Singing Revolution
Part of the Revolutions of 1989 and the Dissolution of the Soviet Union
The Baltic Way human chain in 1989
Date14 June 1987 – 6 September 1991 (1987-06-14 – 1991-09-06)
Caused by
Resulted inDecisive Baltic victory; end of the Cold War
  • Restoration of the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
  • Restoration of democratic rule
  • Withdrawal of Soviet and then Russian troops from Lithuania by 1993, and Latvia and Estonia by 1994
Lead figures

The Singing Revolution[a] was a series of events from 1987 to 1991 that led to the restoration of independence of the three Soviet-occupied Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the end of the Cold War.[1][2] The term was coined by an Estonian activist and artist, Heinz Valk, in an article published a week after the 10–11 June 1988 spontaneous mass evening singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds.[3]


Main article: Baltic states under Soviet rule

During World War II, the three Baltic countries were invaded and occupied by the Stalinist Soviet Union in June 1940, and formally annexed into the USSR in August 1940. Following the Nazi German occupation in 1941–1944/45, the three countries were reconquered by the Soviet army in 1944–1945.

In 1985, the last leader of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring"), hoping to stimulate the failing Soviet economy and encourage productivity, particularly in the areas of consumer goods, the liberalisation of cooperative businesses, and growing the service economy. Glasnost rescinded limitations on political freedoms in the Soviet Union, which led to problems for the Soviet central government in retaining control over non-Russian areas, including the occupied Baltic countries.

Hitherto unrecognised issues previously kept secret by the Soviet central government in Moscow were admitted to in public, causing further popular dissatisfaction with the Soviet regime in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Combined with the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear fallout in Chernobyl, grievances were aired in a publicly explosive and politically decisive manner. Estonians were concerned about the demographic threat to their national identity posed by the influx of individuals from foreign ethnic groups to work on such large Soviet development projects as phosphate mining.[4]

Access to Western émigré communities abroad and, particularly in Estonia, informal relations with Finland, and access to Finnish TV showing the Western lifestyle also contributed to widespread dissatisfaction with the Soviet system and provoked mass demonstrations as repression on dissidents, nationalists, religious communities, and ordinary consumers eased substantially towards the end of the 1980s.[citation needed]

Massive demonstrations against the Soviet regime began after widespread liberalisation of the regime failed to take into account national sensitivities. It was hoped by Moscow that the non-Russian nations would remain within the USSR despite the removal of restrictions on freedom of speech and national icons (such as the local pre-1940 flags).[citation needed] However, the situation deteriorated to such an extent that by 1989 there were campaigns aimed at freeing the nations from the Soviet Union altogether.


The Soviet government's plan to excavate phosphorite in the Lääne-Viru county with potentially catastrophic consequences for the environment and society was revealed in February 1987. That started the "Phosphorite War", a public environmental campaign.[5] The MRP-AEG group held the Hirvepark meeting in the Old Town of Tallinn at the anniversary of Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1987, demanding to disclose and condemn its secret protocol.[citation needed]

The "Five Patriotic Songs" series by Alo Mattiisen premiered at the Tartu Pop Festival in May 1988.[6] In June the Old Town Festival was held in Tallinn, and after the official part of the festival, the participants moved to the Song Festival Grounds and started to sing patriotic songs together spontaneously.[7] The Baltic Way, a human chain of two million people, spanned from Tallinn to Vilnius on 23 August 1989.[8] Mattiisen's "Five Patriotic Songs" were performed again at the Rock Summer festival in Tallinn held on 26–28 August 1988.[9] The Song of Estonia festival was held at the Song Festival Grounds on 11 September.[6] Trivimi Velliste, Chairman of the Estonian Heritage Society, first voiced the public ambition to regain independence.[10] The Supreme Soviet of Estonia issued the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration on 16 November.[8]

