That’s what our guide, Magrit, calls the vast open-air theater on the outskirts of Tallinn, the ancient capital of the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia. Here, in the late 1980s, Estonians gathered by the thousands to sing patriotic songs and express their deep disdain for their Soviet rulers. Finally, in 1991, the “Singing Revolution” triumphed, and Estonia became free.
Our trip to Tallinn coincides with a national celebration in that theater, marking 20 years of independence. As we enter the grounds, someone hands us small paper versions of the Estonian flag — horizontal bands of black, white and blue — and we edge our way into the vast crowd and find a spot on the grass. Extended families, including seniors in lawn chairs and babies in arms, are everywhere. A local band is playing a fast-paced tune — who knew that a violin and an accordion could be so stirring? — and folks all around us are waving flags and white balloons. We join in eagerly, hoisting our little pennants on their wooden sticks, sharing briefly in this moment of national exhilaration.
Between songs, a huge screen projects images of Estonians offering their observations on the meaning of independence. An athlete urges expatriates to “come back home [on] a ship of songs.” A poet suggests that “survivors are messengers” and that “through them I can remember the future.” A woman says simply: “Something wonderful has happened here. A miracle, really.”
Then Brainstorm, a rock band from the neighboring country of Latvia, plays a tune with the recurring refrain, “That’s all we have.” I think the singer is talking about love, but he could mean the land.
Tallinn is a well-protected seaport on the Gulf of Finland, 50 miles south of Helsinki and 200 miles west of St. Petersburg, sitting directly on major trade routes. That’s a blessing, but also a bane. Every power in the neighborhood — Swedes and Danes, Germans and Russians, traders and crusaders — has wanted the port for itself, and over the centuries, they’ve taken turns dominating the Estonians. As a result, the country has been independent for only 40 of the past 800 years.
The Soviets were the most repressive rulers, suffocating the Estonian spirit for two generations after World War II, deporting dissidents to slave labor camps and importing Russian nationals to colonize the rebellious province. “They tried to erase our identity,” Magrit told us.
But they failed. Today Estonia is not only free but prosperous. It’s a miniature country — 1.3 million people occupying a land mass slightly smaller than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Yet its education and growth rates rank among the highest in Europe. And in 2006, one study named Estonia the freest country in the world (the United States was eighth).
Although Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, it’s not a museum, a lifeless shell viewed at a distance through a glass partition. Nor is it some ersatz “Tallinn World,” rebuilt to resemble the real thing. You can touch and feel history here, by strolling the streets and viewing the vistas, sitting in the squares and praying in the churches, buying the crafts and hearing the music.
Steven V. Roberts