margaret pierComment

Estonia's Saaremaa Island a Window into Deep History & Singing Revolution

margaret pierComment
Estonia's Saaremaa Island a Window into Deep History & Singing Revolution

This piece is one of three in a series on Estonia's choral culture. 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. 

Only mere moments  after arriving on Saaremaa Island, I was already lost. Still jet lagged and disoriented, I strained to get straight the one-step directions I had been given. Was I supposed to take the first right . . . or the second? My stomach muscles tightened and my heart rate accelerated. For someone who hated getting lost, I was doing a lot of it lately.

It dawned on me to apply a bit of advice I had been given years earlier, a suggestion that always proved to be pretty effective when I remembered it — when I felt agitated, the first thing I needed to do was quiet the disturbance within me. Spotting a gravel lot along the road ahead, I swung off the two-lane byway and pulled in. Getting out of the car and stepping into the warm summer morning, it was hard to imagine a more serene spot to get my bearings.

Leaning back against the hood, I looked out at a panorama of translucent pale blue, finding it hard to tell where the water ended and the sky began. The soothing expanse shimmered in the sun, painted with duel strands of white daubs — the cottony clouds that lazily drifted by were reflected in the Vaike Vain, the channel that separates Muhu from Saaremaa. I had just skimmed along its surface, crossing the two-mile causeway that joins the two neighbors.

From my tranquil perch I contemplated the coastlines of the two islands, thin fingers of emerald green that stretched out toward one another into the glass-like surface of the inlet. The surroundings were completely still and utterly silent. Soaking up the idyllic scene and golden sunshine, my breathing slowed, my pulse rate lowered and my tensed muscles begin to relax.

With the whoosh of a passing car, I realized the languid sea-scape had lulled me into a reverie, a blissful few moments in which my mind had become as empty and uncluttered as the eternal azure expanse in front of me. Re-focusing, I saw the silhouette of a lone duck glide across the placid water, a gentle wake rippling behind him. As I watched, he began to flap his wings and then stride determinedly across the water’s surface in an awkward gait, gaining momentum and become airborne.

I laughed to myself and thought “Now there’s an idea — just wing it!”

I had a momentary glimpse of clarity about how my fear of making a “mistake” interfered with my enjoyment of life. No one was waiting for me; the day and how I spent it were mine to decide. And, at roughly 40 miles long by 20 miles wide, it would be difficult to get too lost on Saaremaa. I decided that if I were to err, it would be on the side of being inclusive. Back at the wheel, I reversed direction, going back to take the right I had passed.

Within just a few kilometers, I entered the tiny village of Orissare, where I was delighted to see a tourist bureau, its pale yellow facade graced with a wooden chair emblazoned with the word Tere, “hello” in Estonian, and a cheerful plant bursting with blooms. Despite my new-found carefree attitude, the possibility of a map and some directions heartened the control freak in me. Soon enough, I was armed with both and an itinerary of attractions to visit en route to Saaremaa’s capital of Kuressaare.

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Newly invigorated, I embarked toward my first stop–the Maasi stronghold, the remains of a fortress blown up in 1576 by the Danes, one of Estonia’s earliest invaders. I hummed along the rural road, soon glimpsing out of the corner of my eye the name “Maasi” on a small sign. I swung a hard right on to a narrow dirt lane lined with fenced fields and apple trees, following it for some distance. As I bumped and rolled along, the surrounding embankment seemed to be closing in on me and I began to get a little apprehensive. Cresting a small hill, I slammed on the brakes at its top — below was a puddle the size of a small pond spanning the road.

With no room to turn around, I could either return the way I had come, driving in reverse for a couple of miles–or plough through the muddy trough, praying I didn’t get stuck. Befuddled, I sat there for a few minutes with the engine idling, feeling very much stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. With a muttered “What the hell” under my breath, I accelerated, splashing and heaving through the deep puddle and emerging to solid ground. With a sigh of relief, I motored still further, eventually coming to a fence hung with a sign that said in English “No Trespassing.” Frustration at my futile foray was outweighed by relief that there was room to turn around and with a snort of exasperated acceptance, I made my way out, gunning the engine with gusto before lurching back through the puddle and up the hill.

