Magazine | August 15, 2011, Issue

Songs and Tanks

(Sky Films Incorporated)

Last month, a singer named Ibrahim Kashush was leading crowds in Syria. They were demonstrating against the dictatorship and for democracy and freedom. Kashush entertained, inspired, and delighted them with his songs and slogans. With his jokes, too. He was absolutely fearless — recklessly fearless — in challenging and mocking the dictatorship. The dictatorship, of course, was not amused. They slit his throat.

The singer’s friends set up a Facebook group in his honor. Fearless themselves, they vowed to “sing for freedom in Syria’s squares, even if the price is slaughter.”

Twenty-some years ago, protesters were singing in Estonian squares. This movement is captured in The Singing Revolution, a one-hour documentary to be shown on PBS this month and next. It comes from a longer film of the same name, made in 2006. The filmmakers are James and Maureen Tusty, husband and wife. Their film has a companion book, also called The Singing Revolution, written by Priit Vesilind.

Why is PBS showing the documentary? We are in an anniversary year: It has been 20 years since the Soviet Union fell and Estonia reemerged, along with other inmates of “the prisonhouse of nations.”

Like the Welsh and some others, the Estonians are a singing people. Every five years, they have a nationwide song festival. The first was held in 1869. Traditionally, something like a third of the population shows up. They sing songs that help bind them together as a people.

There are 1.3 million Estonians today, living in their lovely land on the Baltic Sea (and the Gulf of Finland, and other bodies of water). For centuries the object of conquest and occupation, Estonia enjoyed two decades of independence, from the first world war to the second. On August 23, 1939, Hitler and Stalin, through their representatives Ribbentrop and Molotov, signed their pact. And that was that.

About the Soviets’ treatment of the Estonians, I will say little. The film says a lot. It is basically too awful to bear. Then came the Nazis, another chapter without prettiness. Then the Soviets returned, “liberating” the land. Also Russifying it. Eventually, 35 or 40 percent of the population was Russian.

At one time, Estonia was a member of the League of Nations. It sent athletes to the Olympic Games. Now it was just an SSR, a Soviet socialist republic, one of the 15. It did not appear on many maps. The writers of the preface to the companion book say something striking, something quirky: “Even philatelists lost interest” in Estonia, since the country, or former country, “no longer issued her own postage stamps.”

Regardless of what the outside world thought, Estonians themselves did not forget they were Estonian. They continued to hold their song festivals. The official fare was paeans to Stalin and such. But they still sang their own songs, unofficially.

In 1985 came Gorbachev, and, with him, perestroika and glasnost. The Estonians, like others, saw their openings — and took them. The film quotes Trivimi Velliste, an Estonian historian and revolutionary, later a diplomat and politician. He says that Gorbachev made one “fundamental mistake: He didn’t realize that when you give free speech to people, things can get out of hand.”

Estonian revolutionaries — simple democrats, independence-seekers — held their first rally in August 1987, on the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Mart Laar, another historian, revolutionary, and politician, describes what happened: Leaders of the rally began to talk, and were not arrested. Somewhat amazed by this, they talked some more. Still not arrested, they talked even more.

The next summer, there were six consecutive nights of song, as Estonians found their collective voice. “Estonian I am, and Estonian I will be, as I was meant to be.” These concerts, or rallies, or “sing-ins,” took place on the song-festival grounds. On the second night, a man on a motorcycle whipped around the perimeter, bearing an Estonian flag. A flag that had been banned for 50 years. It electrified the crowd, many of whom were seeing their national colors in public for the first time.

#page#In the film, a beautiful woman — i.e., a typical Estonian woman — remembers these nights of singing. She says, “I still have chicken skin” (goosebumps), thinking about them.

August 23, 1989, was the 50th anniversary of the pact. More than a million Balts formed a human chain, stretching from Tallinn in the north to Vilnius in the south. In March 1990, Estonians formed their own parliament. One harrowing day, two months later, Russians loyal to the USSR nearly took it by force. These citizens were organized in a group — more like a mob — called Interfront. When Interfront besieged the parliament, Estonians hurried to the site en masse. “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” they chanted. They won this standoff and allowed the Russians to retreat, unmolested.

Where was Gorbachev in all this? Doing nothing, letting the captive nations go? He tried a little repression in Lithuania. That was in January 1991, when most of the world was eyeing the coming Gulf War. Soviet forces killed 14 in Vilnius. A week later, they killed six in Riga. Those are paltry numbers, by Soviet standards. Estonians thought it was their turn next, that they would be cracked down on — but the crackdown never came.

