“As a people, we are strong!” VEMU’s Virtual Fundraising Dinner Was a Great Success

May 14, 2021

The Coronavirus has pestered the world for over a year. Last year, VEMU’s fundraising dinner was cancelled. However, this year it took place once again, this time virtually. We are building a new home for VEMU together and in order to do so everyone’s help is appreciated. The evening was extensive, both old and new archival material was displayed and there were interesting facts shared about VEMU’s activities on slides throughout the evening.

93 guests registered for the event. Participants in Toronto were able to order a delicious meal to go along with the interesting and spirited program. Catering was taken care of by Ülle Veltmann and Linda Karuks. Guests attending from farther away had to create their own celebratory meals.

What were we all to wear on this festive virtual evening? Jaan Meri, the President of Tartu College and Estonian Studies Centre also faced this important question and with the help of his “fashion consultant”, his wife Ana, was able to playfully solve this problem. Festively dressed (as his “fashion consultant” says stylish, elegant, and masculine – just like James Bond!), Jaan Meri gave the opening remarks. He gave an overview of the last year. It was a difficult time for Tartu College, but luckily there was only one COVID case.

Jaan Meri believes the three highlights of the year were a dense cultural program (thanks to Piret Noorhani and her team), the transfer of the Estonian Art Centre collection and funds to VEMU, and progress in the construction plans for the museum building. Jaan Meri wished everyone a great evening and expressed hope that next year we will all meet at Tartu College again.

Piret Noorhani gave a more detailed overview of VEMU’s activities for the past year. Although the fundraising dinner was cancelled, the year was a period of learning. Activities were moved online and as a result, audiences grew larger. A total of 20 events took place virtually, which can be viewed on the VEMU YouTube channel at any time! School lore and pandemic lore collection campaigns are continuing. Piret Noorhani also discussed the construction plans for the new building. Fundraising dinner participants had a chance to take a peek into the “future” – it was clear from the models that the new centre will be very modern and exciting. There are opportunities for many various activities.

Many memories were shared during the evening from the time 30 years ago when it became clear the “the world is turning irreversibly to the West” (Piret Noorhani’s words). Piret too, recalled that time in her life – September 26, Baltic heritage network 10 2021 n o . 2 (35) 1987, when an article appeared in the paper about a self-sufficient Estonia (Isemajandav Eesti). This was followed by heritage days, Tartu Music Days, where Alo Mattisen’s five patriotic songs were heard for the first time, and night song festivals (öölaulupeod), etc.

Exciting archival materials from VEMU’s archives, recorded by the deceased cameraman Edgar Väär, were shared on the fundraising evening. First, was Mart Laar’s speech in the University of Toronto hall on February 25, 1989. Mart Laar spoke emotionally about how the world is literally burning beneath our feet (hinting at phosphorite mining) and that we no longer have anywhere to go. There have been attempts to suppress us, but we will no longer back down. Throughout his speech there could be heard a heartfelt and beautiful cry for freedom.

Archival images of June 14, 1989 portraying the demonstration by Baltic people in Toronto in remembrance of the victims of the Soviet deportations were also heartfelt. Thousands of people marched in downtown Toronto, speeches were given and music was played.

University of Tartu Professor Marju Lauristin, gave an interview with Professor Andres Kasekamp from the University of Toronto. Marju Lauristin spoke about achieving independence and behind-the-scenes adventures that took place during that time.

Today’s young people think that Estonians sang themselves to freedom. This is just a beautiful image. According to Marju Lauristin, in reality, many years of tense work and scrambling were behind this. It was not easy to separate from Moscow and it was difficult to imagine the actual moment when freedom would be achieved. Slowly the preparations began, but there was a power struggle with Moscow, the military moved into the Baltic and actions had to be taken quickly.

No one could have imagined that independence would be restored so quickly. However, it could have turned out quite differently. What happened in Estonia affected the rest of the Soviet Union. Estonians abroad played a large role in the restoration of the Republic of Estonia’s independence, as well as later in the development of the nation – materials in the U.S. Library of Congress were of assistance during arguments with Gorbachev in Moscow.

How could the events in Estonia assist other countries today fighting for independence? Marju Lauristin emphasized that being prepared is everything. Hard work has to be done to ensure that the democratic structure is strong and that the people would participate. The economy also must be considered. It was easier for Estonia since we still remembered our experience in the former republic. However, by only singing in the streets and leading processions, a democratic country cannot be built.

Marju Lauristin’s presentation was followed with more exciting archival material from the time of the restoration of independence. The removal of Lenin’s statue was shown. Additionally, clips of Marju Lauristin, Lennart Meri, Laas Leivat, and a gathering in Toronto for Black Ribbon Day in 1991.

Laas Leivat recalled these complicated and exciting times from the perspective of being in Canada. In his opinion, it all began at the 1987 Hirvepark meeting where the disclosure of the MolotovRibbentrop Pact and secret protocols was demanded. The press in Canada and around the world were closely following what was taking place in Estonia.

The Canadian Estonian community actively participated – there were over 7000 in Canada who participated in the Citizen Committee movement and everyone agreed that the republic must be restored. Laas Leivat believes that at that time the selfless support of local Canadian politicians was essential. People from Canada went to Estonia to help develop the country – for example, Peeter Mehisto who organized a translation centre in Estonia.

Laas Leivat remembers the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in February 1989 well. Mart Laar, Alo Mattiisen and Ivo Linna all performed that day. We saw an archival film of Ivo Linna and Alo Mattiisen arriving, their performance, and interviews for Canadian television.

According to Alo Mattiisen, there was a large breakthrough in the relations between Estonians abroad and homeland Estonians at this time. More and more Estonians abroad began to understand that Estonia needed support and those living there were not communists at all. It was understood that a free Estonia was possible!

During their interview at VEMU’s fundraising dinner, the “heroes of the Singing Revolution,” Ivo Linna and Antii Kammiste, recall this important time as full of very special moments that most musicians, even superstars, don’t ever have a chance to experience. Alo Mattiisen’s songs had a brave message and the summer of the singing revolution with multiple performances was incredible, one-of-a-kind. For moments like this you possibly have to wait one thousand years!

Presently, even if life in Estonia might feel a bit complicated, but according to the musicians, freedom and democracy need to be learned. We have only had them for 30 years. Both musicians agreed that, if need be, the Estonian people will do what needs to be done. As a people, we are strong!

Ivo Linna and Antti Kammiste performed a short concert at the end of the evening. Many well-known songs were sung, including Alo Mattiisen’s songs from the time of Estonia’s national awakening, Singing Revolution.

There were many fun moments throughout VEMU’s fundraising evening, but serious topics were also discussed. From all of the performers of the evening, one important idea stood out – although we all have different opinions and interests, we are connected by one common love – this is our Estonia. During difficult times, Estonians can pull themselves together and suppress all differences to move forward as one. Yes, during the current challenging times, it is good to remember, watch old film clips about the time when everything began to change. The time when people’s eyes were bright and the world definitively turned toward the West.

Lea Kreinin

First published in Eesti Elu / Estonian Life newspaper (in Estonian)