The Singing Revolution lasted over four years, with various protests and acts of defiance. The revolution was led by three different groups: the Heritage Society, the Popular Front, and the National Independence Party. The Heritage Society, established in 1987, focused on spreading awareness about Estonia's history to gather support for Estonia's independence from the Soviets. The Popular Front, founded in 1988, wanted to reform Estonia into self-government within a loose confederation of the Soviet Union. The National Independence Party, established in 1988 as well, was more radical than the other two organizations and demanded complete independence from the Soviet Union. [11][12]

In 1991, as the central government in Moscow and the Soviet Army attempted to stop the Estonian progress towards independence, the newly elected legislature of Estonia together with an elected grassroots parliament, Congress of Estonia, proclaimed the restoration of the independent state of Estonia and repudiated Soviet legislation. Large groups of unarmed volunteers went to shield the parliament, radio and TV buildings from any attacks by Soviet troops. Through these actions Estonia regained its independence without any blood shed.[13]

Independence was declared on the late evening of 20 August 1991, after an agreement between different political parties was reached. The next morning Soviet troops, according to Estonian TV, attempted to storm Tallinn TV Tower but were unsuccessful.[14] The Communist hardliners' coup attempt failed amidst mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow led by Boris Yeltsin.[citation needed]

On 22 August 1991, Iceland (independent country since 1944) announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Estonia, and Iceland thus became the first foreign country to formally recognise the fully restored independence of Estonia in 1991. Today, a plaque commemorating this event is situated on the outside wall of the Foreign Ministry, which is on Islandi väljak 1, or "Iceland Square 1". The plaque reads; "The Republic of Iceland was the first to recognise, on 22 August 1991, the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Estonia", in Estonian, Icelandic and English. Some other nations did not recognise the annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union.[15][16]


During the second half of the 1980s as Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika in the USSR, which rolled back restrictions to freedom in the Soviet Union, aversion to the Soviet regime had grown into the third Latvian National Awakening, which reached its peak in mid-1988.

In 1986, it became widely known to the public that the USSR was planning to build another hydroelectric power plant on Latvia's largest river Daugava, and that a decision had been made to build a metro in Riga.[citation needed] Both of these projects planned by Moscow could have led to the destruction of Latvia's landscape and cultural and historical heritage. In the press journalists urged the public to protest against these decisions. The public reacted immediately, and in response, the Environmental Protection Club was founded on 28 February 1987. During the second half of the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Club became one of the most influential mass movements in the region and began to make demands for the restoration of Latvia's independence.[citation needed]

On 14 June 1987, the anniversary of the 1941 deportations, the human rights group "Helsinki-86", which had been founded a year earlier, organized people to place flowers at the Freedom Monument (Latvia's symbol of independence, which was erected in 1935). This is widely cited as the beginning of the National Awakening. However, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival of 1985 also had been sometimes named as such for choirs requesting and performing the song Gaismas pils conducted by Haralds Mednis after the main event. The song, which speaks about the rebirth of a free Latvian nation, usually a staple of the festival, had been removed from the repertoire; the conductor, disliked by Soviet authorities, was sidelined at the closing concert. He was called from his seat by the choir and 'Gaismas pils' was performed, airing live on Riga Television.[17]

On 1 and 2 June 1988, the Writers' Union held a congress during which the democratization of society, Latvia's economic sovereignty, the cessation of immigration from the USSR, the transformation of industry, and the protection of Latvian language rights were discussed by delegates. Over the course of this conference, for the first time in post-war Latvia, the secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which had determined Latvia's fate after 1939, was publicly acknowledged.[citation needed]

The congress of the Writers' Union stirred up public opinion and provided an additional stimulus for the general process of national revival.[citation needed]

In the summer of 1988, two of the most important organizations of the revival period began to assemble themselves—the Latvian People's Front and the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNIM). Soon afterwards the more radically inclined Citizens' Congress called for complete non-compliance with the representatives of the Soviet regime.[citation needed] All of these organisations had a common goal: the restoration of democracy and independence. On 7 October 1988, there was a mass public demonstration, calling for Latvia's independence and the establishment of a regular judicial order. On 8 and 9 October the first congress of the Latvian People's Front was held. This organization, which attracted 200,000 members, became the main representative of the return to independence.[citation needed]

On 23 August 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the People's Fronts of all three Baltic countries held a huge demonstration of unity—the "Baltic Way". A 600 km (373 mi) long human "chain" from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius was assembled. This was a symbolic demonstration of the people's call for independence from the Soviet Union.

