National borders shape the way we think about ourselves. They frame stories about how people behave in groups. They trace the reach of our empires and the spread of our legal codes. Yet what we learn from human relations across these borders tells us more about who we are than any lines on a map.
What is humanity’s place on earth? Northern Europe points us in a progressive direction, with a model of government called “Nordic social democracy.” This model combines free market capitalism with a comprehensive social safety net that benefits from collective bargaining. Some people call it “democratic socialism,” which can seem confusing.
The word “socialism” was burned into America’s psyche during World War II, when it was co-opted by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis). Both of these so-called “socialist” regimes were authoritarian states ruled by dictators who suppressed the civic freedoms modeled by true democratic socialism. They were driven by the pursuit of power and material domination rather than love of freedom, justice, creative exchange among cultures, and human rights — ideals that undergird all open societies.
Nordic countries endured a violent tug-of-war between Stalin and Hitler. Then they navigated the Cold War by keeping ties with the West while seeking to avoid further conflict with the Soviet Union. What emerged were free nations that have become global leaders in health care, education, economic security, public safety, and environmental protection. Having held the line against despots, they’ve reaped the rewards of social democracy.
That freedom did not come easy. Finland’s military was tested severely by Stalin’s aggressions, for example. Between 1939 and 1944 the Finns fought two bloody wars to repel the Soviets and retain control of their homeland. Hard earned victories in those conflicts now enable them to mark 2017 with a centennial celebration of their unbroken independence.
A short distance across the Gulf of Finland, the country of Estonia wasn’t as fortunate. Like Finland, Estonia gained its independence from the Russian Empire early in the 20th century. But it was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany a year later, and was annexed by Stalin again in 1944. Many Estonians who fought the takeover were killed outright or deported in cattle cars to work camps in Siberia.
When speaking of Nordic nations, few people include Estonia. Yet this tiny nation of 1.3 million is comprised of folks whose language and cultural traditions are closely related to that of Finland. Estonians have long called their country Põhjamaa, which means “the Northern Land” or “the Nordic Land.” They are a venerable people with a deeply-rooted history. Researchers estimate they have inhabited their region for 5,000 to 8,000 years.
Most Americans know almost nothing about Estonia, which is a little smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Recently I mentioned the country to a young friend. His sole reference point was the 90s comedy flick Encino Man, in which California teens uncover a frozen ice-age youth while digging a backyard pool. The ice dude thaws out, they clean him up and christen him “Link” (as in “missing link”), then pass him off as an Estonian exchange student. Link helps his new friends overcome the social trials of high school. The film climaxes on prom night when live music inspires Link to lead his classmates in an uplifting caveman dance.
Encino Man was released in 1992, the same year Estonian citizens ratified a new constitution by national referendum. The country had just reclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union following four years of struggle. Authoritarian rule had hit a crossroads. Leaders in the Kremlin were compelled to restructure their system due to poor economic performance and inadequate living conditions. This initiative, known as perestroika, cracked the door open for self-determination in satellite Soviet republics.
A test of the new approach occurred when Moscow announced plans to develop phosphorite mines in Estonia, exposing the country to large-scale environmental degradation. Estonians launched protests and petitions against the plan, exercising free speech that was previously unthinkable behind the iron curtain. The mines were stopped, and a successful campaign by citizens to protect their country bolstered the drive for democracy.
Something magnificent happened during that time. Large public gatherings prompted spontaneous singing of traditional and contemporary songs. The singers unleashed feelings of deep affinity for their homeland and affirmed fidelity to freedoms by which they could reclaim their autonomy. In 1988, a massive song festival attracted 300,000 people, nearly a quarter of all Estonians raising their voices together. Public leaders were present and citizens witnessed the first open calls for self-governance. Estonia’s Singing Revolution was born.
By that point, all political parties had joined together in calling for independence. Protests grew with broader public sanction. Citizens gathered as human shields to protect local news outlets from being hijacked by Moscow. The following year, upwards of 700,000 Estonians linked hands in solidarity with 400,000 Latvians and 1,000,000 Lithuanians in a call for freedom that spanned the Baltic nations.
Nordic and Baltic peoples share this passion for democracy. Estonia bridges these groups, and their Singing Revolution links to something deep in humanity’s soul. They reclaimed their freedom in an inspirational way, and the memory of that liberation is still vibrant.
So it instructs us all today, as autocrats expand their spheres of influence to control the globe. The resources for engaging in this struggle have changed, with the internet now weaponized to quickly spread propaganda and fake news. In response, Estonia has become one of the most digitally-connected and tech-savvy countries on earth. NATO’s cyber defense hub is based in the nation’s capital of Tallinn. This tiny nation is a key ally in the fight to prevent authoritarians from hacking elections and commandeering public policy.
A deep human drive for freedom will always resist rule by the few — whether those few are feudal monarchs, communist dictators, fascist oligarchs, or mob capitalists who rise through the ranks of business as usual. The latter is our greatest threat here in America. We’ve been insulated from despots for so long that some of us seem unable to recognize tyranny. Many now equate freedom with unregulated corporate power and commercial expansion. Inclusion in the decision-making process seems less important to us than having money to spend at our favorite chains.
Democracy should not be confused with consumerism, warned Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid at a transAtlantic meeting of leaders earlier this year.
“Too many people in the world associate democracy with their ability to go buy more and more every year. I come from a country where it’s much more popular to remind people that democracy is available at every income level and this is something which you need to protect… The freedom of speech. The freedom of thinking. The freedom of coming and going.”
These words feel like a beautiful old song, a gift of wisdom from beyond the borders to fortify the freedom in our hearts. Resistance to authoritarian rule launched the American Revolution and it’s still a popular theme in teen movies. We have it in us. Time to thaw out our frozen devotion to democracy, and revive our commitment to social progress.