March on: 5 songs that became anthems to revolutions in Eastern Europe

March on: 5 songs that became anthems to revolutions in Eastern Europe
Lithuanians line The Baltic Way. Image: Kusurija/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

17 September 2020

Music has been, and still is, an integral part of political change in Eastern Europe. From folk songs to newly-penned rock ballads, powerful lyrics and the euphoria of a crowd united by a single melody has split countries and toppled dictators. The Calvert Journal took a dive into five songs from the recent past (and the present) that have empowered change in Eastern Europe.


Baltic States

The Baltics Are Waking Up (Bunda Jau Baltija)

The Singing Revolution began in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1987, and eventually led to the three countries’ independence from the USSR in 1991. Music united spontaneous mass “singing protests” in each of the Baltic states, and particularly the anthem, The Baltics are Waking Up. It would go on to become the song of The Baltic Way in 1989, where people held hands from Vilnius to Tallinn to protest Soviet occupation.

While Latvian Boriss Rezņiks composed the song, the anthem gained most attention in Lithuania. The Baltics are Waking Up combines lyrics in Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian: three verses are sung in each language and are almost identical, although the lyrics are adjusted to rhyme in each language.

Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong later wrote a Cantonese version, after they re-enacted The Baltic Way human chain 30 years after the event.

Three sisters sleep by the sea

They are pressed by the bond, desperation

Wandering like a beggar by the sea coast

The spirit of nations’ honor

But the bell of the destiny reechos again

And the sea tousles its waves

Three sisters wake from the sleep

To defend the honor of theirs.

The Baltics are waking up, the Baltics are waking up,

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia!


Czechoslovakia

A Prayer For Marta (Modlitba pro Martu)

The soundtrack for arguably the most iconic two minutes of the Velvet Revolution, A Prayer For Marta was written to commemorate the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and immediately banned. The singer, Marta Kubišová, was also blacklisted from performing outright after a photomontage of nude photographs claiming to depict her was placed in a Danish magazine Hot Cats. Kubišová said that the images had been fabricated by the Czechoslovak secret police to discredit her.

The dreamy song first appeared in a costume television show, A Song For Rudolf III, and wasn’t officially heard again until 1989, when Kubišová went out into a balcony of Melantrich Palace to sing acapella for a crowd of a quarter million.

Let hatred, envy, grudge, fear, and strife cease!

Let them cease!

Now when your formerly lost rule over your things returns to you,

people, it returns to you!


Estonia

Dawn (Koit)

This drum-packed rock march was also a stalwart of the Singing Revolution in Estonia, and singer Tõnis Mägi has remained one of the most influential rock artists in Estonia for the last 40 years.

Dawn carries a call-to-arms message, and while it starts with poetic references to dawn and collective strength, it ends with an open cry for free Estonia.

Land, motherland, this land is holy,

this land that will now be free

Song, our song of victory, will resound.

Soon you will see a free Estonia!


Ukraine

Together We Are Many (Razom Nas Bahato)

While many of the songs on this list peaked in the early 90s, Together We Are Many empowered Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, after the fraudulent presidential election of Viktor Yanukovich. It was also Ukrainian entry to the Eurovision song contest in 2005.

Unlike the earlier predecessors, this anthem of the revolution openly puts out a clear stand against falsification, machination, and corruption. In some of the versions, singers also chant “Yuschenko, yes, he is our president,” referring to Yanukovich’s opposition rival.

Together we are many, they won’t overcome us

Together we are many, they won’t overcome us


Belarus

Changes (Peremen)

Changes was composed in 1987 by Russian rock pioneers Kino, fronted by Viktor Tsoi. The song has since echoed at demonstrations across post-Soviet bloc, but it first took on the role of protest anthem during perestroika in the late ‘80s.

Recent pro-democracy protests in Belarus have also adopted Changes as an anthem, with police detaining many of those who dared to play the song in public squares or gatherings. The verses describe the protagonist sitting in the kitchen with tea on the table, cigarette in hand, waiting for change. The song does not actively call for revolution, but remains poised for coming transformation and upheaval.

Our hearts are calling for changes!

Our eyes are calling for changes!

In our laugh, and our tears,

And in the pulsation of our veins:

Changes! We are waiting for changes!

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