New elections to the Supreme Soviet took place on 18 March 1990, in which the supporters of independence gained a victory. On 4 May 1990, 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.

In January 1991, however, pro-communist political forces attempted to restore Soviet power. With the use of force, attempts were made to overthrow the new assembly. Latvian demonstrators managed to stop the Soviet troops from re-occupying strategic positions, and these events are known as the "Days of the Barricades".

On 19 August 1991, an unsuccessful attempt at a coup d'état took place in Moscow when a small group of prominent Soviet functionaries failed to regain power due to large pro-democracy demonstrations in Russia. This event resulted in Latvia swiftly moving toward independence. After the coup's failure, the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Republic announced on 21 August 1991, that the transition period to full independence declared on 4 May 1990 had come to an end. Therefore, Latvia was proclaimed a fully independent nation whose judicial foundation stemmed back to the statehood that existed before the occupation on 17 June 1940.


Lithuanian people in Šiauliai (Gorbachev visit, 1990)
Ukmergė's monument of independence, "Lituania Restituta", restored in 1989.

Between 1956 and 1987, open public resistance to the Soviet regime was rare. It became more persistent in the 1970s and 1980s. One example of this could be the Kaunas events of 1972. Many popular singers often used the poetry of nationalist poets such as Bernardas Brazdžionis or Justinas Marcinkevičius, as the lyrics of their songs. In 1987 the Rock March also promoted awareness of the issue among the people.[citation needed]

In 1987, various organisations (mainly environmental ones) were founded. On 3 June 1988, the Sąjūdis, a political and social movement, was established. Some initiators of this movement were active members of environmental organisations, established in 1987 (e. g. Zigmas Vaišvila, Gintaras Songaila). Initially, this organisation supported the regime, but in early autumn of the same year after Lithuania-wide growth, it became an opposing force to the CPL.

In response to this, Sąjūdis became a more centralised organisation. The active nationalist opposition (mostly the Lithuanian Liberty League) towards the regime culminated in various public protests. The most notorious of them took place on 28 October 1988, which ended up with violent dispersal. The resulting public anger caused resignations in the Communist Party of Lithuania (including the then-First Secretary of the party, Ringaudas Songaila, who served just over a year) and replaced them with more moderate members.[18]

As the CPL leadership changed, it decided to return Vilnius Cathedral, formerly used as a museum of fine arts, to the Catholic community on 21 October 1988. The national anthem of Lithuania and the traditional national Tricolore were legalised in Lithuania on 18 November 1988, officially replacing the flag and the anthem of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was followed by the recognition of the Lithuanian language as a state language, what meant that it became the sole legal language on an institutional level.[19] The latter change was instrumental in the removal of some officials (e. g. Nikolai Mitkin, who served as the Second Secretary of the CPL), but fueled tensions in Polish and Russian speaking communities.

It was followed by the gradual rebuilding of national symbols, which included erecting or restoring independence monuments throughout the country in late 1988 and 1989.

During 1989, various organisations (e. g. The Writers Union) split from the Soviet ones. Prior to the election of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, Sąjūdis media became more restricted, but after the defeat of the CPL (it won just 6 seats of 42, other seats were won Sąjūdis supported candidates), restrictions were lifted. By the end of the year, the CPL gave up its power monopoly and agreed to hold free elections for Supreme Soviet of Lithuanian SSR in 1990, which it lost.

