Saturday, August 08, 2009


By William Urban

This documentary was recommended by a friend who was aware of my publications in Baltic history. Indeed, this well-produced story of the peaceful Estonian resistance to Soviet occupation was once central to my career.
The story began in 1939, with the Hitler-Stalin pact that led to a Soviet invasion of the four independent states on the Baltic Sea. Fifty years later it was becoming clear that the Soviet Empire was unraveling, and nobody was tugging harder at the strands than the Estonian people. This little land between the Gulf of Finland and Latvia was threatened by environmental destruction and being overwhelmed by Russian-speaking immigrants. The former was part of Soviet economic policy, the latter a “Russification” that would reduce native languages and traditions to folklore celebrations. If the Soviet economy had produced anything like the results promised by one communist leader after another, or if Russian culture had been perceived as superior to that of the West, the response might have been muted rather than musical. But the Soviet Union never employed a soft touch when a heavy hand would do.
Estonians, knowing well the futility of open resistance, used a music festival to remind people of their ancient heritage. Estonians love to sing, and the festival every five years had worked to keep national feeling alive for over a century. Once, when Communist authorities forbade patriotic songs, the mass choir of 20,000 singers refused to leave the stage until they could conclude the program with national favorites.
In the late Eighties I had come to realize that the Soviet government, struggling to reform a failing system, might soon allow foreigners to visit the Baltic states. It was not practical for me to learn Estonian, much less Latvian and Lithuanian, too, so I studied for two summers to revive my university Russian. (I didn’t revive it all that much, but it helped greatly when I visited the three Baltic states in 1992 and ten years later when I spent part of the summer in the south of Russia.) In 1990, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jackie and I were asked to be the first Americans to teach at the university in Kaunas, Lithuania. When the Soviet ambassador would not give us the visas that Moscow had approved, we went instead to Prague and Berlin, where events overshadowed what was happening in the Baltic States.
Shortly afterward, when American scholars were able to enter the Baltic States, there was no one willing to stay home and edit the troubled Journal of Baltic Studies. With the encouragement of Dean Julian I agreed to take on that task.
Roger Noel was my first co-editor, then later Jim Betts and Ira Smolensky. Eileen Loya eventually agreed to help with the correspondence. No released time from teaching, but with two student assistants we managed to put out six years worth of issues in four years, erasing the accumulated backlog from previous editors.
In 1992 a group of American Baltic specialists went to Riga to meet with administrators of the national universities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We explained how western universities operated, then offered them computers and internet connections on two conditions — that everyone have access and that no record be kept of what they wrote. When the rectors protested that their universities were not accustomed to operating in that fashion, our response was, “They are our computers. You can have them on our terms or not at all.” They gave in.
I then spent a month in Tallinn, teaching American history to a very enthusiastic group of Estonian students at a newly founded liberal arts college. Fortunately, I had a suitcase of discarded junior high textbooks contributed by Tom Best, because otherwise there would have been only Soviet texts in Russian. You should have seen the students’ eyes when I said that they could take the books home.
Afterward I made arrangements for the rector of the college to visit Monmouth. He was very impressed. Monmouth College was exactly what he wanted to create in the Estonian capital. Unhappily, President Haywood was not enthusiastic, and two years later President Huseman even less so. Thoughts of what might have been were present throughout my viewing of The Singing Revolution.
Greatness is not achieved through having superior resources, but through seizing the moment. Monmouth College missed the opportunity to become the first liberal arts college with a Baltic connection. Fortunately, the Estonians made the most of their chances.
If you like to see courage and patience rewarded, this is a film for you. The story isn’t over, of course. The Russian bear is still next door (President Medvedev’s name means “bear”), and it is growling.

The Monmouth Review Atlas (August 6, 2009), 4.

No comments: