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
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
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.