Estonia : Tartu
This is the third installment in a series on my experience of Estonia on the occasion of its 20th anniversary of re-independence from the Soviet Union. 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.
Expressing their national identity through song has been an Estonian tradition for as long as memory serves — the Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1.5 million pages of folk songs and there are continual competitions and festivals around the country. The country’s “choir culture” is flourishing, with music continuing to serve as the force that unites Estonians as they enter the third decade of their fledgling democracy.
Estonia is a window into how one small country moved from living in fear under a totalitarian system to an environment of such openness that today it is known as one of the most “wired” nations in the world. In my journey across this small country, I met a cross-section of people whose experiences tell the story of Estonia’s past, present and future — and provide powerful lessons in how the irrepressible human spirit can overcome bondage. While there, I had my own awakening, realizing that repression can also be self-imposed and that freedom sometimes is simply a choice to cast off old chains of ancient history and embrace today.
Pulse quickening, I took a breath and turned the steering wheel, swinging the car to the left of the massive commercial truck in front of me, only to come face-to-face with a car barreling toward me at high speed. Chest pounding, I swerved back to safety behind the truck.
It was a mere two-hour journey of only 174 kilometers to cross the country from its “Summer Capital” of Parnu on the coast of the Baltic Sea to its “Culture Capital” of Tartu, not far from the Russian border. But for a less-than-intrepid traveler who hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car most of her life, this was an epic journey. Fortunately, I had obtained a GPS while in Parnu, which no doubt contributed significantly to my sudden onset of bravado.
In the past week I had explored Parnu, as well as the capital of Tallinn, and two of the country’s more than 1,500 islands. In each locale, I had been charmed by disarmingly direct people, with the dry, dead-pan humor of so many Scandinavians. On a deeper level, listening to first-hand accounts of how Estonia broke free after fifty years under Communism stirred up some long-repressed defiance in me. After doing what I had thought was expected of me for so long, I found myself questioning concepts of a lifetime. Choosing not to stay behind a slow-moving truck was a break-out move, literally and figuratively.
The road cut through long stretches of dense pine forest, and as the miles blew by, I tested this new-found fearlessness, becoming a little more daring with each motorist I passed. My adrenaline in overdrive, I giddily zoomed by two cars in one fell swoop, shouting out a joyous “Woo Hoo!” as I eased into my lane.
Just in time to prevent me from getting too carried away, the landscape began to change and I slowed to take in the scenery. Leaving behind a forest that seemed endless, my route brought me to the outskirts of the city of Viljandi, a populated area. I caught a glimpse of an impressive church and swung off the road for a closer look. Nearby, a monument had been erected on an embankment above immense fields of grain. It was carved with the names of those who lost their lives during the war of 1918–20 and adorned with a ribbon in Estonia’s colors of blue, white and black. At its feet lay a fresh bouquet of roses in remembrance.
Further down the road, I came upon a leafy wooded area and saw flashes of white amidst the greenery, which I realized were crosses.This cemetery was altogether different than any I had ever visited before on my numerous treks through such sacred spaces. Instead of the typical treeless expanse, a well-trod path wended through family plots under a cooling canopy of broad leaves. Bushes were in abundance and ferns flourished; these acres dedicated to the memory of the dead were alive and lush, yet utterly calming and peaceful. As I meandered, a handful of people arrived to walk purposefully toward a gravestone.
Turn the “page” to keep reading