Conversino on Šmidchens, 'The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution'

Guntis Šmidchens
Mark J. Conversino

Guntis Šmidchens. The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution. New Directions in Scandinavian Studies Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. x + 446 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-99310-2; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-99452-9.

Reviewed by Mark J. Conversino (School of Advanced Air and Space Studies) Published on H-War (June, 2016) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

As Russian troops swarmed across Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, leaders of the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia felt a sense of alarm mixed with a degree of “I told you so” satisfaction; as various government ministers relayed to me, they had been telling their Western allies for years that the Russian elite’s revanchist tendencies would soon reappear in something more menacing than simple rhetoric from Moscow. By spring 2015, with a Russian-backed proxy army in possession of much of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and relations between Moscow and the West at a post-Cold War low, the Baltic republics felt a growing sense of vulnerability and a perception that they might be next on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grand agenda to reclaim a Russian sphere of influence over the so-called post-Soviet space. Lithuania’s government reinstituted conscription and issued pamphlets to its people telling them how to react to and survive a Russian invasion. Estonia eagerly played host to a detachment of fighter aircraft from various North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air forces at its only military air base southeast of the capital of Tallinn. Latvia opened what soon became the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga in order to combat the Kremlin’s relentless propaganda war. All of them are increasing their defense budgets and preparing for a worst-case scenario. Despite assurances of unwavering support from President Barack Obama and other Western politicians, leaders in all three Baltic republics contemplate seriously the likelihood of either a direct Russian invasion or a “hybrid” scenario, similar to that which unfolded in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Indeed, a series of war games conducted in 2015 by the RAND Corporation showed that in the face of a conventional Russian assault against Estonia and Latvia, NATO forces would lose—and lose badly—in under just sixty hours of combat.

A little more than a quarter century ago, these same small Baltic nations, then directly under Moscow’s rule as constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), stood almost alone against the overwhelming coercive power of the Kremlin. Relying on purely nonviolent means, independence leaders and nationalist activists broke Moscow’s nearly half-century old grip on their countries, almost bloodlessly regaining their independence while touching off a chain reaction that ended in the final dissolution of the Soviet Empire. In a wonderfully written study of the Baltic independence movements, Guntis Šmidchens, the Kazickas Family Endowed Professor in Baltic Studies in the Scandinavian Studies Department at the University of Washington, artfully weaves together a complex tale of social and political evolution and, ultimately, upheaval, viewed through the lens of the Baltic republics’ common traditional love of song. How the peoples of the Baltic states regained in 1990 and 1991 the independence they lost in 1940 without resorting to violence is the story told in this remarkable book through a blend of cultural and political history and musicology.

Šmidchens sets out to achieve a number of goals in this work, some relating to more generalized fields of study and others pertaining more specifically to the Baltic states themselves. He aims to “expand our knowledge of Baltic national cultures and nationalism” as well as contribute to the “understanding of nonviolent political movements” (p. 5). The author also wrestles with what he terms a “well-known problem, the question of whether it is possible to reconcile nonviolent principles with a pursuit of nationalist power” (p. 6). This last point is rather important in this context. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not entirely bloodless. Yet as Daniel Treisman notes, compared to the often “barbaric” manner in which many multiethnic and multinational empires—and the Soviet Union would fit either of those models—have broken apart throughout history, the fall of Moscow’s realm was “remarkably peaceful.” Treisman admits that using such a description is “disconcerting—indeed shocking” to consider the loss of “only” sixty-three thousand lives in ethnic fighting across the Caucasus region and Central Asia as remarkably peaceful but considering that the Soviet Union was a “minefield of potential conflicts,” the outcome could have been “much, much worse.”[1] Considering the size of the ethnic Russian communities in both Estonia and Latvia as well as tensions between Lithuanians and the Polish minority in that republic, it is indeed remarkable that Baltic nationalists achieved independence while avoiding the kind of ethnic conflict that afflicted other regions of the former USSR.

