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Photo by: Aivar Pihelgas

Photo by: Aivar Pihelgas

Photo by: Jelena Rudi

The Singing Revolution - How Estonia restored its' independence

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By Noora Karppi  •  17.08.2018

On 20th of August, we celebrate the Restoration of Independence in Estonia. The process of restoring Estonia’s independence was named the Singing Revolution. Estonians gathered to sing together, holding hands and waving blue-black-white flags, as the Soviet power became weaker.

Here’s a short recap of events that led to the restoration of independence in Estonia and sights related to the events.


Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev wants to revive the Soviet economy after the tiring war in Afghanistan, nuclear arms race and Era of Stagnation. He is determined to guide the Soviet Union through the crisis. Gorbachev wants to have better relations with the West, but in order to do so, he needs to make changes in domestic policies.


Gorbachev introduces political slogans Perestroika and Glasnost at his speech to the Communist Party Congress. Perestroika means restructuring the political and economic system. Glasnost means openness and transparency, more open government and democracy.

Gorbachev replaces old Soviet leaders with new reformists. His focus is in Moscow, and life in the Baltic states continues more or less as usual.


Perestroika continues more ambitiously and starts processes that lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The central government gives more power to local governments and the press gains more freedom. Gorbachev pays a visit to Estonia and causes displeasure by blaming Estonia living off the backs of others.

In February, environmental campaign ‘fosforiidisõda’ (Phosphorite War) escalates. Estonians protest against the opening of phosphorite excavations that would cause an environmental disaster in Virumaa. The Phosphorite War showed people the weakness of the Soviet regime and strengthens the nationalistic movement.

The first spontaneous Night Song Festivals take place during the Old Town Days. It is one of the first events when the black-blue-white flags are waved again out in the open.

"Ei ole üksi ükski maa" (No country stands alone) a song composed by Alo Mattiisen in 1987. Performed at the Night Song Festival 2013 in Tartu.

Hirvepark meeting takes place on the 48th anniversary of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Up to 7000 protesters take part and demand the secret protocol of the pact to be made public. The authorities are surprised by the amount of support the protest gets from locals. Hirvepark meeting starts a wave of public demonstrations against Estonian Communist Party.

Estonian economists, Siim Kallas, Tiit Made, Edgar Savisaar and Mikk Titma, publish a programme called ‘Isemajandav Eesti’ (Economically self-sufficient Estonia), short IME (a miracle in Estonian). The programme aims to part the economic systems of Estonia and the Soviet Union. People of Estonia were supporting the idea of IME, and it later helped Estonia to quickly get on its feet after parting from the Soviet Union.

Despite the authorities strongly opposing, the Estonian Heritage Society (Eesti Muinsuskaitse Selts) is established. Estonian Heritage Society wants to revive Estonian traditions. In 1988 the anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty and Independence Day were celebrated once again.

The relatively quick evolution of patriotic movements took the Soviet leaders by surprise.


Pressure for reforms and changes gets stronger. New pro-Soviet movements start to rise and create tension in Estonia. Estonians demand local politicians to protect the interests of Estonia against Moscow. To keep Estonia under control, Gorbachev replaces Karl Vaino, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Estonia, with Vaino Väljas – a more liberal politician. Gorbachev also introduces new economic reforms allowing cooperatives, private ownership of businesses and foreign investors.

At the beginning of April, Estonian artists, writers, actors, composers, architects and other creative leaders of Estonia criticise the Russification and repression of Estonian culture at the Creative Unions’ General Assembly. The Creative Union gets wide support from the people of Estonia.

The first Estonian political party, Estonian National Independence Party, is founded after the Second World War. Estonian National Independence Party's mission was to restore the Republic of Estonia.

In June, tens of thousands of people gather at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds for the Night Song Festival. Estonian composers (such as Alo Mattiisen) write special patriotic songs for the Singing Revolution that is taking place. The Night Song Festival is broadcasted live on radio across Estonia.

