(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)
In the summer of 2012, we visited a former Soviet Republic for the first time. Today, Estonia is a prosperous, proud and independent nation located right across the Baltic Sea from Finland. However, until gaining its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed, it had endured 50 years of oppression.
Estonia was independent before World War II. It had a standard of living that surpassed many other European countries…including neighbouring Finland. However, after being forcibly stolen on multiple occasions by foreign powers (both Nazi Germany and the Red Army), it entered a long period of decay.
The Estonian language (somewhat similar to Finnish) was discouraged and many attempts were made (particularly by the Soviets) to dilute the Estonian identity. Executions and internal exile to Siberia were common. Yet, through it all, the dream of an independent Estonia persisted…through music.
Prior to visiting Estonia, we watched a documentary called “The Singing Revolution”. Estonia has a rich tradition of folk songs and its song festival was one of the only ways to keep the concept of Estonia alive on a large scale. These festivals also saw their share of censorship and oppression but the festivals still played a hugely important role in paving the way to Estonian independence through non-violent resistance. It is a very stirring story and I believe the video can be rented locally from Classic Video in Kingston. We enjoyed it so much that we bought our own copy!
Anyway, we decided that we would visit the Song Festival Grounds in Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn. Tallinn has a beautiful medieval centre and most tourists do not leave the old walled city. To get to the Song Festival Grounds, we had to walk east for about an hour. Some of the walk was extremely picturesque (see the “Kadriorg” summer residence at the top of this post, built by Peter the Great of Russia), while some of it was choked with traffic.
When we finally arrived, we found it unexpectedly moving to walk around the amphitheatre and the seating area, after having seen hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathering here in the documentary. At one point, there were 300,000 Estonians at the site…approximately one-third of the entire country.
The amphitheatre was impressive, although objectively one cannot say that it was more striking than the buildings around the main market square in downtown Tallinn. However, making the connection between the amphitheatre and the Singing Revolution has forever imprinted the Song Festival Grounds in our minds. Whenever we watch the documentary, it all comes back to life. It really is a wonderful story…and one that is still unknown to many.
Another highlight of our visit to Tallinn was being shown around a woodsy residential area by a local resident. We met her through an international postcard swapping organization called Postcrossing and, once again, the personal connection made it an extremely memorable occasion.
We found that many Estonians were very keen on sharing the story of their country: in the end, our 5-day visit was much too short. Other than a day trip to the seaside town of Haapsalu, Tallinn was the only place we visited (there will be another travel flashback on Estonia later). We hope to return someday and visit the pastoral island of Saaremaa as well as the university town of Tartu. If you’ve been to either of these places, please feel free to post a comment or drop me a line.
There are more flashbacks still to come…and stay tuned for a surprise journey coming up in April!