On this particular day in Tallinn, Estonia on July 1999 I decided to do a DIY renovation in one of my apartments and not attend the Estonian Song and Dance Festival. I planned to rent out the apartment in the fall and was looking forward to customizing the improvements in what had once been my maternal grandfather’s building. The day was hot and my project was to remove old wallpaper. It peeled off easily enough as long as I kept dousing it with generous jets of water with my sprayer before digging in with the scraper.
In the distance I heard the first chant:
“Elagu. . . . . ” (Long live . . . . the name of the school, village, etc.)
The wave of words flowed towards me in a stirring crescendo as the parade of folk dancers and singers approached. Men, women, old and young, as well as kids were heading east along the avenue towards Kadriorg Park to the Estonian Song and Dance festival grounds that faced north, towards the Baltic Sea. This four mile walk took about five hours and it seemed like all 18,000 of the participants were taking part.
Up until this point, I’d found my project pleasantly absorbing since I could stop to read segments of old newspaper articles sandwiched between layers of faded flowers and abstract patterns. The look and feel of the messages varied depending on what political authority was running the country at that particular time.
There was the Estonian period (Eesti aeg) of the 1930s up until 1940 when the Red Army moved in. Then there was the German Period (Saksa aeg) from 1941-1944 and then back to the Soviet Period (Nõukogude aeg), a very tough stretch of time that tested the resilience of the Estonian spirit for half a century until their regained independence in 1991.
The topmost newspaper layer stopped at the 1970s, indicating a probable wallpaper deficit. This period was called the Stagnation Period (stagnaaeg) where the economy under Brezhnev took a steep nosedive.
It made my head spin. I tried to imagine living in a place where fluky political winds of change initiated three foreign occupations within five years. The names of streets and towns, shops and schools switched from Estonian, to Russian, to German and back to Russian again. These were the conditions in which my mother, aunt and grandmother lived until their escape in 1943.
I looked again at the soggy wad of exposed wallpaper designs from the past and marveled that people could occupy themselves with home décor in spite of the insanity taking place just outside their door. Perhaps keeping oneself busy with routine activities is the key to keeping one’s mind from becoming totally seized up with fear. I could only speculate.
Exposing decades of decorative art covered by propaganda newsprint was akin to opening up a time capsule and as difficult as it was to read Estonian in old Gothic font (German Period), I wanted to delve further into the mindset of the authors.
Another wave of “Elagu” brought me back to the present. My eyes needed a respite from the over-elaborate font and the idea of watching the Estonian Song and Dance festival parade drew me to the open window.
My building was situated on a corner where this apartment faced the narrow side street called Aedvilja tanav. (Garden Street) Situated on the third floor I had a diagonal bird’s eye view to Narva mantee (Narva Highway.) (This building had an interesting story connected with the soviet system.)
It wasn’t a highway anymore since the definition of fast travel was no longer as it had once been. This road was born in the Bronze Age where it connected important centers of trade to Narva on the Russian border. Once it began to vibrate with the clamor of trams, buses and cars it had already become one among many busy city streets.
For parade day the traffic had been rerouted for the Estonian Song and Dance Festival so that the street was eerily calm. The only other time I’d experienced this stillness was in the winter of 1991 when there was a shortage of gasoline. Moscow was not sending anything to the upstart little country that chose to secede from their neighbor.
I took another thirst quenching gulp from a bottle of A. Le Coq beer and marveled at the velvety smoothness and vanilla-like taste. Vanilla? (I rarely drink beer.)
Look to the Countryside for Cultural Authenticity
This Laulupidu (song festival) parade served as an appetizer for the main course later on and the splendid display of colourful 19th century era traditional clothing represents the true folk essence of the culture. The procession was a continual passing of the colours of nature. Wool and thread dyed in plant based pigments provided soft hues from rhubarb, sunflowers, onions and parsley to name a few.
Striped homespun woolen dirndl skirts caught in the movement of dance became a blur of colours like the whirly pinwheels we played with as kids.