Eestimaa laul 88  (The Song of Estonia 88) gathers 300 000 Estonians at the Song Festival Grounds. The chairman of the Estonian Heritage Society holds a speech and demands independence for Estonia.

"Sind surmani" ('Til death) a song composed by Alo Mattiisen performed at the Song Festival 2014.

After the summer, the Popular Front of Estonia is founded. The Popular Front supported Gorbachev's reforms and wanted Estonia to become a member of a new union of sovereign states. The Communist Party of Estonia was under pressure, people were not supporting the party anymore. To save its' popularity, the Communist Party announced it shares the goals of the Popular Front of Estonia. This creates division inside the party.

The Supreme Soviet of Estonia issues the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration. It declares Estonia’s sovereignty and laws counting over and above the laws of the Soviet Union. The declaration is pushed back by Moscow, but it cannot stop the independence movement.


The Soviet Union terminates the Brezhnev Doctrine. According to the Brezhnev Doctrine, the socialist countries can and should intervene if a member of the Eastern Bloc is moving towards capitalism. It gives the Republics of the Soviet Union freedom to take into new courses.

In January, the Estonian language becomes the official language of Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Estonian flag, blue-black-white, is hoisted up in the tower of Pikk Hermann on the 24th of February.

Estonian Heritage Society and Estonian National Independence Party together with the Estonian Christian Alliance initiate a movement of Estonian Citizen's Committee to gather the information of the citizens of the Republic of Estonia into a register, that would later be used to create the Congress of Estonia.

In the spring, the first relatively free elections for the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union take place. Estonia elected 47 representatives, who demanded economic reform (self-sufficient Estonia programme put into action) and that the Soviet Union publicly announces that the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was illegal and void.

Moscow is not willing to bring the secret protocol of Molotov and Ribbentrop into the public. The Baltic states organise a peaceful demonstration Balti kett (The Baltic Way) on the 50th anniversary of the pact. Baltic Way gathers two million people across the Baltic states joining hands. The 600-kilometre long line of people stretches all the way from Vilnius to Tallinn. News about the action hit headlines all over the world. Moscow is furious and the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Estonia, Arnold Rüütel (who would later become President of Estonia) is called to Moscow for a reprimand.

A trilingual song "Ärgake Baltimaad" (The Baltics are waking up) was written for the Baltic Way. Performed in Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian at the 25th-anniversary concert of the Baltic Way.

The Popular Front changes its policy and is no longer willing to support the reforms of Gorbachev and his plans for a new Union of Sovereign States. The Communist Party of Estonia is in deep trouble and divided between pro-Soviet and liberal wings. The Communist Party starts to lose its power over Estonia.

The Estonian Supreme Soviet states that the incorporation of Estonia into the Soviet Union is illegal.


The first multi-party election of the Estonian Supreme Soviet takes place. The Estonian Popular Front gets 40 seats out of 104 and gains power in the Estonian Supreme Soviet. Estonian National Independence Party didn't take part in the election but manages to create the Congress of Estonia.

The Communist Party of Estonia is losing members in a quick pace and is now only a shadow of what it used to be. The leading role the Communist Party of Estonia had is demolished with changing of the constitution.

The Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia announces the start of a transitional period to independence. The official name of Estonia is returned to the Republic of Estonia. The use of all the symbols of the Estonian Soviet Socialistic Republic ends. The blue-black-white flag gains back the status of the national flag.

Lennart Meri opens communication with the West. He is the new Minister of Foreign Affairs and would later become President of Estonia.

Members of pro-Soviet Intermovement attack Toompea and tries to seize power. Estonian politician, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Edgar Savisaar uses radio and calls Estonians to defend and protect the seat of power. Hundreds of Estonians come to aid.

Estonia starts negotiations with the Soviet Union. Gorbachev believes he can keep the situation under control and offers the Baltic states membership at the Union of the Sovereign States.


