Accepted Paper:

UNESCO and Estonia's Song and Dance Celebrations  


Kristin Kuutma (University of Tartu)

Paper short abstract:

This paper looks at the Baltic Song and Dance Celebrations, originating in the 19th c. and held every five years. It considers the Celebrations' exclusion of the large Russian-speaking minority in Estonia and discusses the precarious role of UNESCO, ignoring these sociocultural dynamics.

Paper long abstract:

The tradition of the Baltic Song and Dance Celebrations originates in the nineteenth century, with the first national event in Estonia dating to 1869 (to be followed by Latvia in 1873, and Lithuania in 1924). During the Celebrations, which take place every five years, tens of thousands (mainly amateur) singers and dancers assemble in Tallinn to perform for the eye of the nation, and for large numbers of tourists. In 2008 the Celebrations were inscribed in the UNESCO 'Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity'.

This initiative for international recognition was first taken up as a joint collaboration between the Baltic States in the end of the 1990s, to celebrate an historical instrument of socio-ethnic mobilisation. But what once worked as a tool for cultural survival under Russian oppression needs to be critically assessed in the altered context for national agenda's in twenty-first century Europe. Having played an important part in the construction of the national narrative, it now seems to neglect the social complexities of the present. As an assertion of Estonian cultural identity it also implies the exclusion of the large Russian-speaking minority, with the threat Russia poses to the Baltic countries at the background.

My paper explores these tensions, looking at the precarious role of Unesco in particular, its tending to ignore each country's sociocultural dynamics while relying on its preservation agenda.

Panel Heri003
A threat to unification? Europe's nationalizing states and the UNESCO convention on intangible heritage