Reaching the blacktop road, I turned in the direction I had been heading. A short distance later, I saw another sign with “Maasi” lettered on it. I was now determined I would see this fortress come hell or high water and took a right in the direction indicated. Ahead of me lay an immense barn and chicken coops, in front of which was a dilapidated truck of a bygone era, parked for posterity on green grass.

Despite some anxiety I might be stumbling into an Estonian episode of “Deliverance,” I followed the winding gravel road through a complex of rambling farmhouses and outbuildings, the landscape scattered with rusted pieces of farming equipment. I realized that I must be poking around on what had been a collective farm under the Communist regime that had ruled Estonia from 1940–1991. The enterprise now appeared deserted and its emptiness struck me as forlorn rather than eerie.

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I reached a second dead end, and made another U-turn, mentally shrugging my shoulders and giving myself one more shot at finding the elusive Maasi fortress. Nonchalantly easing back on to the main road, within minutes I saw another sign proclaiming not one but two Maasi locations. It seemed that here on Saaremaa, the Maasi designation must be akin to that of “Washington” in the U.S., a popular name of historical significance liberally attached to all manner of entities.

I headed down another long country lane through deep meadows, eventually reaching the end of the road and a small parking lot. Seeing a sprawling stone edifice on a hill ahead, I was uplifted with the realization that I had at long last arrived at my intended destination. For the second time that morning, I walked to the water’s edge, finding the vista in marked contrast to that I had beheld a short time earlier. Swollen, purplish clouds hung low in the sky and choppy currents raced toward the shoreline. The bones of an old wooden boat lay amid tall reeds that danced wildly in the gusting wind.

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The dramatic ambiance conjured images of the notorious Estonian pirates said to have inhabited the area as far back as the second century. Also known as Oeselians or Eastern Vikings, these seafaring people clashed swords with Norway’s Olaf the Holy, who landed here in 1008 at age 13 and a Swedish Viking chief called Freygeirr, who was killed in a battle on Saaremaa in 1030. In 1206, the Danish army led by King Valdemar II landed on Saaremaa, eventually building the fortress whose remains I was here to see. Teutonic Knights marched across the frozen sea in 1227, establishing a long period of German rule.

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I climbed a winding path up the steep side of a crag to the ruins, marveling to find so much of the structure still intact almost 1,000 years after being erected. Even more moving to me than man’s enduring legacy to the Saaremaa landscape was the sweeping view of the surroundings. Standing on the precipice, facing into a fierce wind, I felt both the power of the commanding view of the coastline and the awe of recognizing that I was one in a long line of adventurers to behold the horizon line from this vantage point.

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For centuries, a cycle of warfare and uprisings played out on these shores. I visualized a fleet of Oeselian piraticas returning from a raid — these warships could carry approximately 30 men and had a high prow shaped like a dragon or a snakehead as well as a quadrangular sail. The tribe also had merchant vessels known as liburnas. Both types of crafts probably contributed to the rich Viking treasures hordes of more than 1,500 silver coins found on Saaremaa.

The Maasi stronghold was demolished in 1576 at the hand of the Danes, who blew it up in an attempt to circumvent capture of it by the Swedes. That pre-emptive strike was ultimately unsuccessful — and ironically Sweden’s 150-year rule of Estonia, which lasted until 1710, came to be viewed as a golden period, a reminder that sometimes that which we resist can be unexpectedly benevolent.

Feeling well-rewarded for my efforts to be among the continuum of restless souls who set foot on Maasi’s high hill, I set off for Karja Church. Heading northwest and deep into a dense pine forest, the ribbon of road wound through miles and miles of seemingly-never-ending evergreens, and the sameness of the scenery felt soothing. Before I knew it, I saw the austere facade of the ancient church set back from the road, its white weathered walls rising high from an emerald lawn.

