January 30, 2014

When songs trumped rifles, new book by Guntis Šmidchens

College of Arts & Sciences Communications

A black and white photo of a  Baltica Folklore Festival procession in Riga, Latvia in July 1988.

Gunārs Janaitis

At the Baltica Folklore Festival procession in Riga, Latvia in July 1988, parade participants carried the flags of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which had been smuggled into the country and unfurled on stage during the concert.

Songs are powerful weapons.

When the Soviet Union attacked the newly independent Baltic nations in 1991, Baltic citizens responded by gathering en masse and singing in nonviolent protest. The Soviets eventually backed down.

“Singing raises self-esteem and gives people a sense of community. It can calm violence in a really threatening situation,” said Guntis Šmidchens, an associate professor of Scandinavian studies who leads the UW Baltic Studies Program. “In the Baltics, it was a way that each person in those demonstrations got their courage.”

In his new book “The Power of Song,” Šmidchens explores what is often dubbed “the Singing Revolution,” a passive resistance movement that took hold in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

University of Washington Press published “The Power of Song” in January.

Singing as a form of resistance has a long history in the Baltics, dating back to nineteenth century choirs that met and performed in defiance of the Tsar. In an 1873 essay, Latvian poet Auseklis (Mikus Krogzemis) wrote of “a shield of songs which repels the spear.”

In the mid-twentieth century, Baltic countries under Soviet rule were denied freedom of speech, but choirs still found ways to rebel through song. Choir festivals, held every five years, would feature songs of loyalty to the Soviet Union, but after the official program the choir would often perform a familiar song—a folk song, for example—that despite neutral content would become a song of resistance, with the enormous audience singing along.

“Just singing non-Soviet songs—they weren’t anti-Soviet—was seen as an act of resistance,” said Šmidchens. “The Soviets quickly recognized such songs as national anthems and would ban them. The people who organized the festivals were sometimes sent to Siberia. So the Singing Revolution, the model for how to organize a resistance, was already there at these festivals.”

Mikhail Gorbachev eased some restrictions on freedom of speech in the Baltics in the late 1980s, including letting choirs choose their songs. Citizens took these freedoms far beyond what Soviet leaders had intended. They began singing songs that were explicitly about independence. At a 1988 Lithuanian choir festival, singers unfurled a pre-Soviet Lithuanian flag on stage and blocked Soviet officials who tried to remove the activists from the stage.

Patriotic fervor quickly grew. Within two years, the Baltic nations held government elections and negotiated independence from the Soviet Union.

The transition was relatively smooth—for a while. Then, in 1991, Soviet anti-independence forces decided to crack down. But the public remained disciplined in its nonviolent response, believing they could win through song.

It worked.

Gorbachev, facing the prospect of killing thousands of unarmed citizens, chose to let the Baltic countries go.

In his book, Šmidchens translates and explores the meaning of 112 songs connected to the Singing Revolution, ranging from hymns to folk songs to rock anthems. He explains the context of each song—both the events at which it was sung and the speeches that surrounded it—and delves into political science theory and music therapy to better understand how songs became powerful tools of protest.

“What they had to build on was something very unique—this 150-year-old choir movement that recognized singing and songs as weapons, as something that could be adapted to a nonviolent movement. And, miraculously, it worked,” Šmidchens said.

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See the full story and more photos in Perspectives, the College of Arts & Sciences’ newsletter.

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