When Thousands Struck Back Against the USSR … by Singing

When Thousands Struck Back Against the USSR … by Singing

Why you should care

It’s not every day a nation topples a military superpower 50 times its size through nonviolent resistance.

  • POPULATION
  • SPOKEN LANGUAGE
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Geo facts & figures

In a far corner of YouTube, gathering cyber dust is a video of a concert in 1985. Although its 22,000 views hint that it’s more significant than a video of your average high school rock band or birthday party, they certainly don’t indicate that what you’re watching is footage of tiny Latvia’s mass defiance of its then ruler, the Soviet Union — and the beginning of what would come to be known as the Singing Revolution.

On the surface, the video seems innocuous. It shows a melodious choir, 15,000 strong, performing at a long-established Latvian song and dance festival. But those 15,000 were citizens of a country under occupation, and the festival had been co-opted by Soviet authorities and turned into a commemoration of the USSR’s military victory in World War II. Not shown in the YouTube clip are the uniformed soldiers, the Soviet marching band or the USSR’s armed forces chorale that also performed that night. “The singing festival of 1985 was the most awful program in the history of our song festivals,” says Dainis Īvāns, a leader of Latvia’s independence movement and former deputy head of the country’s Parliament. “It wasn’t a secret that for Latvians, this celebrated Soviet ‘victory’ meant the beginning of the genocide, Siberian camps and Soviet occupation,” as a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin at the advent of World War II essentially gave the USSR dibs on invading the independent, unassuming Latvia. “They marched with our choirs and everyone had to sing the most aggressive Soviet song, ‘Day of Victory,’ in Russian,” Īvāns says. The festival’s program was a targeted humiliation of Latvians. But roughly three minutes into the video, things begin to change.

The Soviet fanfare had ended and a few state-approved Latvian folk songs were allowed. “Then the audience finally came to life,” recounts Īvāns. “Everybody understood that this was the last chance to resist.”

You can hear the crowd begin to chant, “Gaismas pils, Mednis!” They knew the famous Latvian conductor Haralds Mednis was among the spectators, and they called on him to perform “Gaismas pils,” or “The Fortress of Light,” a folk song that would become the anthem of the independence revolution. In front of baffled KGB and Soviet leaders, who didn’t see such a spontaneous interruption coming, the Latvians sang about an ancient castle that sinks below the earth after a foreign invasion — and then rises once Latvians speak its name. The metaphor for overcoming Soviet occupation was blindingly obvious, and the clip captures some Latvians singing loudly next to others who keep their mouths shut, afraid of the consequences such a public display of national loyalty might arouse.

The surprise finale went unpunished, and in the coming years, the Soviet grip on the country began to crumble — almost as if the Latvian people had successfully invoked their castle that night. The USSR was in economic trouble and Latvians, along with the other occupied Baltic peoples in Estonia and Lithuania, continued to weaken the Soviet’s stranglehold with the culturally based, nonviolent resistance movement known as the Singing Revolution. They challenged their oppressors through demonstrations, singing festivals and artistic performances. In 1989 the Latvian Popular Front, led by Īvāns, teamed up with the Popular Fronts of Estonia and Lithuania to create a human chain of roughly 1 million people that stretched 372 miles through the three countries.

Nonviolent resistance was our single chance to fight against the Soviet regime and to win.

Dainis Īvāns, a leader of Latvia’s independence movement

“Moscow saw that these grass-roots organizations actually had the capability of organizing and unifying entire nations,” explains Guntis Šmidchens, a professor of Baltic studies at the University of Washington and author of The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution. The Baltic resistance was getting international press, and USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev was wary of responding with outright violence, especially after the fiasco at China’s Tiananmen Square. “Nonviolent resistance was our single chance to fight against the Soviet regime and to win,” Īvāns says. “Could you imagine armed resistance against the 200,000 Russian military contingents located in Latvia and approximately 300 Soviet military bases? We felt that what Russian militaries really feared were powers they didn’t understand, like a singing nation, strong morals and intellectual arguments.”

Latvia declared its independence in 1991 as the USSR fell apart. A brand-new government, coupled with tensions between native Latvians and the ethnic Russians living in Latvia, could have easily resulted in violent unrest or even civil war — but despite anti-Russian immigrant policies in the early ’90s and Vladimir Putin’s repeated provocation of the Baltic nations, democracy has prevailed for nearly 30 years. Today, Latvia is a proud member of NATO and this July it celebrated the Latvian Song and Dance Festival with an estimated 43,000 performers — 2 percent of the country’s population — and no occupiers in sight.

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