It was a very close call, however. Events leading to independence were tense and terrifying. This was particularly true in August 1991, when the hard-line Communists in Moscow staged their coup. Soviet tanks raced into Estonia, to crush independence. But Yeltsin jumped on a tank of his own, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, and by mid-September Estonia was a member of the United Nations.

The Singing Revolution chronicles all this in deft and moving fashion. It is a fine and gratifying documentary. I have my quibbles, of course, because one always does. For instance, why can’t interviewees give their testimony without music in the background? Must there always be a soundtrack? And when events turn ominous or ugly, so does the music — just as in any number of bad TV shows. The story here is dramatic enough without the aid, if we can call it aid, of music.

But, again, this is a fine and gratifying documentary — gratifying, in part, because it is anti-Communist. Even at this late date, 2011, I am unused to seeing such a film. When I was coming of age, you were pounced on if you criticized, or even questioned, life behind the Iron Curtain. That was “poisoning the atmosphere of détente.” The language of this film, the narration, is bracing, and truthful. For example, “In 1941, Hitler betrayed Stalin and broke their agreement.”

That should be a completely unremarkable and uncontroversial statement. But my professors didn’t talk that way. Did yours?

The film has a lot to say about the power of music, and the Estonian voices, swelling in chorus, are powerful and moving indeed. I too had chicken skin. There might even have been a tear. But let’s face it: Music can take you only so far.

Priit Vesilind’s book begins, “Estonia sang its way to freedom.” He doesn’t really mean that. He is no fool. He’s simply exercising poetic license. A blurb for the book reads, “A courageous people showed the world that Soviet tanks were no match for Estonian song.” In my opinion, that is not just a poetic or fanciful statement, but also a slightly offensive one.

#page#Hungarians in 1956 were very brave, and they might have been good singers, too. Same with the Czechs in 1968. In fact, the Hungarians and the Czechs are two of the most musical peoples in the world. But they were run over with tanks. The Syrians, right this second, are bravely singing. And, just like the Estonians, they’re chanting, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Unlike the Estonians, they are being killed, in large numbers. Some 2,000 have died so far. Bashar Assad does not suffer from the squeamishness of Gorbachev.

“But Gorby had no options!” people like to say. Back in the late 1990s, I heard Condoleezza Rice scoff at this assertion, in a memorable way. “Oh, he had options, all right. He had 390,000 troops in Germany” — in Germany alone. He could have done tremendous damage, in many places. He could have squashed rebellious people like bugs, just as his predecessors had. But he did not.

At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, I talked to Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader. He, too, put the matter in a memorable way: “Gorbachev had the instruments of rape, and did not use them.” He won the Nobel peace prize for refusing to rape. That prize has been given for less admirable reasons.

At that same forum, Estonia’s Mart Laar spoke. He said, matter-of-factly, that freedom revolutions can go wrong, as in Tiananmen Square. The key requirement in such revolutions, he said, is international pressure: Estonians had the gift of international pressure. But did the Chinese? Do the Syrians?

In a recent phone conversation, Laar pointed out that Syrians have one thing the Estonians lacked: the new media, including the Internet. That is a valuable tool. If you can keep the state from monopolizing information, you have gone a long way. And no matter what, said Laar, a people under dictatorship “must try”: must try to win their freedom. “You never know how weak a dictatorship is until you test it. You may fail — you can easily fail — but you must try.” And the less fear you have, the better.

Above, I noted the grisly fact that the Syrian authorities slit Ibrahim Kashush’s throat. Here is another fact: They cut out his vocal cords. They don’t have time for subtlety, Assad’s boys. Here was one singer who would no longer sing. Nonetheless, those other Syrians have vowed to sing on.

A journalist on al-Arabiya’s website wrote, “The murderers understood the threat conveyed by Kashush’s deeds. Hundreds of thousands of people memorized and chanted his slogans as they laughed, clapped their hands, and rejoiced.” His voice “became the voice that united the demonstrators” in Syria and beyond, Arab citizens “who reject the repressive regimes, the torture, the arrests, and the disappearances of people.”

One of Kashush’s chants went, “Come on, Bashar, get lost. Take your brother Maher and take off. Get lost, get lost. Freedom is very near.”

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