The Truth Will Set You Free.
Twenty years after the first independent political demonstration in Soviet-occupied Estonia
The Hirvepark demonstration which took place in the capital of the Soviet-occupied Estonia twenty years ago on August 23, 1987, was the first independent open-air political rally since the Communist take-over in 1940. Today Hirvepark (“Deer Park”) is seen as a milestone in the process of winning back freedom.
The first protests in the late eighties, resulting from the new opportunities presented by M. Gorbachev’s perestroika, were mostly aimed at saving the Estonian environment and culture. But the organizers of Hirvepark ventured into the minefield of history and politics, the most sensitive and most exclusively controlled areas for Communist dictators. Several of these people had already stepped into this minefield earlier and been harshly punished. Therefore, their courage as well as their ability to sense the undercurrents of a new emerging political reality, are all the more to be appreciated.
Although twenty years ago the Hirvepark participants did not actually demand freedom, they nevertheless asked for the truth, in other words, for the exposing of a historic lie. According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “this universal obligatory force-feeding with lies” was “the most agonizing aspect of existence in our country – worse than all our material miseries, worse than any lack of civil liberties” His famous essay ”Let us live without lies” had disclosed the essence of the totalitarian system which is based on two interdependent pillars – lies and violence. The Hirvepark demonstration, by pointing to the secret protocols of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, gave impetus to the exposure of Moscow’s lies that in 1940 the Estonian people had entered into a voluntary marriage with the USSR.
The Hirvepark motto could be “the truth will set you free”. In less than a year after the event the full truth about the events of 1939-40 became known. The lies of the totalitarian system had been dealt a blow from which it did not recover. As a result, the violence, too, fell into confusion and lost its self-confidence.
Hirvepark was the first step on a totally new path. For nearly half a century all political initiatives in occupied Estonia had been monopolized by the Communist Party and its elite. Even in times of crisis, changes were supposed to come only from the top. The new situation created by ordinary Estonian citizens on August 23, 1987 was extremely problematic for the nomenklatura which had never had to share power of any kind. The Soviet media labeled the demonstration, which assembled at least 3000 people, an “anti-Soviet spectacle inspired by the subversive radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe” and regretted that “ a couple of hundred curiosity seekers” had attended.
The success of the Hirvepark demonstration put all related subsequent events on a democratic track poised to lead toward the restoration of genuine independence (not the quasi-sovereignty within the Soviet Union that was envisaged by the reformist wing of the Communist Party). Already on August 23 in Hirvepark the collecting of signatures in support of erecting a monument for victims of Stalin was started, followed by the publication of the MRP-AEG (Estonian Group to Publicize the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) Information Bulletins. The following year of 1988 was notably dramatic. The Soviet rulers were constantly put into the position of merely reacting to the increasing pressure of citizens’ initiatives. January 1988 saw the presentation of a then breathtaking idea to create a non-communist political party. In February, patriotic citizens commemorated openly for the first time since the occupation the 68th anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty and the 70th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Estonia. The Communist elite attempted to break up and to interfere with both. But these two demonstrations, which themselves grew out of the success of Hirvepark, led to a real political breakthrough. The next milestones were the April Heritage Society Days in Tartu where for the first time that the Estonian national colors were again displayed, the series of spontaneous night song festivals in Tallinn in June, continuous picketing before the Supreme Court from June to October to free the last Estonian political prisoners Mart Niklus and Enn Tarto, and the founding of the Estonian National Independence Party on August 20.
Then came the Estonian Citizens’ Committees movement in 1989. This was the equivalent of a national census in the course of which at least 800,000 individuals declared themselves to be citizens of the still legally existing Republic of Estonia), the election in February 1990 of the Congress of Estonia – a representative body of the Estonian citizens in which about 30 parties and movements participated. All this created a unique democratic alternative under a still-existing totalitarian regime. One of the most significant results of this democratic alternative was the collapse of the Estonian Communist Party in 1990. A logical progression of events reaches from Hirvepark to the restoration of the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity. This, of course, had not been in the plans of the reform-minded Soviet elite.
The success of Hirvepark can also be attributed to the good coordination between the patriots at home and Estonians abroad. Baltic American activists briefed the international press on the preparations for Hirvepark. As a result of their lobby efforts 20 US Senators sent a letter to Gorbachev a few days before the event, helping to prevent a planned violent crackdown on peaceful protesters by the Soviets. Hirvepark and similar demonstrations on the same day in Riga and Vilnius brought about a breakthrough of the Baltic cause into international public awareness.
The significance of Hirvepark and the development of the Estonian democratic alternative is an opportunity for in-depth professional study and analysis. On August 23 an international conference will take place at the Estonian National Academy of Sciences where a new book about Hirvepark will also be introduced. In the afternoon a concert and rally will be held in Hirvepark, to be attended by several of the organizers of the first meeting (Lagle Parek, Heiki Ahonen, Arvo Pesti) as well as by the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and other dignitaries. The Estonian Postal Service has issued a special commemorative stamp marking the 20th anniversary of Hirvepark.
The entire commemoration has been organized by the NGO “Hirvepark” in collaboration with the Office of MEP Tunne Kelam (participant in the first Hirvepark demonstration and Chairman of the Congress of Estonia 1990-92).