Šmidchens begins his study retrospectively with a brief chapter describing a commemoration of the Baltic Singing Revolution’s tenth anniversary during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, in July 1998. Baltic song festivals and the singing culture more broadly—choral, folk, and rock—served as a means of reinforcing a sense of community and national identity with an implicit rejection of the false Soviet narrative local Communists, at Moscow’s direction, overlaid on these cultures. Šmidchens masterfully provides the reader with an understanding of the development of Baltic folk culture under St. Petersburg’s rule as the wave of nineteenth-century European nationalism washed ashore in the Baltic region. He specifically charts the rise of choral festivals following the abolition of serfdom in the region, an event that preceded by nearly half a century the general emancipation of Russia’s serfs in 1863. Locals built on the existing choral traditions of the Baltic Germans as well as their own, including the choral traditions observed by local church congregations. Šmidchens marks the birth of “nationally singing nations” marked by song festivals conducted in the local language and rooted in national myths and stories at “1869 for Estonians, 1873 for Latvians, and 1924 for Lithuanians.” These song festivals, in Šmidchens’s analysis, brought together members of each nation as a “physical realization of the imagined community” (p. 78). He also examines the wider cultural and national awakenings of each of the three Baltic nations, not simply their singing traditions. This part of the narrative is vital if one is to grasp the struggle of the Baltic peoples to keep their national cultures, including their respective languages, alive during the violence and repression of the Soviet occupation after 1940 and their final struggle for independence which began in 1988.

Joseph Stalin’s forcible incorporation of the Baltic republics into the USSR posed an unprecedented threat to the national cultures and identities of their peoples. Together with eastern Poland and slices of both Romania and Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania disappeared from the map of Europe as independent states under the notorious Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939; in 1945, the Baltic republics would be the only states in Europe whose independence would not be restored, even as nominally independent Soviet satellites. Šmidchens does not dwell on the relatively brief period of Nazi occupation, nor does he examine at great length the armed resistance waged within all three Baltic nations against the postwar Soviet regime. Indeed, while the Baltic Way and the Singing Revolution form proud chapters in each of the three countries’ contemporary national narratives, they are equally proud of the “Forest Brothers” and similar partisan groups who waged a desperate guerrilla war well into the 1950s. Following the end of the war and facing a second wave of mass arrests, deportations, and executions, Estonia and Latvia in particular also confronted the unwelcome arrival of Russian bureaucrats, officials, and workers sent by Moscow to not only bind the region more tightly to the Soviet state but also change it demographically in a way even the tsars did not attempt.

The book’s most illuminating chapter is chapter 5, “Soviet Power Versus the Powerless.” In it, Šmidchens examines the manner in which Baltic authors and song writers appeared to conform to Soviet cultural norms. “Stalin and his ideological followers sought to control the entire Soviet environment and all of the stimuli that would condition people’s behavior—linguistic signals in particular. Their goal was the creation and cultivation of a new breed of people, the ‘Soviet Human’” (p. 137). The cultural watchdogs within the Soviet government harnessed the pre-Soviet Baltic choral tradition. “The song festival’s image of an entire nation singing in unity was as appealing to Stalin as it had been to the organizers of the prewar festivals” (p. 146). Šmidchens describes the late Stalinist period as the ideological hijacking of the content of Baltic culture, including the singing festivals, whose postwar reemergence now included the standard Soviet fare of Stalinist hero-worship and the glorification of the revolution, the party, and the all-powerful Soviet state itself. Yet by appearing to meet the guiding principles of “socialist realism”—party-ness, idea-ness, class-ness, and people-ness—Baltic singing culture continued to thrive despite the smothering embrace of Soviet rule. Important vestiges of Baltic national cultures also survived, despite the regime’s use of intimidation, censorship, and outright punitive action against recalcitrant composers, singers, and conductors. Indeed, Smidchens notes the humiliating circumstances faced by song festival participants in the last years of Stalin’s rule. In the wake of a wave of deportations, executions, and violent social repression, festival participants in Latvia stood, for example, under a banner reading “Glory to the Great Stalin,” singing approved pieces, such as “We Will Go Forever with Stalin in Our Heart.” This was a superficial “testimony,” Šmidchens writes, that the Baltic peoples were loyal followers of the Soviet dictator and, “by extension, that they supported his policies of deportation and execution as a means of sweeping the vile enemies off of the road to communism” (p. 152). Party loyalty or party-ness, what Šmidchens terms “captive minds, living within a lie,” dominated Baltic song festivals, as it did all other facets of life in the USSR (p. 153).

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the failure of their guerilla resistance, and the subsequent political thaw under Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev, the Baltic peoples resigned themselves to life under Moscow’s rule. The Baltic republics emerged as the most Western-oriented and economically advanced part of USSR. Indeed, as Šmidchens notes, the region became something of an internal West for Soviet artists, musicians, and dissidents. He charts the evolution of the singing culture during the post-Stalinist Soviet period through three topical rather than chronological chapters—“Living the Truth” through choral, rock, and folks songs. Most important, the author marks the beginning of the Baltic “singing revolution” in May 1988 in the Estonian university town of Tartu (p. 209). By that point, the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe were entering an existential crisis as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts at political and economic reforms—glasnost and perestroika, respectively.

