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From the pre-Christian era to today, the Baltic state has a proud—and revolutionary—history and ...
2023-05-17 09:00:00

The Singing Revolution
Hearing Latvia’s Voice

Held every five years, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival is on UNESCO’s List of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The last day of this event is a public holiday. Photo by RutaHH (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Singing Revolution
The Singing Revolution

The people of the Baltics have been singing since time immemorial. In the past, their songs brought hopes of survival and strength to fight; today they help navigate a changing, harsh reality.

Read in 10 minutes

For Lelde Benke, copywriter and translator, Latvia sounds like hope: soft and tender. Benke was born in Australia, but her parents, grandparents, and local community raised her in the Latvian tradition, embracing folktales and traditional songs. “My grandfather and grandmother romanticized Latvia. They missed their childhood—the time before the war, before the Nazi and Soviet occupation,” Benke tells me. They never really wanted to go abroad. They escaped repressions.”

The Red Army occupied Latvia in 1940. In the following decades, the Soviet authorities sought to annihilate Latvian statehood and brutally suppressed all resistance. In just one day—June 14, 1941—some forty-five thousand Latvians were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union. During World War II, the fear of deportation and the “red terror” led three-hundred thousand citizens to flee, mainly to Germany. There, instead of finding safety, they were threatened with forced repatriation. As a result, many Latvians traveled even further: to the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, and other countries. Approximately twenty thousand Latvians, including Benke’s grandparents, moved to Australia. Her parents were born in exile.

“When they met and discovered their roots, they began traveling to Latvia. The idea of ‘living’ in Riga soon emerged, if and when Latvia regained its independence. In 1995, when I was seven years old, we packed up and left. We treated the move as an experiment: while my parents wanted to stay in Latvia permanently, they assured us that if we failed to integrate in Latvia, we could always return to Australia. But we did stay—my parents and sister, all of us. My grandparents have passed away.”

​​Thanks to the “cultural education” she received from her elders, Benke quickly found her footing within this new reality. “I knew a lot of the songs we sang in school. These were, among others, early 20th-century songs from my grandparent’s childhood, the period when Latvia first regained its independence.”

Ordinary Life

For two centuries, the Baltic States were part of the Russian Empire. Latvia was among its best-developed provinces. In the mid-19th century—like in other parts of Europe—industrialization and abolition of serfdom brought on social change. New forms of entertainment emerged: choir enthusiasts formed bands that championed folk culture. They followed in the footsteps of German choral associations: before World War II, a large German minority lived on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, the territories of today’s Estonia and Latvia. “Initially, they mainly translated German songs into Latvian. But the choristers soon realized that they could also compose their own, in Latvian,” explains Valdis Muktupāvels, an ethnomusicologist and professor at the University of Latvia.

The earliest traditional Latvian songs—dainas—originated from the pre-Christian era and addressed the themes of ordinary rural life, from the cradle to the grave, in harmony with natural cycles. “The resurgence of dainas in the 19th century was a response to rapid changes,” Muktupāvels explains. “The message was as follows: as a society, we must move forward, but we must not forget about our roots. As they sang, the choristers connected with their ancestors and drew strength from their wisdom.”

The dainas have never lost their power. According to Benke, “[…] the lyrics of traditional songs are still a signpost: they show us that despite the world moving forward, the foundations remain the same as centuries ago. In this way, they are grounding, keep us sane, and teach us mindfulness. They remind us about the importance of living in harmony with nature.” Dainas enjoy great popularity—every five years, a great festival of song and dance takes place in Latvia (and in Lithuania, every four years). This year, the event celebrates its 150th anniversary. Around one thousand choristers took part in its first edition in 1873, and today almost twelve thousand singers perform on various stages, having practiced for months to appear in front of an audience of half a million people. “Everyone is excited,” Benke tells me in early December 2022, although the ten-day festival is not due to begin until June 30, 2023. “Ticket sales are about to start—I hope we can manage to get some. Because there’s so much interest, getting tickets to the final concert and main dance performance is almost impossible!”