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While Saaremaa’s smallest church, Karja is nonetheless an imposing building and despite its remote location, the circular driveway was full with cars and a tour bus. I edged into a parking space on the grass and nodded to a priest garbed in a black frock who conversed with a small crowd, wondering whether the flock was communicants or tourists.

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While its exterior is sparse and elegant, Karja church is famous for its decorative elements, typical of the Middle Ages, when spirituality and superstition co-existed. Faded frescoes grace the soaring walls, and on the ceiling of the choir there are several mysterious symbols, such as pentagrams and triskeles — an image that surfaces in myriad cultures, alternately referred to as three interlocked spirals, three bent human legs or a devil looking between its legs.

The church is dedicated to St. Catherine and St. Nicholas, and houses sculptures devoted to their legends. According to tradition, Catherine was a virgin martyr sentenced to die by Roman Emperor Maximinus Daia on the “breaking wheel,” an instrument of torture. The wheel broke instead, so Catherine was beheaded. Her symbol is the spiked wheel, which has become known as the Catherine wheel, and her feast day is celebrated on 25 November. She was one of the most influential saints in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages, particularly for women, for whom she was held up as a paragon of virtue. Catherine’s power as an intercessor was renowned — she is said to have entreated God at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who invoke her name.

In the fourth century, St. Nicholas was a bishop in what is now Turkey and was known as the gift-giver — his feast day is December 6. In homage to the saint, the church also features a sculpture representing three unmarried maidens and a bag of gold. Legend tells of a poor family with three daughters — the father could not afford to pay for their dowries. If they didn’t marry, they would be forced into prostitution to earn money. When Nicholas heard about this family’s plight, it’s said that he visited the house three times, each time tossing a bag of gold through a window, one for each daughter’s dowry.

Over the eastern portal is a stone carving of Christ on the cross with the two robbers. Lore says the soul issuing from the mouth of the good robber is being received by an angel, whereas the soul escaping from the mouth of the bad robber is being assisted by the devil.

Before leaving, I took a last look up at the choir loft, where a woman in black leaned over the balcony, her elbows resting on the partition, and chin cupped in her hands. Her sad stare downward seemed to epitomize Karja’s ongoing appeal as a sanctuary for those seeking solace and assistance.

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Back at the wheel, within a few minutes, I saw from afar the silhouettes of the next attraction on my itinerary, symbols of Saaremaa itself — the five Angla windmills. These iconic images are strongly associated with the island as during the 19th century there were 800 in active use. I stopped at a distance to admire the graceful sentinels, walking into a harvested field from which to take a picture, my footsteps sending a flock of feeding birds airborne.

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And then I was off to Saaremaa’s only sizable town, Kuressaare. After a pleasant and straightforward twenty minute drive I easily found my hotel on Tallinna, one of the main thoroughfares. The Grand Rose is one of several spas in Kuressaare, which flourished as a health resort in the 1930s, during Estonia’s 22-year period of independence. Until 1991, for more than eight centuries, the country was free of outside occupation only between 1918–1940. During this respite, visitors flocked to Saaremaa to enjoy restorative treatments — according to meticulous records kept, the 1,178 visitors in 1924 enjoyed 23,371 mud baths. With my stay so short, I lived vicariously through my fellow guests roaming the halls in their bathrobes and slippers and instead slipped out to explore the sights. I had just a few hours before a pre-determined date scheduled for that evening in the village of Kaarma.

Kuressaare is a charming town and my stroll down Tallinna took me along cobbled plazas and past the town hall and buildings of baroque, Gothic and classicist architecture, sporting gabled and red-tiled rooftops, fluted columns, and stone scroll work. Window boxes overflowed with colorful arrangements, merchant signs of stained glass sparkled and even the sidewalks were festooned with bright flowers emblazoned in chalk. Merging into Lossi street, I passed another church dedicated to St. Nicholas and then came face-to-face with a fairy tale scene.

