A kind reader directed me to The Singing Revolution, a film on Estonians’ movement to regain their independence from the Soviet Union, highlighting the special role music played in the sustenance of spirit and solidarity.
And also, for me, a film on the double meaning of patriotism, both a shining strength—the indispensable key to independence—and a stupefying weakness, the excuse to elide or ignore whatever contradicts one’s national mythos.
The Singing Revolution is deeply moving and ecstatically, orgasmically, patriotic. To contradict the view that culture—that art—is a frill on the body politic, it offers a well-documented account of the determined way Estonians used mass-scale public performance of patriotic song to defy Soviet oppressors and cultivate a sense of unity and hope.
If they protested in other ways, Estonians risked their lives and freedom, many paying a terrible price for resisting Soviet authority: long imprisonment in Siberia, torture, separation from their families, and more. But a longstanding tradition of song festivals—where choirs from across the country form a mega-chorus to sing together the folk songs they have separately rehearsed—provided the container and occasion for a less overt refusal to submit.
The film contains remarkable scenes in which 300,000 Estonians (more than a quarter of the population) gathered on the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn to proclaim their independence, singing the unofficial national anthem, “Mu isamaa on minu arm/My Fatherland Is My Love.” In the late 80s and early 90s, inspired by the experience of the Song Festivals, Estonians put their bodies in the way of tanks, acting as human shields, singing for courage, succeeding without bloodshed.
The conventional view of cultural practice is so anemic, some may find it hard to take in the full meaning of the Singing Revolution (the film’s title is also the name by which the Estonian liberation struggle came to be known) as an act of both art and social change. Regardless of whatever is sung and where it is sung, singing is intrinsically inspiriting. Physiologically, it enhances respiration and oxygen supply. It exercises the diaphragm and stimulates blood flow to the organs. Beyond the physical stimulation, the enlivening sensation created by singing, our bodies and minds respond to both the words and music, which is why we often feel elevated and exhilarated after singing at full capacity. It evokes a feeling of wholeness that is one reason why song is so much a part of worship in so many traditions.
Public performance of a national anthem or another emblematic political song (think “We Shall Overcome” or “We Shall Not Be Moved”) is one of the most widely shared experiences of mass cultural practice, simultaneously spiritual and political, aligning the bodies and spirits of the countless thousands who gather to sing it.
These effects are present whether it is “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi national anthem, which by fiat—for continuity’s sake—was simply appended to the first verse of the Deutschlandlied (“Deutschland, Deutschland über ales“). Today, the Deutschlandlied is still Germany’s national anthem, but only its third verse, stressing brotherly love and (there it is again) Fatherland.
I thought about patriotism’s double edge as I watched The Singing Revolution. I haven’t made an exhaustive study of national anthems, but I’m guessing that the self-glorification which seems intrinsic to patriotic fervor is present in most of them. The ecstasy of extreme patriotism requires both a glorious collective self and a detested Other. Estonian history reveals an abundance of Others, that small nation having been conquered by Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians over centuries of embattlement. Indeed, most historians point to an Estonian “National Awakening” beginning in the mid-19th century, which led to the first declaration of independence in 1918. So in the long sweep of history, the Estonian national identity glorified in The Singing Revolution is relatively recent.
The film exalts the nobility of the Estonian spirit in contrast with its occupiers. There are scenes of ethnic Russians demonstrating against mass expressions of Estonian patriotism, expressing fear for their own safety should Estonian independence succeed. No doubt these fears were fed by Soviet propaganda (especially ironic given that in August, 1991, immediately following the declaration of Estonian independence, the state of Russia declared its own autonomy, signaling the final collapse of the Soviet Union). A Russian woman is captured whispering that Estonians are untrustworthy (“they seem so nice, but behind your back…”). Of course, the bulk of the film telegraphs a mirror message: Soviet declarations of fellowship are properly contrasted with acts of oppression, duplicitous Soviet functionaries are intercut with angelic Estonian girls in national costume.
In the manner of its kind, the film is quick to elide those passages of history that might mar a portrait of unblemished heroism. There was an Estonian division of the Waffen-SS, not mentioned here. The film says only that some Estonians were forced to join the German army under threat of death, but not that the same very real and terrible threat was present in every occupied nation, was faced by every national resistance and underground force. The prewar Estonian Jewish population was small, and there was no evident resistance to the removal or extermination of those who remained in the country at the time of Nazi occupation. In fact, Estonia was one of the first countries declared Judenfrei—free of Jews—at the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942, to inspire other Nazi leaders to acts of ethnic cleansing. The usual explanation is that, having been occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 as an outcome of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Estonians saw Germany as a counterweight to Soviet domination, so put their shoulders on the German side of the conflict.
There is some terrible truth exposed here: that love of one’s own kind, one’s own land, is a powerful force, analogous to electricity. Electricity doesn’t care if it powers surgical equipment or instruments of torture. Patriotism can fuel liberation or oppression. Without its intensity in our own times, we would not have the tidal wave of self-determination that has freed so many colonized people; nor the hurricane of self-entitled imperial conquest that has oppressed so many others. We can’t root it out of the human subject, but if we let it get the best of us—as in President Bush’s appetite for conquest, grounded in his certainty of divine approval—the price can be high beyond reckoning.
See The Singing Revolution for its remarkable demonstration of the power of art to move worlds. Revel in its depiction of culture as a source of optimism, a high and fine desire for freedom that created profound social change through nonviolence, liberating a subject people.
But when you switch it off, sit for a moment to contemplate patriotism’s double edge. James Baldwin has lately become my patron saint. His words inspire me because they seem to contain whole truths, the kind that open one’s eyes, even to sights painful to contemplate. “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” he said. If this great intellect and spirit could open in love to the country that enslaved his ancestors, then I can live with my own ambivalence about both the boon and disappointment this nation has been to the much more recent (and more voluntary) arrivals in my own family line.
The question of patriotism can never be settled, just held, gingerly, so neither of its edges does damage.