Water lilies and tulips embroidered onto white blouses shimmered in the sun.
Immense round silver broaches rested on generous breasts and served to establish the importance of the wearer’s status.
Estonians have been celebrating the Estonian Song and Dance festival since 1869 and for every five years ever since. With only 1.3 million people their national identity wants to be rekindled and celebrated regularly. Worn with pride, the folk dress symbolically preserves the national values and cultural heritage while uniting the people.
This spark of awareness or wakefulness is exactly what was experienced by the forefathers who became sufficiently conscious of their unity to create a government of their own. When a community awakens to the fact that it is a nation it is called a national awakening and a power to be reckoned with.
The National Awakening
In the late 1880s the first Estonian language newspapers came into existence. The author Friedrich Kreuzwaldi also published the epic Kalevipoeg which brought together the wealth of Estonian folk tales and legends. The first song festival spotlighted the treasure trove of music that Estonians had created throughout their existence as a culture. This corpus of 133,000 folk songs is called the Monumenta Estoniae Antiquae and is the second largest in the world after Ireland.
The time had come to declare nationhood and bring an end to 700 years of slavery. Concerned, the tsar of Russia initiated a push for russification where education would be given in Russian and not Estonian.
The tsars had controlled Estonia for centuries starting with Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. In spite of the Estonians’ status of servitude, nationalistic values were preserved and transmitted within families.
Estonia’s window of opportunity for nationhood came in 1918 when the Bolsheviks took over Imperial Russia.
A Time for Celebration in Dance
It seemed as if almost everybody in Estonia was in Tallinn this weekend since about a third of the 1.3 million people of Estonia attend. They came to reconnect with that important feeling inside when one is united in song and dance. Dance is a very important element in Estonian cultural history since it provides a source of support during difficult times as well as celebrations of happiness and health.
Friends had told me that had the Soviet Union continued to exist it would not have been long before the Estonian culture would have disappeared. The russification continued during the soviet occupation.
When I arrived in 1990 much had occurred both behind and onstage. Many have heard of the Singing Revolution that “trumped rifles”. This was when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, still under soviet occupation, did the unthinkable and “illegally” organized an event in 1988 where a human chain linked the three countries. People came together to sing their national folk songs that had been forbidden for half a century.
Venues emerged where the public could gather to listen to speakers from the newly formed political parties speaking out about needed change. They openly declared that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 had never been agreed to by Estonia.This ouvert declaration had been denied to them for half a century and opened the gates to long suppressed emotions that needed to be heard.
They also openly declared that they had never agreed to accept soviet passports. The newly created Congress invited the people to register themselves as Estonian citizens and all did.
The stage was being set for Estonia to become an independent republic again and all they had to do was wait for the right moment. It was all in the timing.
The Final Hours
On the night of August 19-20, 1991, the TV tower in Tallinn was surrounded by dozens of Red Army tanks. Inside the tower two Estonian police officers had barricaded the door to stop any forced entry. After five hours the situation grew tense. Suddenly, the tanks were instructed to turn around and leave.
Gorbachev had been placed under house arrest and the USSR was no longer in existence.
The window of opportunity had come again and Estonia re-established full independence.
Today’s parade was the second one since independence. What an incredible journey. On July 4-6, 2014 Estonia will celebrate its fifth song and dance festival with the motto, “Touched by Time. The Time of Touch”. It is also the year where the country will commemorate 45 years’ of independence.
The restructuring of the country has required great patience. Over the centuries the Estonians have fine tuned their staying power finding inspiration in the special qualities that nature provides.
Kids who remember that heady summer of 1991 are now parents themselves. They have continued in the same vein as their parents and passed on to their children the stories, songs and dances to keep the culture going. The parades have become more elaborate, the spectators are better dressed and the city has grown rapidly to meet the 21st century head on.
For me though, I will never forget the Estonian Song and Dance festival parade on that hot summer day of 1991 where “Elagu Eestimaa” – Long Live Estonia reverberated for five hours. My clean walls waited patiently for the first page of a new story and that story was one that I would never have imagined possible.