TALLINN — Seventy thousand people flocked to the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the restoration of Estonian independence Saturday, while on Sunday the people of Estonia paid homage to Iceland, the first country to recognize the Baltic republic in 1991, with an Iceland Day festival.
Sinead O’Connor and Kerli, Estonia’s best-known international pop singer, were among 16 acts from both Estonia and abroad who participated in the six-hour Song of Freedom concert on the site where many events of the Singing Revolution, as Estonia’s struggle for liberation in the late 1980s and early 1990s is called, took place.
The Congress of Estonia and Estonian Supreme Council officially restored the Republic of Estonia by a joint vote on Aug. 20, 1991, a day after Soviet party hard-liners had staged a coup in Moscow while Soviet armored troop carriers were on their way to storm Tallinn’s strategic objects.
“We wanted to share this day with our friends from abroad,” said Helen Sildna, chief organizer of both events.
“So far, the tradition of celebrating August 20 had been Estonian national singing; there were a lot of national songs, and it was also a sing-along event that people could join in with. But this time it was a bit of a new concept that we wanted to focus on our friends.
“The way the program came together was by combining artists and musicians who already have a special relationship with Estonia, such as [Finnish accordion player] Kimmo Pohjonen, [Latvian indie-pop band] Brainstorm and [Norwegian folk singer] Mari Boine.”
To have O’Connor headlining the event had a special meaning, as the Irish singer — along with English rock band The Cure — was denied an entrance visa in 1990 when the Soviet authorities were putting pressure on the rebellious republic, preventing her from performing at the Rock Summer festival held at the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn as scheduled.
“This year, it was symbolic for us to bring her to the same location 20 years later, to a free democratic state,” Sildna said.
The Singing Revolution got its moniker from a series of unique singing protests, rooted in Estonian folk traditions, that lasted for several years and are seen as having united the Estonian nation in finally overcoming Soviet rule.
It began with nighttime song protests in June 1988, when 100,000 Estonians gathered at the Song Festival Grounds every night for a week to sing all night. At one point, nearly 300,000 gathered for the Song of Estonia singing protest there on Sept. 11, 1988.
Since Estonia won independence in 1991, no music event has drawn so many people.
“While a day in freedom seems like a second, a day in prison feels like a lifetime,” said Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, addressing the audience of the Song of Freedom on Saturday.
“In prison, each moment of happiness and each glimpse of freedom becomes so important and is remembered.
“The people of Estonia remember that. They remember the sweet exuberance of the Night Song Festival, the dawn of freedom here, on these very grounds, in the home of the heart of our people. […]And people remember the joy when freedom finally took the shape of our free state.”
Sildna, who was 12 years old in August 1991, also remembers the feeling.
“I don’t remember that specific date so much, but I remember the period of these days and weeks around it,” she said.
“And one thing I remember very, very vividly was that all Estonian families were just sitting around their radios, listening to the news, waiting for the news. Everybody was really excited and worried at the same time. But it was a very special feeling.
“Even as a 12-year-old, I remember having the feeling that something very important was happening right now and that every next hour could change the future of the whole nation. There was no saying which way it would go; it could go well, it could go really badly, so there was a big feeling of risk in the air for everyone, but that’s what I remember — just being attached to the radio and waiting for the next bit of news.”
Boris Yeltsin, the then-Russian president seeking more sovereignty from the Soviet Union, was supportive of the Baltics’ struggle and signed a document expressing official recognition of Estonia on Aug. 24, 1991.
The organizers of last weekend’s events tried to bring a Russian band over for the occasion and approached a few, including Mumiy Troll and DDT, but none were available, Sildna said.
“We really wanted to have somebody from Russia, but unfortunately they all already had plans, and then we ran out of time,” she said.
Performing before O’Connor was Kerli, a 24-year-old pop singer who has become Estonia’s best known artist outside the country. Signed to Universal, the singer came for the concert from Los Angeles, where she is currently based. Kerli was named one of the 100 Most Influential Estonian Women by the Eesti Ekspress weekly newspaper earlier this year.
Like many events in Tallinn this year, the concert was part of the European Cultural Capital program.
“Technically, the program was very tough to realize; there was an orchestra, full bands, soloists, and as it was a televised event, it had to proceed with no breaks. It was quite challenging to make it happen, but it went ahead — with just one little sound blackout for a minute, but it all worked,” Sildna said.
At midnight, Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson took to the stage to open Iceland Day, celebrated the following day in the form of open-air concerts, exhibitions and poetry readings of Icelandic artists across Tallinn.
Featuring bands such as For a Minor Reflection, Hjaltalin, Retro Stefson, Olafur Arnalds and Lay Low, who gave free concerts focused in Tallinn’s medieval courtyards or by the picturesque city walls during the day and early evening and then again at Von Krahli bar and theater at night, Iceland Day was reportedly the biggest celebration of the country’s culture abroad ever.
Iceland was the first country to officially recognize Estonia, doing so on Aug. 22, 1991, the day after the hardliners’ coup collapsed in Moscow. The open area in front of the Foreign Ministry of Tallinn was named Islandi valjak (Iceland Square) in August 1998 in recognition of Iceland’s support.