Ahead of me was a wide moat flanked by green embankments leading to a defensive curtain wall from behind which rose a turret. The first peek at Kuressaare’s castle promised a Medieval banquet for the eyes and I was not disappointed. Circling the massive structure, I took in its immense base, built between 1340–1380, and massive walls constructed in the 15th century. The castle’s merit seemed to be one thing upon which all Saaremaa’s invaders agreed and it was occupied over the centuries by the Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians.

Beyond the castle is the coastline it defended and Kuressaare harbor. I crossed a swath of green park to the beach and walked along the shore, admiring the fortress from another angle. Returning toward the center of town, I passed through a park with a small pavilion, atop which was the emblem of a lute. A young toddler yanked on her grandmother’s hand, fervently tugging her towards the stage. The youngster happily pranced across the footlights, in her element, coming to the railing to bestow a kiss on grand-mama, who happily accommodated the aspiring thespian.

Taking a detour off the main streets, I wandered through Kuressaare’s neighborhoods of wooden houses, most of which were painted in rich gold. The Estonian flag proudly waved from each home, and on this Saturday afternoon, residents were tending their tidy yards and compact gardens of perennials, vegetables and fruit trees.

On the tree-lined street, the shadows seemed to lengthen and I realized the day had slipped away. Kaarma awaited and I needed to be ready.

Back at the Grand Rose, I approached the reception desk and asked for assistance in securing a taxi to take me to the hamlet of Kaarma five miles away, also requesting that arrangements be made to retrieve me there two hours later. My confidence in driving alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language had grown by leaps and bounds, but I wasn’t yet so sanguine that I felt comfortable piloting in the dark.

A short time later, a van pulled up to the Grand Rose and I got in. A strapping Nordic-looking man was behind the wheel; when I spoke my destination with a hesitant question mark at the end, he nodded curtly, shifted into reverse and roared off. Techno music with a driving beat blared through the speakers, and my heart rate began to pound in rhythm with it. As dusk began to descend, we left Kuressaare and entered a stretch of forest, barreling down a winding road at breakneck speed. The singer chanted an insistent refrain soon joined by one of my own, as in my mind I heard my voice saying over and over “What have you gotten yourself into?”

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I gripped the car seat tightly with both hands as we lunged down a gravel road, dust flying in the air behind. Then, with the sight of my destination, I exhaled a deep breath, thinking “I made it!”

The driver pulled up to the foot of a long driveway lined with towering evergreens and set with flickering tea lights. I could see an immense stone church and a crowd milling about and felt my pulse quicken but it was with anticipation versus dread. I said to the driver in a loud voice reserved for the hard of hearing or anyone else I am afraid can’t understand me “You’ll be able to come back and get me in two hours right?” He looked into my eyes and nodded assent, without speaking a word. I repeated myself, adding “Right here!” and jabbing my index finger downward and toward the ground. He solemnly nodded again and with a weak smile, I thanked him and began walking up the gravel driveway.

At the head of the driveway, a contingent of men in black suits and ties milled about, a group of them sitting on a bench in front of an ancient stone wall, engaged in lively conversation punctuated with roars of laughter. Another set of men stood together in a circle, all garbed in white shirts with billowy sleeves and red-and-black checked vests. A group of teenagers huddled together, each one talking to someone on the other end of their respective cell phone.

I entered the church and was immediately enchanted. The interior was lit with dozens of candles, with the number “20” depicted in tea lights in its wide central aisle. In front of the altar, a string quartet sat, their faces illuminated in the soft ambient glow. Instruments in hand, the musicians engaged in pre-concert rehearsal, calling forth sweet notes that filled the high-vaulted space.

