Asserting cultural identity en masse to express opposition to an oppressive regime

In June of 1988, hundreds of thousands of Estonians (by some estimates, as many as 300,000, or one-third of the Estonian population) gathered for five consecutive nights in the capital city of Tallinn to sing forbidden or politi­cally risky folk songs. Similar festivals were held that summer in Latvia and Lithuania. This “Singing Revolution,” as it became known, was an important step toward the independence of all three Baltic states from the Soviet Union in August 1991.

The Soviet system actively sought to destroy people’s connection to their own national identities. Some elements of this identity had been preserved openly in ways that the regime deemed innocuous (such as certain folk songs); others had been hidden (such as references to “Estonia” rather than “the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic” and the observance of pre-Soviet national holidays) but still remembered by some. Those who had preserved these traditions used them to remind their fellow Estonians of their identity, motivate them to protect it and, in the con­text of glasnost, give them a safe way to express it.

The song festivals galvanized and popularized the nascent resistance movement by using powerful folk cul­tural symbols. Many participants came to the stadium wearing traditional dress and sang songs that emphasized their Estonian identity. Under a regime that had used the homogenization of culture as a tool of repression, the festivals gave Estonians a chance to stand up publicly as Estonians rather than Soviet citizens. The presence of 300,000 compatriots took some of the risk out of such a stance.

The festivals were organized by the Estonian Heritage Society (Eesti Muinsuskaitse Selts), an unofficial organiza­tion that took advantage of the relative openness of the glasnost era to push for public celebration of important national anniversaries and to revive key pre-Soviet national symbols, such as the blue-black-and-white Estonian flag and the national anthem. In the nearly bloodless battle for independence in the Baltics, these symbols were among the most powerful weapons.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

The Singing Revolution drew on cultural traditions that were particularly deep in the Baltic countries, includ­ing public song festivals with a history that went back formally more than 100 years and informally for many centuries. Other cultures may have similarly strong traditions of song, dance, theater or other forms of art or symbolic expression. Families of the disappeared, for example, have used a traditional folk dance learned by all Chileans and danced in pairs. When a spouse danced with a missing partner in a traditional paired dance, oth­ers could visualize the missing person and his place in the family and community.

When you want to mobilize large numbers of people, the challenge is often making them feel safe enough to speak out and providing assurances that they will not be alone. The organizers of the song festivals were count­ing on safety in numbers: The presence of hundreds of thousands of fellow singers offered some measure of safety for participants, though by no means was that safety assured.