Split By a Border and Fading Fast: Estonia’s Unique Seto People

by Helen Wright, OBINITSA 

For Estonia’s Setos, it wasn’t the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain that split their community in two – but the border Estonia built to keep the Russians out. For this small community of traditionally Orthodox people, who have never been part of mainstream Estonian life, the last 25 years since the end of the USSR has seen their homeland sliced in two. There has also been mass migration, a loss of traditions and the dilution of the unique Seto language.

Their culture has been called “remarkable” and constantly evolving. But experts say it is “fading fast”.  So how did this happen and what is being done to preserve their special heritage?


 

The Setos have always been a community living on the edge, balanced on the border of Russia and south-eastern Estonia.

I meet my guide and translator Helen Külvik in Tartu bus station the night after the first snow of the year in south Estonia. We cross the slushy, wet car park and get into her car and head off out of town. Helen has been a guide in Setomaa for 15 years and is one of two people who set up the Seto Instituut, which tries to raise the profile of the Seto community. Last year they published the first English-language book about the community. The week before I visit an exhibition of Seto culture went on display in Paris – one of the biggest in the country’s history.

As we drive south to Setomaa through an unchanging flat landscape of snow-covered fields, abandoned collective farms and trees she tells me about the Setos and their history. Historically the territory of the Setos – Setomaa – has been the county of Petserimaa, which is split into three different municipalities: Meremäe, Mikitamäe, Värska. Today two-thirds of the land is in Russia and one third belongs to Estonia. The historical capital Petseri is now behind the Russian line.

Setomaa is home to around 4,000 people. The latest Estonian census, taken in 2011, shows that around 12,800 people understand the Seto language – although, of course, that does not make them Setos. Approximately 8,500 live elsewhere in Estonia and there are 300 in Russia.

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Seto women in traditional costume

The first Setos settled in Estonia around 8000 to 9000 years ago near Varska Bay, Optjok River and Lake Izborsk. They stayed in the same areas throughout the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. Burial grounds have been found in the woods from the Middle Iron Age.

Between the 9th and 11th centuries Setomaa was home to Vikings. But in the 13th century, when Estonia was occupied by both the Danes and the Germans, the region kept its close links to Russia. Russian culture has had a huge impact on the community throughout the centuries, influencing its Orthodox religion, traditions, food, clothing and language.

Huge changes took place in 1920 after Estonia gained its freedom and the county of Petserimaa was assigned to the nation. As until the start of the 20th century most schooling was provided in Russian, many people were unable to speak or read Estonian when the county became part of Estonia.

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Petseri (now Pechory in Russia) when it was part of Estonia [Image: osta.ee]

The country then began to place a big emphasis on making the Setos part of Estonia. The state open schools and encouraged social activities. For the first time Setos were given surnames. After this, more and more modern influences started to be seen in the community. Gradually people stopped wearing their traditional costumes and gave their children Estonian first names.


 

During World War Two three-quarters of Petserimaa was occupied by the Russians and before the end of the war it was merged into the USSR. Farms were collectivized and Estonian-language schools closed.

At the end of the 1980s there was a reawakening of Seto culture and in 1991 the first Seto Congress was created to look out for the interests of the community.

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A border post marking the start of the unofficial region of Setomaa

The control line was introduced in 1993  after the break-down of the Soviet Union. It slices through Setomaa, leaving Setos living on both sides of the border. Helen said it caused “fundamental changes” in everyday life.

The line – which is still not an officially ratified border – cut them off from their churches and their dead. For the Setos this was a big blow. Unlike Estonians, who are largely Lutheran or atheist, Setos are traditionally Orthodox and include relatives who have passed away in important annual religious holidays.

On these days they take picnics and blankets and eat on the graves of their family members who have passed over. Setos never say that these people have died; instead, they are simply sleeping. They sprinkle the first drops of alcohol on the earth and place food there when they leave.

Being cut off from their churches and graveyards has had a deep and lasting effect on the community. Many people cannot afford to apply for visas regularly to cross into Russia. When Estonia was part of the Soviet Union there was no official border between the countries so people could move freely between the two nations.

Helen goes so far as to say the control line: “was like an iron curtain for the local people, that is when their country was really split in two.” When the Estonian government realized Setos had been stranded on both sides of the border they offered a program of resettlement. The majority of the Setos, suddenly finding themselves in Russia decided to move, leaving behind homes and farms.

Many chose to resettle because of similarities between the Estonian and Seto languages, which are both Finno-Ugric, and so many took their chances in the newly independent Republic of Estonia.

But rather than simply moving across the border to the Estonian part of Setomaa, they scattered throughout the country. Now only around 100 remain on the Russian side of the border.

This scattering of people led to a breakdown in the practicing of their centuries-old traditions. Their history has mostly been recorded orally so official records are rare. Once the history stopped being repeated, it faded to memory, and then to oblivion.

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The Mother of Songs statue in Obinitsa [Image: Helen Wright]

Their unique language is also gaining more Estonian words and is not being well-preserved. Helen describes the current state of the language as “poor”.

This is in part due to the Soviet Union, which banned Setos from speaking in their own language during the occupation of Estonia. But Estonia,  which was independent between the First and Second World Wars, also discouraged them from speaking their own language rather than Estonian.

As for the traditions, fairy tales and history, as more and more older people passed away the traditions and history they have learned passes with them. Setos have had a largely oral culture and there was no move to write down or introduce a written language to the Setos until the early 20th century.

