Soviet Union was headed. This was basically a standoff of modeling Western democracies (Yeltsin) vs. maintaining Communist control (Gorbachev). Six months before the fall of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence by Estonia, Yeltsin signed a “mutual respect” pact with all three of the Baltic nations, effectively saying that should anything happen, each country agreed to respect the decision of each of the other countries. So when Estonia reaffirmed its independence in August of 1991, it was very logical that Yeltsin announced independence the next day for Russia.
Maureen Castle: It was the perfect storm adding up to the fall of the Soviet Union: a weakening Soviet economy, Gorbachev’s ascension to power (who never understood feelings of nationalism in the Soviet occupied countries), U.S.-Soviet geopolitics, together with determined action by the Estonians and the other Baltic States.
Q: What is it about this small country and its people that make it so special?
Maureen Castle: Estonia is an amazing nation. Just look at the power of—the undeniable strength of being able to say — “I am Estonian.”
Estonians have inhabited Estonia for 5,000 years or more. But for 700 years, from 1228 to 1918, they were not the ruling class. The country has incredibly valuable trading ports, yet in recent history the Estonian people were always in the service of others. Finally, the people of the land said “we want to rule ourselves again”. It’s time Estonia and Estonian identity rises. Their culture and the history of the land are so interconnected. Estonia is one of the oldest continuously inhabited lands in the world. When you’re on the land for 8,000 years, you can survive anything.