I had come to St. Peter’s Church in Kaarma to participate in a celebration honoring Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union, which had occurred twenty years ago that day, on August 20, 1991. Befitting a nation that achieved freedom through what became known as a “Singing Revolution,” the occasion was being commemorated with music.

Wandering back outside, I struck up a conversation with one of the men in black jackets. Jaanus Nurmoja told me he was a member of Meeskoor Rakvere, or the Male Choir of Rakvere. The group has 30 members, and at 44 years of age, Jaanus is the youngest; the oldest member is 85 years. The group had been invited to participate by the concert organizers and sponsored by their county administration. Jaanus and his fellow singers had travelled for more than four hours by bus, and would be staying the night at a hostel in Kuressaare.

“The comraderie is actually why I became the member of this choir,” he explained. “Singing and being together is an important part of our lifestyle.”

Jaanus told me that his love of singing began as a child, noting that at the time he was born, Estonia’s second national youth song festival was being held.

“I came out June 23, 1967 at 3:15 p.m. and, as mama says, she heard from the hospital’s open window the steps of the people walking to the first festival event that started at 4:00 p.m.,” he said.

When he was nine he joined his school’s childrens choir. At age 15, he became a member of a mixed choir at school and a year later, he joined the Mixed Choir of Tallinn Scholar Youth, which he belonged to for two years.

“I lived in Tallinn then,” he said. “Despite stupid political propaganda, censorship, and compulsory membership in the Communist organizations, life in Estonia was not very bad as seen through my eyes as a child.”

“Then in 1978, remarkable changes took place,” he continued. “A non-Estonian-speaking man became the communist party leader. The very pro-Estonian minister of education was replaced by a Russian woman, and a secret report was leaked about a decision made by the Communists to enforce the use of the Russian language. A huge wave of Russian colonists moved to Estonia, resulting in Estonia’s population becoming one-third Russian. The relationship between Estonians and ‘Russian-speaking people’ has never been worse than then.”

“That winter, Estonian supermarkets were almost overnight cleaned out of meat products!” he exclaimed. “Real panic followed, people bought everything possible. The term ‘deficit’ came strongly into our life. Hordes came from Russia to buy everything that was absent from their shops. These people came by trains, waited at the doors until the shops opened and then ran inside, bought whatever and then back to the train. It was an everyday scene in Tallinn.”

“Local citizens came from work to see if there is something — but nothing!” he said. “To find something useful you often had to have some relationships. Fortunately my half-sister occasionally worked in the supermarkets.”

“According to official propaganda, life was still beautiful, although ‘temporary difficulties’ occur sometimes,” he continued. “But it was Soviet system. Maybe you even know the joke of the Soviet times: What is the biggest paradox of the socialist system? That the shops are empty but everyone has everything!”

“One thing was good in North Estonia, especially in the Tallinn area — we saw Finnish television!” Jaanus said. “People had special adapters and antennas — sometimes from the illegal market, sometimes self-made. Our family used the service of one my parent’s ex-colleagues who worked in Estonian TV. He installed for us all the necessary adapters.”

“We saw and learned what life under normal conditions should be. It was a window to the free world! We saw uncensored TV news, how different the same information was handled in the USSR and in the free world. For example, in the USSR it was never possible when a state’s leader died — such as Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko — that a TV news program could speculate who would come into power next. All this happened in Finnish TV. The most classic and well-known example is, of course, the accident with Chernobyl nuclear station. The whole world was alerted but USSR and its media kept silent for many days.

“We also saw many western TV shows, such as Dallas, Colombo, Benny Hill. We saw how the people in western countries were clothed, their lifestyle. Thanks to this TV we had a real Christmas feeling at home. Unlike other European “socialist” countries, Christmas was not ideologically supported in USSR. The first time talking in public about Christmas and singing Christmas songs in foreign languages was allowed was 1987; one year later was the first public celebration of Christmas in Soviet period.”

“And — last but not least — we learned about the democratic process, political debates, how elections are held in democratic conditions. So when the public opposition against the Communists began to form in Estonia, there was nothing too new for us.”