The need for a written language came about in the 1990 from the ‘reawakening’ push when Setos wanted to write their own literature.  However, this has not been enough to save the culture. “It is really fading very fast,” Helen says. Around an hour later we arrive in Obinitsa, the second-largest town in Setomaa. It has a pre-school, church, library and museum. Made up of a smattering of wooden houses, it is home to around 200 people.

We pull up outside the library, a large white three-story building which also doubles as the local primary school. Outside children in puffy snow jackets are being given a demonstration by the local fire department. The gravel crunches, frozen, under our feet as we walk across the car park. Tiina Lillmaa has lived in Setomaa for most of her life and has seen the changes that mass migration and the control line have bought to the area.

Speaking in Seto, the 55-year-old said the biggest change was that so many people had left.

“I feel safe here and it is my home, many generations of my family have lived here. But I cannot tell my children to live here because they have to make their own choices and find work,” she said, pushing a bowl of Estonian candy across the table.

Tiina, who is head of the library, has two grown up sons. Although they don’t live in Setomaa they are registered in the area and their taxes are paid to the local municipality.

“I suppose it is like most of Europe,” she continued. “When young people leave the population gets older and diminishes. It is the same in a remote area like this.”

Getting up from the table, she gestures to a series of photographs on the opposite wall of school children posing for class pictures.

“In the 1940s and 50s there was a six-class school, but it closed and moved into a smaller building in the 60s. But now it’s empty again and has been for years.”

The control line brought in one of the biggest changes, as it meant the community could no longer take home-grown produce to market. For this reason people have also stopped owning livestock. Before that it was common for most families to own a cow.

“People just grow for themselves now, but they used to grow vegetables and keep animals to take to the markets in Pskov and St Petersburg.” She said.

“It was extremely important economically, but the border stopped it. Suddenly there were no markets to sell too. I think it still influences us here today. But now the land is rented out to farmers. It has definitely changed over the last 20 years. It’s sad.”

Our next stop is Obinitsa Museum. Like the other buildings in the village, it’s small and wooden and has two floors. Until twenty years ago it was an abandoned house.

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Obinitsa Museum [Image: Helen Wright]

Inside it is warm and cosy, owing to the traditional red-brick kiln in the corner which has orange flames dancing in the grate and the staff’s lunch cooking inside on a shelf.

Volunteer Õie Sarv has lived near Obinitsa for the last ten years. She grew up on what is now the Russian side of Setomaa, then moved to Tallinn with her family where she spent most of her life. She spent most of her holidays on the Russian side with her aunt.

She moved back for the peace and quiet of Setomaa after her husband retired.

The 60-year-old, who, like the majority of married women, wears a patterned headscarf to hide her hair, said it was important to keep the museum alive.

She said: “The museum can only be created when there are things that are not used any more.”

Õie thinks one of the biggest changes has been the gradual receding of community spirit in the villages. During her childhood, life was much more communal.

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Õie Sarv [Image: Helen Wright]

“It was often that three generations used to live together. Children experienced life and death, and the traditions. Life is more sterile now,” she said. “In my childhood I saw the beautiful and the not very beautiful. Children are not in touch with life anymore.”

Upstairs in the museum there is an exhibition dedicated to Õie’s life, which her daughter organized for her 60th birthday.

An active member of the community, Õie has always taken part in village life and embraced the Seto traditions. She is also one of the last remaining Leelo singers around. Helen says she is probably the best still alive today.

The unique Leelo songs and choirs  – which are mainly based on improvisation – were added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

Here, Õie says another big change has taken place. “Our culture is about the singing culture and there is no way people today can imagine what it was like. So much of that has disappeared today.”

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Inside Obinitsa Museum [Image: Helen Wright]

We leave the warmth of the museum and head to Mikitamäe for my last interview. Along the way we go through a section of the road that is technically Russia. We pass border guards and posts stamped with the two-headed eagle to drive along 800m of tree-lined road. You aren’t allowed to stop or get out.

It brings home how close the Setos are to the border and how much their lives must have changed when it came in.

It’s getting late in the day as we arrive in the town to speak to Aarne Leima, the head of the Seto Council of Elders.

As I have ten minutes to make my bus, he comes out of the building and gets into the back of Helen’s car and tells me how the community needs help to survive.

Aarne tells me that the council is against the border that keeps the Setos split in two, but they have realized there is not much they can do to stop it.

“People have told us to demonstrate but we do not want to,” he said. “We are doing real things, real acts here, that will help more than anything in Toompea (where the Estonian parliament is based in Tallinn) will do. The border will stay where it is. But the border is on the map, not in the head.”

He said what would help the Setos most of all is if the Russian and Estonian governments fixed up an agreement giving them freedom of movement.

He also thinks people should be encouraged to move to Setomaa to revitalize the area.

“We need young people to come back to Setomaa,” he said. “We need them to help bring life back to the Seto culture.”

Helen Wright is a freelance journalist working in Estonia. She has written for ERR News, The Baltic Times and Estonian World. Previously she worked at local newspapers in the UK. 

© Deep Baltic 2015. All rights reserved.

One Comment

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  1. It is hoped that surely no one is suggesting a return to days of the USSR. Merely to assuage the “Unique Seto People”, who now find themselves a divided community either side of the border separating the European Union, from the Russia Federation!!

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