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Estonians commemorate independence to the tune of a 25,000-strong chorus

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Isabelle de Pommereau

(Read caption) A large choir performs at the Estonian Singing Festival.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Imagine nearly 25,000 young people raising their voices in a gigantic choir, cheered by 100,000 spectators.

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This happened in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a former Soviet republic on the Baltic Sea, in July. The Singing Festival, performed every five years for the past 150 years, has come to mean victory over domination, oppression, and economic hardship. Begun in 1869, the festival is Estonia’s national statement, the symbol of the heart of a country that, against all odds, made it into the eurozone this year.

In 1989, as Russia itself was focusing on opening and restructuring under Mikhail Gorbachev, 35,000 Estonians rebelliously sang Gustav Ernesak’s forbidden “Land of my Fathers, Land that I Love.” By Aug. 20, 1991, Estonia had regained its independence from the Soviet Union. This year marks its 20th anniversary.

Singing “shows what human beings are capable of enduring and achieving under the most difficult obstacles,” says Estonian-American filmmaker Jim Tusty. Mr. Tusty coproduced “The Singing Revolution” (2006) to document Estonia’s nonviolent path to freedom from Soviet occupation.

“We need [the song festival] to keep our roots alive,” adds conductor Aarne Saluveer, president of the Estonian Choral Society. “In the 1990s, some people said, ‘Why do we [keep] the singing festivals? We’re free!’ ” says Mr. Saluveer. “But [if] you think that singing is [only for working] against something, you live in fear. Singing is about telling important stories. It is about celebrating that we are free.”