“Also, as most others, I listened when possible to the “Voice of America” in Estonian,” he recalled. “That’s how I heard about the arrest of the Estonian dissidents and it was the first source where I heard about Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and issuing by U.S. a Moscow Summer Olympics boycott, about strikes in Poland… I even remember that some of this news I heard in staircase of our house! One of the building’s inhabitants worked for the Soviet police–then called militia — and these people could obtain better radios. He often listened to VOA and turned the volume to maximum that others could hear as well.”

Jaanus said hope for real change began in the mid-1980s with the Soviet political movements of perestroika and glasnost, meaning respectively “restructuring” and “openness.” These policies, championed by Gorbachov, set the stage for Estonia’s special brand of rebellion.

“Singing was an especially peaceful and powerful way to say for ourselves and to the world we still exist and we do have power,” he said. “This is our way of national self-expression which gives us a real feel of unity. We knew what our real weapon was–we had remarkable experiences with it in our history. And when the Singing Revolution started in June 1988 this weapon shot with all its power -so that spiritually the Soviet regime finished its existence in Estonia.”

A trickle of people had begun to stream up the tree-lined sidewalk and soon there was a crowd outside the church door. I joined the line of attendees and sat down in a pew at the rear of the church. I looked at the faces around me and saw a cross-section of young and old who had come to remember their past and honor the gift that is the present.

The program began and while I didn’t recognize most of the music selections or appreciate their particular significance to the occasion, I understood the emotion I witnessed. Across the aisle, a middle-aged man sat with his chin in hand, intently engaged in the performance. In front of me, a mother held a toddler in her lap, with two other young children on either side of her; her gaze shifted back and forth between the musicians and her children. Next to her, an older man’s jaw muscle worked as he brushed at his eyes. Even though I had not personally experienced the particular brand of oppression that Estonians had endured, I recognized the depth of gratitude borne of surviving intense suffering.

A minster spoke from the pulpit and with no fanfare, simply thanked the quartet, and invited people to the garden behind the church for the choral performance. The crowd flowed out and into folding chairs set up in front of a stage. Over the next hour, each of the three choral groups performed, the audience rapt with attention. Despite not understanding the words, I was deeply touched by the beauty of the voices raised together in uplifting melodies, and equally moved by witnessing in the attendees’ faces their emotional response.

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At the conclusion of the concert, all the singers took the stage together, organized by vocal range rather than age or any other external attribute. Side by side, gangly teenagers, middle-aged men and gray-haired elders were as one. As if on cue, with the first notes of the last song, a red-headed toddler dressed in blue ran from the audience and began racing back and forth in front of the stage, waving a miniature Estonian flag.

The concert concluded with a standing ovation and then people together began to move toward a far part of the garden. Unsure of what would come next, I followed, trailing behind the crowd. The night sky exploded in a burst of color and I laughed out loud — fireworks are indeed the universal exclamation point at the end of any celebration of freedom.

The gathering dispersed and people began making their way down the tree-lined sidewalk, chatting animatedly amongst themselves. I stood on the edge of the dark driveway and strained to see if the taxi was here. As cars began to stream out of the parking lot, their headlights illuminating their path home, I felt alone and a little scared. I realized I had taken it for granted that the taxi driver had understood me, and would return for me. It suddenly occurred to me that might not be the case.

I felt a hand on my arm and looked up to see Jaanus, who asked how I liked the concert. It was a comfort to experience for myself even a small sense of connection after having witnessed such a profound bond between the Estonians who had gathered here. I was happy to have the chance to tell him how much I enjoyed the evening. Our conversation was interrupted by the sudden glare of bright lights — my taxi had arrived! Jaanus and I said goodbye and I climbed into the taxi’s passenger seat.

“You came!” I said. The big man looked at me with surprise on his face and then broke into a smile, saying in perfect English “Of course!”