In January, the negotiations between Estonia and Soviet Union have ended with no solution. Pro-Communists and Soviet military use force against non-violent protesters in an attempt to restore Soviet power in the Baltic states. They plan to start from Lithuania and end in Estonia. In Riga, six people die and several are wounded. In Vilnius, 14 civilians die and hundreds are injured.

Estonians get ready by bringing large rocks to block the entrance to Toompea. Boris Yeltsin, the speaker of Parliament of the Russian Federation, visits Tallinn on the 13th of January and criticises the use of force in Latvia and Lithuania. Boris Yeltsin signs treaties with the three Baltic States, recognising their right to national independence.

Estonia and Soviet Union open negotiations. Gorbachev is still offering the Baltic states a place in the Union of Sovereign States. To make his offer even more alluring in the eyes of the public, he plans to organise a referendum - asking the people of the Soviet Union what they want.

This is quickly pushed back by Estonia, and Estonia organises it's own referendum. The result of the referendum is that 77,8% of the residents of Estonia are in favour of restoring independence. This gave assurance that restoration of the Republic of Estonia is the only possible objective of the negotiations.

The negotiations ended with out results, and Estonia started making preparations to restore its' independence.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union sees the end of the Soviet Union is near, and plans a coup in Moscow.
19.08.1991, the coup attempt starts in Moscow. The communists try to siege power in Estonia, but the local authorities didn't give in. Estonians gather around strategic objects (Toompea, Tallinn TV Tower, Estonian National Radio Broadcast building) ready to protect them.

20.08.1991, the Estonian Supreme Soviet (in agreement with the Estonian Committee) proclaims Estonian independence from the Soviet Union.

21.08.1991, the Soviet troops try to siege Tallinn TV Tower but are unsuccessful. The coup attempt in Moscow fails and ends.

22.08.1991, Iceland is the first country to recognise the independence of Estonia.


The last Russian troops leave from Estonia in August 1994.


The spontaneous Night Song Festivals started at the Tallinn Town Hall Square during the Old Town Days. The Town Hall Square is the beating heart of Tallinn and also the centre of the Old Town Days, that still take place each summer.

A post shared by Jeremy Dimech (@dimechjeremy) on

Hirvepark is located right next to the Old Town and Toompea. The Hirvepark meeting took place here. You can almost hear the crowd of 7000 people cheering for the speakers, who stood on the stairs and talked for the first time in public about the Molotov-Ribbentrop secret protocol. The meeting was supposed to take place at the Town Hall Square, but the permission was not granted and the militsiya directed the protesters to Hirvepark.

Tens and hundreds of thousands of people gathered here, at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. The people sang old and new patriotic songs and held hands. Blue, black and white colours were in fashion.

A post shared by J. R. Jüttner (@jrjuettner) on

Toompea Hill is and was the seat of power in Estonia. Edgar Savisaar called Estonians to protect Toompea from the attack by Intermovement. Next to Toompea Hill, is this memorial stone dedicated for the restoration of independence. The stone, among with several others, was brought here in January 1991, when the situation in the Baltic capitals was getting more tense. The bricks were to prevent tanks entering Toompea. Nearby at Harjumägi is a memorial plate of the Baltic Way.

A post shared by Maria Vuorinen (@hilkkamaria) on

Tallinn TV Tower was the centre stage for dramatic events when the Soviet military tried to siege the tower and block all news broadcasts. Today it is opened for visitors and one of the most popular attractions in Tallinn.

A post shared by Anna (@animyaras) on

People gathered to protect the strategic buildings. One of them was the Estonian National Radio Broadcast building next to the police park.

Iceland Square in the centre of Tallinn is a homage to Iceland, who was the first country to recognise the independence of Estonia. The square is actually a small green park, located in front of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Museum of the Popular Front at the Freedom Square tells the story of the movement that helped Estonia restore its independence.

Eesti Vabariik 100 (2018). Written by collective authors. Tallinn: TEA kirjastus
Einar Vära. 1985–1991. Restoration of independence.
Tammberg Tõnu, Pajur Ago etc. (2005) Eesti ajalugu VI. Tartu, Ilmamaa