August 20th and 21st mark the 22nd anniversary of Estonian and Latvia’s declaration of independence from the USSR. Estonia declared its independence in 1991, after the 1988 peaceful protest, commonly called “the singing revolution”. However, events escalated when Soviet special forces troops surrounded the Tallinn TV Tower while an attempted coup d’état was taking place in Russia. Estonia’s then legislature, the Supreme Soviet, proclaimed the restoration of the country’s independence. On 21 August 1991, Latvia also fought against Soviet efforts to squash its budding peaceful revolution for independence, ultimately restoring itself as a free state. But what were the events in the lead up to this event? Eastbook.eu takes a look…
The spark of revolution was a musical one. The struggle for freedom from Soviet Russia began on June 10, 1988, when 300,000 people stood up and sang. Like other countries under Soviet control, Estonia suffered under the program of cultural genocide known as “russification”. During this process, tens of thousands of Russians were settled in the country in an effort to dilute the ethnic Estonian population. In further effort to suppress the Estonian culture, Russian became the official language and the Estonian flag was outlawed. Nationalist songs were banned from the Estonian Song Festival (Laulupidu), a choral music festival, which is a strong underpinning of Estonian culture.
The move towards independence came to a head on June 10, 1988, erupting after Soviet authorities closed down a rock concert in the Old Town Square in Tallinn. The crowd walked several miles to the song festival grounds, where the concert evolved into a massive sing-a-long of illegal patriotic songs. For six nights, hundreds of thousands of people gathered to sing and raise Estonian flags that had been hidden from view for almost fifty years. It was the first step in the non-violent “singing revolution” that ended with Estonian independence on August 21, 1991.
On 22 August 1991, Iceland became the first nation to recognise the newly restored independence of Estonia. Today, a plaque commemorating this event is situated on the outside wall of the Foreign Ministry, which itself is situated on Islandi Väljak 1, or “Iceland Square 1”. The plaque reads; “The Republic of Iceland was the first to recognize, on 22 August 1991, the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Estonia”, in Estonian, Icelandic and English.
Fun Fact: The next Laulupidu will be held in 2015.
— Chris Glew (@eestiglew) August 20, 2013
Like its northerly neighbour, Latvia took part in the singing revolution in 1989, when it took part in the Baltic Way. Even greater changes for Latvia were realized at the political and administrative level in 1990, after the supporters of independence gained a victory. The new Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR adopted a motion, “Declaration of Independence“, which called for the restoration of the inter-war Latvian state and the 1922 Constitution.
Within less than a year, feeling their grip on power slipping, pro-communist political forces attempted to restore Soviet power through force, and attempts were made to overthrow the new assembly. Latvian demonstrators managed to stop the Soviet troops from re-occupying strategic positions, a series of events now known as the “Days of the Barricades“.
On August 19, 1991, the unsuccessful attempt at a coup d’état in Moscow cleared the way for Latvia to stealthily seize its independence along with Estonia. After the coup’s failure the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Republic announced on August 21, 1991, that the transition period to full independence had ended and that Latvia was officially fully independent nation.
Latvia reverted back to the judicial foundation preoccupation, restoring a statehood that existed before Soviet rule began on June 17, 1940.
The Saeima, Latvia’s parliament, was again elected in 1993. Russia ended its military presence by completing its troop withdrawal in 1994 except for the Skrunda-1 radar station, which Russia shut down in 1998. The major goals of Latvia in the 1990s, to join NATO and the European Union, were achieved in 2004.
Fun Fact: Lithuania claimed independence from the Soviet Union on 11 March 1990, making it the first Soviet republic to do so. The Soviet Union attempted to retaliate against the secession by imposing an economic blockage and attacking the capital city of Vilnius, and later killing seven guards at the Belarusian border, in what is now called the Medininkai Massacre. However, Lithuanian independence is often regarded as predating its Baltic peers.
Through the lens of film…