Five decades after Lithuania was occupied and incorporated into the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first republic to declare its independence from the USSR on 11 March 1990, while Estonia and Latvia declared Soviet rule to have been illegal from the start and since full restoration of independence was not yet feasible, started a period of transition towards independence, culminating with the failure of the August coup. For the same reason, almost all nations in the international community, except Iceland, hesitated to recognise independence for Lithuania until August 1991.[citation needed]

The Soviet military responded harshly. On 13 January 1991, fourteen non-violent protesters in Vilnius died and hundreds were injured defending the Vilnius Television Tower and the Parliament from Soviet assault troops and tanks. Lithuanians refer to the event as Bloody Sunday. The discipline and courage of its citizens – linking arms and singing in the face of tanks and armour-piercing bullets – avoided a much greater loss of life and showed the world that Lithuania's citizens were prepared to defend their national independence.[citation needed]

International governments began recognizing Lithuanian independence after the failure of the coup d'état in August 1991.

Notable protest songs

See also


  1. ^ Estonian: laulev revolutsioon; Latvian: dziesmotā revolūcija; Lithuanian: dainuojanti revoliucija.


  1. ^ Thomson, Clare (1992). The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey through the Baltic States. London: Joseph. ISBN 0-7181-3459-1.
  2. ^ Ginkel, John (September 2002). "Identity Construction in Latvia's "Singing Revolution": Why inter-ethnic conflict failed to occur". Nationalities Papers. 30 (3): 403–433. doi:10.1080/0090599022000011697. S2CID 154588618.
  3. ^ Vogt, Henri (2005). Between Utopia and Disillusionment: A Narrative of the Political Transformation in Eastern Europe. Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1571818959. Retrieved 1 January 2022 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Estonia and the Estonians, Toivo U. Raun, Hoover Press, 2001, p. 223
  5. ^ Phosphorite War Estonica. Ecyclopaedia about Estonia
  6. ^ a b "The Singing Revolution". Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  7. ^ "10th June 1988 – the Singing Revolution". Dorian Cope presents On This Deity. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  8. ^ a b "Estonia's Singing Revolution (1986–1991)". ICNC. 25 February 2016. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  9. ^ "1988 – Rock Summer I – Rock Summer". Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  10. ^ "Song of Estonia". Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  11. ^ "Estonia's Singing Revolution (1986–1991)". ICNC. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  12. ^ "You are being redirected..." 24 August 2019. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  13. ^ "State of World Liberty". Archived from the original on 30 September 2010. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  14. ^ "ETV". Archived from the original on 14 February 2008. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  15. ^ Chen, Ti-Chiang Chen (1951). The international law of recognition. Рипол Классик. p. 157. ISBN 978-5875231827.
  16. ^ Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "President of the Republic at the State Dinner hosted by President T. E. Mary McAleese and Dr. Martin McAleese, Dublin, Republic of Ireland, 14 April 2008". President Republic of Estonia. Estonia. Archived from the original on 23 December 2015. Retrieved 20 April 2015. The President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves said: "... ... we are thankful that Ireland never recognised the illegal annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. We will never forget John McEvoy, Estonia's honorary consul in Dublin from 1938 to 1960.
  17. ^ "JĀZEPS VĪTOLS'S "GAISMAS PILS": a ballad for mixed choir". Latvian Cultural Canon. Archived from the original on 18 March 2013. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
  18. ^ "Anapilin iškeliavusio sovietinės Lietuvos vadovo klystkeliai: po "bananų baliaus" tapo visų užmiršta praeities šmėkla". Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  19. ^ "1988 m. lapkričio 18 m. lietuvių kalbai grąžintas valstybinės kalbos statusas". Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h "Latvijas neatkarības atjaunošana" (in Latvian). Archived from the original on 22 May 2013. Retrieved 29 March 2013.
  21. ^ a b c Kudiņš, Jānis (2019). "Phenomenon of the Baltic singing revolution in 1987–1991: Three Latvian songs as historical symbols of non-violent resistance" (PDF). Muzikologija (26): 27–39. doi:10.2298/MUZ1926027K. Retrieved 18 November 2020.