Cultural Resistance: How Artistic Expression can Hold a People Together

Photo: Year Zero/Wikipedia (CC-BY-NC)

Photo: Year Zero/Wikipedia (CC-BY-NC)

By: Kari van der Ploeg -

Estonia is a small country bordering the Baltic sea in Eastern Europe that has known waves of occupiers. German, Danish and Swedish occupations preceded the occupation by the Soviets that started in the Second World War. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divided Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. In one night, the Soviets deported 10.000 Estonians to slave labour camps in Siberia. In 1941 the Germans broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and took over Estonia. Only four years later, the Soviets won it back and started a period of Russification; nothing could remember Estonians of their pre-Soviet lives. The Estonian identity had to be destroyed. Intelligentsia and politicians were arrested, deported and executed.  Soldiers had quota’s, which meant that arrests were made randomly. Fear ruled the country.

To hold on to their past, culture and identity, the Estonians turned to one of their oldest traditions. Music had been a vital part in Estonia for thousands of years. The country has one of the largest collection of folk songs in the world. The oldest of Estonia’s folk songs, called ‘regilaulud’ (runic songs) evolved during 700 years of German rule, starting in 1208. As they were working the fields in slave labour, Estonians started singing. It was during the German repression that a song festival emerged in 1869. The festivals were as much about nationality as about music. During Soviet rule, the song festivals continued as a means of propaganda. However, it also became an opportunity for protest. The festival was one of the only remaining traditions in Estonia. Conductor Gustav Ernesaks composed a new piece of music that somehow slipped past the Soviet censorship and became part of the national song festival. The song, Mu isamaa on minu arm (“Land of my father, land that I love”), became Estonia’s unofficial national anthem. Soon, the song was forbidden as the Soviets noticed that it enflamed a national spirit among Estonians. In 1969, as the 100th anniversary of the song festival reached its end, an spontaneous protest arose. The national song festival came to its end, but people refused to leave the stage. They started singing their anthem, Mu isamaa on minu arm, showing the Soviets, that they might have tried to destroy their culture and identity, but that the Estonian spirit was still alive.

Regardless of the events of 1969, the 1970s continued with little hope for freedom. However, when Gorbatsjov came to power in 1985, introducing the Glasnost and Perestrojka, he gave the Estonians an opportunity for change. In 1987, youngsters in Tartuu began to protest political issues for the first time. They addressed the legality of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, requesting an honest look at their history and putting ‘Stalin’s butchers’ to trial. No one got arrested; it was the first successful political protest, fuelling activist spirit. Two months after the protest in Tartuu, a summer celebration evolved into a patriotic song festival. Crowds moved towards the grounds of the national song festival and sang. As one man passed by on a motorcycle, waving an Estonian flag (the Estonian flag was forbidden), more flags came out. The continuing days, more and more people came to the grounds, singing and carrying their flags. A revolution had started and singing was its fuel. The songs ignited the passions in people and bound the Estonians as a people.

The singing revolution in Estonia is one example of how artistic expression can bind a people as they are faced with repression and annihilation. The role that singing played in their revolution is mirrored in many other uprisings. One example is the Syrian Uprising, which has been influenced by the creative expressions of its partakers. Free expression had been controlled in Syria for nearly 40 years by its government. The Arab Spring had however created a crack in the ruling powers of the Middle East, which posed the Syrians with an opportunity to mobilize and create their revolutionary identity. Rebels connected through posters, performances, songs, comics, theatre, literature, photography, video and social media. One example is shown below. The finger puppet series ‘Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator’ by Masasit Mati, show president Bashar Al-Assad as ‘Beeshu’, a lisping and beak-nosed man terrorized by nightmares about the uprisings in his country. The humorous series gives harsh critique against the regime in a light-hearted way, taking the edge of the subject and taking the fear away from its viewers. It currently has 1 million viewers on Facebook and 180.000 on YouTube. It has created a safe haven during a storm which had created a lot of fear among Syrians. 

Creativity gave Syrians a voice; it was a way of expressing their views that had been silenced for so many years. Creativity was not only a way of mentally surviving the violence, but also of challenging it. With humour, aesthetics and bravery, rebels denounced the Syrian dictatorial government. As Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen stated in their book ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline’:

Meeting violence with violence is never successful. The artistic response to the Syrian uprising is far more than a litany of turmoil; it illustrates the accelerated experiences of a people, many of whom have been fighting for their survival. It shows their innate ability to overcome, and their dreams for the future of their country. For Syrians and non-Syrians alike, there are many reasons to wake up every morning and reach for the pen, easel, the camcorder or the laptop – instead of a gun.”

The internet played an important role in distributing Syria’s creative dissident expressions. It became a new public space in which dissent was voiced and resistance mobilised. It allowed the protesters to reach a broader public. Videos, music and graphic art bonded the people of Syria in their fight against oppression and sparked a feeling of collective dissent. The creative outpourings demanded the restoration of civil rights and broke the chains that had produced a culture of fear. The revolutionaries were reclaiming their citizenship as, according to Halasa and Omareen, art is in its essence emblematic for a life that is shared, not destroyed.

The Syrian government has tried to break the civil spirit that has been created and has united the Syrians. They tried to divide them by focussing on their diversity through sectarian rhetoric in media outlets. The fact that so many artists have been imprisoned, tortured and executed shows the power of art to unsettle, to speak truth and to question existing norms. According to Stephen Duncombe, professor at NYU and co-director of the Center of Artistic Activism, art and activism have many things in common. Its purposes include to foster dialogue, built community, reveal reality, alter perception, inspire dreaming, invite participation, transform environment and maintain hegemony. This allows activist art to be such a powerful tool to unify resistance. The power of art and culture to connect and change minds explains why it is feared by oppressive regimes, such as the Syrian and Soviet governments. It creates a civil society in which everyone is invited to participate and question existing norms. It gives power to the people and consequently undermines the power of the state and its violence. No matter how hard the Syrian and Soviet governments have tried to destroy civil identity, creative resistance had connected the Syrians, like the Estonians got connected through their songs.


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Kari van der Ploeg

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