On a recent spring day in Rugodiv auditorium in Narva, a city on Estoniaâ€™s eastern border with Russia, 280 children are singing: â€œThis is what I hear/ This is what I see/ This is what I feel/ This is my homeland.â€
Standing shoulder to shoulder, they all sing in Estonian, a surprise in this Russian enclave of 58,600 on the dividing line between the European Union and the Russian Federation. Once a thriving manufacturing center in Soviet times, Narva has become one of Estoniaâ€™s most depressed and forgotten corners. At home, most of the children still speak Russian.
But on this day the children sing in Estonian about identity, and about what they like and do not like about the country they live in. â€œMy country is beautiful, and ugly, too,â€ they sing, their voices rising high in beautiful harmony.
Their conductor, Aarne Saluveer, is on a mission here: to bring Estoniaâ€™s Russian- and Estonian-speakers together the way he knows best, through song.
A well-known singer and keyboard player in Soviet times, Mr. Saluveer now heads the Georg Ots Music College in Tallinn, Estoniaâ€™s capital. As he hops down from the stage, he looks his young singers in the eye: He has a talent for making each singer feel as if he or she is being spoken to directly. Conversing now in Russian, now in Estonian, both with ease and comfort, he gets to the core of what the song â€œMinu Isamaa,â€ or â€œMy Homeland,â€ which he crafted together with a composer and lyricist, is all about.
The history of every society, he tells them, includes both good and bad things: Estoniaâ€™s does. Russiaâ€™s does. â€œWe could have less arrogance and fewer wars if we could only learn from history,â€ he says.
Every five years since 1869, Estonians have come together around a unique choral event called Laulupidu. This year more than 33,000 singers performed for an audience of 153,000. Laulupidu has been a force for helping this country of 1.3 million endure occupation and oppression. In 1988, defying their Soviet rulers, half a million Estonians sang a forbidden hymn in a peaceful â€œsinging revolutionâ€ that helped bring down communism here.