Festivals that attract such a large audience in a country of less than two million people are so much more than just ordinary cultural events. “They are the foundations of Latvian identity, as are the Latvian language and traditional music,” Muktupāvels explains. “At the turn of the 20th century, the writer and folklorist Krišjānis Barons gathered and edited a monumental collection of songs, published in six volumes as Latvju dainas [Latvian Songs]. The press of the time widely commented on the importance of this publication: it was praised for restoring the lost Latvian past and culture, and bringing the Latvian nation to a common plane with other European nations.”

Barons belonged to the movement known as the New Latvians (jaunlatvieši)—intellectuals who initiated the national revival movement in the second half of the 19th century. They promoted the Latvian language, translated literature, strived to preserve works of folklore for future generations, and established Latvian schools. They also demanded equality for the Latvian population—the movement was formed to oppose the economic dominance of the Baltic Germans. In order to limit their influence, the New Latvians supported tsarist reforms and the policy of centralizing the Russian Empire. After 1905—having realized that cooperation with the Russian authorities and cultural rapprochement with the Russian people (for three years, they even published a literary and cultural magazine in St. Petersburg) would not lead to independence—they changed their course.

The Chain of Hope

The New Latvians did not create a coherent vision for the future Latvian nation—they were people of culture and education, not politicians. But still, they manifested and emphasized the distinctiveness and the beauty of the Latvian heritage and promoted national awareness in Latvia. They ignited a patriotic fire that even the decades of post-war Soviet terror could not extinguish. “Executions and killings of the civilian population were the order of the day,” Muktupāvels says. “I grew up in a totalitarian country.” The deportations of “anti-Soviet elements” reached its peak in 1949, when the Soviet authorities transported almost one-hundred thousand people to Siberia. Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian farmers were forced to work in collective farms as part of the collectivization of agriculture. From the very beginning, the Baltic States opposed the Soviet occupation. Nearly 170,000 guerrillas, known as the “Forest Brothers,” took up arms. KGB agents regularly infiltrated their ranks—about fifty thousand guerrilla fighters were killed or disappeared without a trace.

And yet, it was not weapons that liberated the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians—singing did. On August 23, 1989—the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing the spheres of influence in Europe—two million people formed a human chain that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn. They protested against repressions by singing the trilingual song “Atmostas Baltija” (“The Baltics Are Waking Up!”), specially composed for the occasion. This event culminated in the so-called Singing Revolution, a series of peaceful protests, leading to the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. 

“People started to rebel as early as the 1970s,” Muktupāvels recalls. “They realized that the Soviet system was destroying Latvian culture. They decided to act: to search for their roots, to study and cultivate traditional culture. They started to form folklore bands.” In the 1980s, almost every town and village had its own folk band. People learned dialects together, played traditional instruments, and made folk costumes. They also tried to revive traditions and customs. As an example, Muktupāvels cites the celebration of the summer solstice. Although these festivals were not officially banned, Soviet authorities obstructed any practices considered religious or nationalist. The censors also monitored the programs of folklore bands. Theoretically, the artists did nothing illegal—they sang 19th-century songs about life in rural Latvia. As such, it was difficult to accuse them of rabble-rousing. The censors could only criticize the archaic and sad nature of the songs, which contradicted the ideology of a happy nation living in the best country in the world, Muktupāvels explains. At the time he led his own folk group, but the authorities soon put an end to his activities. “They said the program was nationalist. They accused us of performing magical rituals ‘unsuitable for the Soviet man.’ And I—with my patriotic views—was supposedly a bad influence on young people.”

