Happy 21st Estonia

Music is very spiritual, it has the power to bring people together.

~Edgar Winter, 1946


Saaremaa, Estonia

Saaremaa, Estonia


Estonia celebrated 21 years of freedom yesterday.   On August 20, 1991, the country broke free of the Soviet regime and became independent. In what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” residents of this Baltic state wielded a long-held cultural practice as a weapon of change, without a drop of blood spilled.

Over the four years between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly in a series of spontaneous events to sing prohibited patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence, culminating in a choral event that close to one-third of the country’s citizens attended.

Last year at this time, I was in Estonia and as I travelled across the country, I met dozens of people who spoke about the transformative power of song in liberating the country from centuries under a series of oppressors.

One of those voices was Janno Karu of the Räpina region, whose personal experience and family history speak volumes about how the hope and hardiness of the Estonian people prevailed over a heritage often filled with horrors.

“I was in Tallinn on August 20th last year for the song festival to celebrate 20 years of Estonia being an independent state again,” Janno said. “Close to 100 000 people, young and old were really eager to get together and feel again the openness and these extremely powerful emotions that we all felt August 20th 1991.”

“That summer, I was 19 years old and had just graduated the gymnasium,” Janno recalled. “Enthusiasm and patriotism among young people was enormous after the Night Song Festivals during last couple of years.  The coup in Moscow on August 19th resulted in Estonia declaring its independence on August 20th. We all knew that Russian military special troops were heading towards Tallinn to cool us down. ”

“I spent two nights with friends guarding the radio center against the Russian tanks, as others were doing the same with TV center and tower,” he said.  “We wore arm bands. There were people of all ages there.  As young people, we had our whole lives in front of us.  We saw older people who we knew didn’t.”

“The Tallinn TV tower was one of very few links to Western world to broadcast the true news of what was happening in Moscow, when the coup eliminated Gorbachev from power” he remembered.  “Hearing on the radio that tanks were approaching the TV tower, we wanted to go there instead of guarding the radio center. But the older men did not allow us and there were no transports available. I do not remember any fear among us young people, rather feeling extremely proud of somehow helping our country to be finally free. Luckily it all ended in a non-violent way, with the coup in Moscow failing, the Russian tanks getting that message just before they attacked and Estonia becoming an independent country.”

“Singing had a big influence on the freedom effort but it was also a passport to get out of the country during Soviet times,” Janno said. “In my gymnasium, I was in a male choir.  I remember being 16 and going to a festival in West Germany in 1988, going on a bus over night over the border. When I woke up, it was like being in a completely different world. Extremely good roads, cars you could only dream of passing by on the Autobahn at 200 km/h.  People were so kind and interested in our fate.  Every village, field, house and garden was so nice and clean, like in a fairy tale.  With the choir, even before independence, I was able to travel to Italy, Hungary and the U.K., as well as throughout Estonia to participate in festivals. These were very encouraging experiences.”

“During the Soviet years parades were mandatory for schools on the 1st of May for Labor day and the 7th of November for the October revolution,” he continued. “We marched 1.5 hours in a huge column, carrying slogans glorifying the Communist party.  The Soviet newspaper Pravda usually printed the day before the slogans that were recommended to be prepared for each year’s parade. We would pass the platform where party leaders and military officials were sitting and we would shout greetings to them in an organized way. We took it as a fun, and I guess most people understood the ridiculousness of the messages. The real parades, where people were eager to go, were for the singing festivals.  Even in the Soviet years, 30 000 would march through the city towards Song Festival grounds.”

“With re-Independence, young people were able to hold positions of great responsibility because they knew other languages, had been taught about modern market economy at universities, viewed things differently than some of the older workers who had learned to become proud of outsmarting the Soviets and stealing from their system,” Janno observed.

“I am very grateful to my first real employer, Kalju Pigert, an Estonian who escaped to Sweden in 1944 and established Scania Trucks and Buses in Estonia in 1992,” Janno said. “At just 20 years old, he trusted me as sales manager, later naming me a managing director. He remembered the old Estonian Republic and he taught me the values of a modern world, how to make business on a win-win principle, how manage people in a respectful way and how to be a trustful partner.”

Janno has applied those principles as owner of Hotel Räpina, an enterprise that has personal significance.

“The building was originally erected by my grandmother’s uncle Rudolf Kiudosk and his sister Bertha in 1930,” Janno told me.  “At that time, it was one of the best structures in town.  When our family got the house back in early 1990s it was one of the worst, having fallen into disrepair.  It is one of the only houses in Räpina built in this style that remains.”

Janno said that in 1930, after the house was finished, Rudolf rented out the whole second floor to the Estonian Post Office–they realized was a bit difficult to carry packages up and down stairs and after couple of years they moved to another location. The first floor was used as store where Bertha sold fabrics and clothing and Rudolph was the manager.

Ten years after Janno’s grand-uncle erected the building, it was nationalized by the Russians when the Soviet Union occupied Estonia in 1940.

“Estonia was greatly affected by WWII,” Janno said. “The Soviet Union occupied the country in 1940-41, followed by mass deportations of intellectuals and wealthier people to Siberia. The Soviet system of command economy abolished private ownership, declaring all property ‘belonging to the people,’ which in reality meant that property was taken over from their rightful owners by the Communist regime and divided among the “loyal comrades,” many of whom were relocated from Russia to Estonia in order to change the ethnic makeup of the population.”

“Between 1941-44 Estonia was occupied by Germany, when houses were returned to their lawful owners, including our house,” Janno continued. “The Germans were beaten by the Russians in 1944 and the Soviet Union re-occupied Estonia from that time until 1991. The US, the UK, France and other Western democracies considered the annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union illegal and never officially recognized the Soviet Republic of Estonia.”

“Under the Soviets, the house was of course nationalized again and my grandmother’s uncle Rudolf Kiudosk, along with his brother and sister, was deported to Siberia in 1949, where he died,” Janno explained. “His sister Bertha Kiudosk was the only one to return from Siberia after an amnesty that followed Stalin’s death.

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