Perhaps the peaceful denouement of the Soviet collapse reached in the summer of 1991, resulting in the three Baltic republics successfully regaining their lost independence, was as much a reflection of the moral exhaustion and political bankruptcy of the Soviet system as it was any positive step taken by Baltic nationalists to avoid widespread violence. As the power of the Soviet state began to weaken and fracture under Gorbachev’s leadership, the Kremlin and its subordinate republic-level entities loosened some restrictions on political and national expression across the Soviet Union, including the use of previously outlawed national/republic flags. Šmidchens writes that “the Singing Revolution’s weapon and shield was singing, and its objective independence, signified by the flags that gave context to songs from 1988 to 1991” (p. 310). With the fall of Soviet-backed Communist regimes across Eastern Europe, nationalist leaders in the Baltic republics took advantage of the growing chaos and seeming political paralysis and indecision within the Soviet elite to fully reclaim not only their cultural freedom but their political independence, too. Lithuania declared independence in March 1990; Latvia and Estonia both followed suit in May. (Despite its policy of nonrecognition of Soviet rule over the Baltic republics, Washington initially refrained from formally recognizing these declarations.)

Šmidchens rightly notes in his concluding chapter, however, that a nonviolent end to Soviet rule in the Baltic region was NOT a foregone conclusion. Authoritarian regimes often stage and/or exploit acts of violence to justify the further use of force and repression. During the winter of 1990-91, Gorbachev’s regime belatedly, if haphazardly, sought to bring the rebellious Baltic republics in line through the use of force. While the attention of much of the world was riveted on the looming war between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and a US-led coalition over Saddam’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait, Soviet interior ministry troops moved against the Baltic republics. In January 1991, fourteen unarmed civilians died in Vilnius; five perished in Riga. During the spring, Soviet forces attacked Lithuanian customs offices, at one point executing captured Lithuanian border police in cold blood. These incidents marked, in Šmidchens’s analysis, the culmination of the Singing Revolution. Baltic leaders and their people refrained from answering violence with violence, despite the inclusion of lyrics in many songs that promised such retaliation. The Soviet regime’s clumsy efforts beginning in 1988 to portray nationalist movements as “‘fascists’ intent on sowing national hatred and ethnic violence” and actually provoke ethnic conflict went nowhere (p. 244). “Had vengeful emotions taken hold” among the Baltic peoples, he writes, “the Singing Revolution would have ended, and war begun” (p. 305). A botched coup staged by Communist Party hardliners against Gorbachev in August 1991 accelerated the Soviet Union’s collapse; the following month, Moscow recognized the independence of each Baltic republic. By the end of the year, the USSR disappeared from the map, ending a process of dissolution and political collapse that one could argue was triggered by the Baltic Singing Revolution.

As he grapples with the question, noted above, “of whether it is possible to reconcile nonviolent principles with a pursuit of nationalist power” (p. 6), Šmidchens pays little attention to the postindependence policies of the Estonian and Latvian governments, in particular, regarding the status and rights of ethnic Russians who came to those countries after the Soviet takeover in 1940. The author also devotes relatively little attention to this segment of the local population before independence, particularly as Baltic nationalists struggled to keep their languages and cultures alive following Soviet occupation. He recounts the backlash against emerging Baltic independence movements and those physical clashes that took place generally as a struggle between elements of the Soviet state or Soviet institutions rather than between ethnic Russians and the members of each republic’s titular nationality. But Šmidchens does not consider at length how those nationalist leaders managed to achieve their goals without pitting their people against the Russian/Russian-speaking population in their midst, beyond emphasizing the generally peaceful contours of the Baltic singing tradition and the Singing Revolution to which that tradition gave birth.

On balance, Šmidchens has produced a masterful blend of historical and cultural analysis and musicology, presented in a logically structured narrative. His work reflects extensive scholarly research and analysis; his ability to tell a story, like many of the figures he takes under examination, makes this a unique and valuable contribution to our understanding of both the nature and the collapse of Soviet power as well as national movements and nonviolent resistance. The Power of Song will appeal to historians of many stripes and regional experts, anthropologists, musicologists, and specialists in the study of nonviolent and peace movements.


[1]. Daniel Treisman, The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev (New York: Free Press, 2011), 163-164.

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Citation: Mark J. Conversino. Review of Šmidchens, Guntis, The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016. URL:

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