Our tour guides in Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga (Latvia) both made a point of the vital importance of folk songs and public singing in the cultural and political life of these small and much invaded and tyrannized states.
Riga can be traced back to 1201 when it took its name from an abbreviated form of the river which ran though the site. German knights took charge of the district and established their rule over the native inhabitants. The order was disturbed in the seventeenth century when the Poles and the Swedes disputed occupation, ending in victory to the Swedes. Peter the Great of Russia took on the Swedes in a 20 year war from 1700 to 1720 when he evicted the Swedes from the Russian mainland and he also established a presence in the (now) Baltic states.
In 1918 the Latvians gained independence when the Russians drove out the Germans and Lenin was favourably disposed towards Latvians who supported him in the Russian civil war. According to the guide Lenin granted “eternal independence” but that only lasted until 1939 when Hitler and Stalin sat down and decided that Stalin could have Poland and the Germans could have the Baltic states. In 1944 the Russians re-occupied the territory and instituted a reign of terror that resulted in tens of thousands of Latvians being relocated in Siberia. As a result of the flight of Jews from Hitler (into Russia), migration to the west (200,000 after 1944) and mass deportation, only a third of the original Latvian population survived.
In 1990 the nation declared independence (again) and in 1991 they achieved what was called “the singing revolution” when massed Latvians filled the streets singing their traditional folk songs. For many decades these songs were the main vehicle of national unity because there was no other safe way to express political or nationalistic sentiments.
The late Roger Sandall wrote a moving commentary on some films about the travails of the Baltic states and other parts of the Soviet empire, especially the mass murder of small farmers in the Ukraine. He pinpointed the role of folk music in the Baltic states with reference to Yuris Podniek’s film Homeland.
Delicately tinkling bells and radiant women’s faces alternate with guns and gunfire. Human voices sing in solemn concert against images of planes and tanks. Meanwhile the accumulated force of memory and moral wrath is directed against a terrible history. Cutting to and fro between past and present, using black-and-white footage from the twenty independent years between the wars, the meaning of this history is examined – especially the consequences of the 1939 Nazi Soviet pact.
This is the tale of suffering, leading up to the 1990 Latvian Song Festival, its 358 choirs of 24,000 people, and its heart-felt singing of national songs banned for 50 years, which provides the moral dynamic for Yuris Podniek’s film. It has six main ingredients. First, a huge choral festival attended by thousands of brilliantly costumed and strikingly handsome women singers. Second, scenes of Soviet military forces on manoeuvers (large areas of the Baltic States have for decades been used for Soviet bases and army manoeuvres, the farmers having long since been turned off the land or deported). Thirdly, footage from the past showing glimpses of the earliest days of the song festivals, and more than glimpses of the arrogant steel-clad might of this or that imperial power rolling through Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Fourthly, interview material with young and old survivors. Fifthly, scenes from exile settlements of Balts in Siberia, showing the exhumation of the dead and the transportation home of their remains. And sixthly – and intimately continuous with the preceding – scenes of Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, a religious shrine twice bulldozed flat by the communist regime, which in its phoenix-like capacity for renewal symbolized, like nothing else, resistance to both Marxism and the Party.
What welds this material together is the poignant use of traditional choral singing, along with a low~keyed jaggedly nervy score by Martin Braun composed for invading weaponry and troops. The different elements work to produce a film which is simultaneously political in purpose, cultural in content, and has an almost musical form. But what is the deep reason for all the choirs and singing? It is because this was the only form of nationalistic expression allowed under the Soviet regime.
Check out the remarkable story of the film director Yuris Podnieks as well!