“I Shall Pass Through All This…”

During that period, KGB agents “visited” many members of well-known folk groups, such as the Skandinieki. They requisitioned footage, tapes, and field footage, as if they wanted to destroy every material part of Latvian culture. The KGB failed—and the artists from the Skandinieki, harassed by the services, later led the street protests during the Baltica folklore festival in July 1988. They sang the following daina:

I have words
Strong words
I can put a stake in the ground
And stop the Dauguva river
They beat me, stabbed me with a knife
Like a wooden trunk;
They didn’t hit me, they didn’t stab me
Like a rod of steel.
All the forests are on fire,
All the roads are blocked;
With God’s help
I shall pass through all this.

Muktupāvels walked along with the rest of the festival attendees, with tears in his eyes. “Imagine people waving the flags of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. For the first time in modern history! At a folk festival! Needless to say, the possession of any national symbols, let alone protesting with them, was strictly forbidden in Soviet times. I did know there would be three large flags, but I did not think people would bring their own. I also had one pinned to the set of pipes I was playing. ”

Protest songs were heard during earlier festivals: the Lithuanian March of Rock in 1987 and the Estonian pop festival in Tartu one year later. At the same time, an environmental movement was emerging: activists opposed the devastation of the ecosystem by the Soviet authorities. In 1987, Estonians were enraged by plans to extract phosphorus in the north of the country. A year earlier, Latvians were incensed when it transpired the Soviets were planning to build another hydroelectric power plant on the Dauguva river and a metro line in Riga. These projects would devastate the environment and elements of Latvian cultural and historical heritage.

Songs of Freedom

When the Baltic States declared their independence from the USSR in 1991, the Soviet authorities responded with violence: they dispatched special forces units to Riga, tanks to Vilnius, and troops to Tallinn. “In those days, no one believed that it was possible to defeat the ghastly, gargantuan Soviet Union that owned nuclear weapons and an extensive system of repression,” Muktupāvels remembers. “But we managed it without any bloodshed. We were guided by, among others, Gandhi’s philosophy of pacifism: we felt that since we stood against this massive military power, we could not achieve anything by force. Our greatest weapon was moral values, including singing. It unites people. It has a magical element.”

But singing also has a fairy tale element to it. Dainas offer us hope that good will prevail in the fight against its enemies. “And that means any kind of enemy,” Benke adds. “The lyrics of our songs have always carried a universal message—not only to stand up against the Soviet regime, but also all other forces that would attempt to take away our independence. Because of this, singing gives us hope that we Latvians can survive as a nation.”

An Imminent End

However, not everyone is equally optimistic about this. “We have a joke that in 2030 the last Latvian can switch off the light at Riga airport,” Aldis Austers, president of the European Latvian Association, told French television in 2012. Every year, fourteen thousand mostly young and well-educated people leave the country. This is the second-highest rate, following Bulgaria, in the European Union. They emigrate in search of better, or any, employment. Despite the falling rates of unemployment, almost every fifth young Latvian doesn’t have a job. According to Eurostat, by 2050 the Latvian population will shrink to 1.3 million, also because of declining birth rates. “This is a problem because it makes the country less appealing to investors: they tend to open businesses wherever there is a workforce,” said the director of the Center for Diaspora and Migration Research in the documentary Latvia: Brain Drain Inta Mierina. “If we don’t do anything now and invest in better infrastructure, jobs, and language teaching, we will lose people,” added Elita Gavele, ambassador for the Latvian diaspora.

Old traditions are also slowly fading away. “Today, not everyone knows how to celebrate the summer solstice,” Muktupāvels said. “Only when folk bands announce that they are going to celebrate in a given place, do people join in.” But Muktupāvels is convinced that traditional songs will endure. “Original lyrics are still performed in contemporary arrangements. Although, in the spirit of the 21st century, artists use different instruments and mix musical genres, e.g., ethnic with jazz, they don’t alter the words themselves. These are sacrosanct.”

Muktupāvels appreciates these new musical forms and wonders what will be the next chapter in the history of Latvian folk music. He himself plays the kokles and bagpipes and remains faithful to tradition.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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