Dwindling Seto numbers feel Estonia's pull

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jul 23 14:51:32 UTC 2008

Dwindling Seto numbers feel Estonia's pull

*By Alexander Osipovich*

*PECHORY <http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/600/42/369117.htm>* ― Helju
Majak is among the last of her people to remain in Russia. Even her two
younger sisters now live across the Estonian border, just a few kilometers
away. Majak is one of the Setos, sometimes spelled Setu, a tiny ethnic group
of about 15,000 that has lived for centuries in this borderland but has been
gradually vanishing from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Setos speak a language related to Finnish and Estonian, elect a
ceremonial "king" every year and tell stories about their ancient fertility
god, Peko, who was worshiped in pagan rituals conducted side by side
with Orthodox
church <http://shaan.typepad.com/shaanou/2008/07/dwindling-seto.html#>services
until the late 1950s.
Today, only about 300 mostly elderly Setos remain in Russia, said Majak, who
heads a Seto community organization in the Pechory district. "Some people
leave simply to be closer to their children," she said. "Some are too old
and can't take care of themselves anymore. Many have died, and there aren't
many young people left."

Russia's 2002 census arrived at an even smaller number : That year, there
were only 197 members of the "Estonian-Seto" nationality in Russia,
according to the census, which classified Setos as a subset of Estonians.
That classification rankles Setos, who insist that they are a separate
nationality with a distinct language and culture of their own. "[Seto
culture] is neither
Estonian," Majak said. "It is completely unique and different."

In recent years, Estonia has been courting the Seto population away from
Russia. Tallinn has supported efforts to revive Seto culture, as well as a
relocation program that helped move about 200 Setos to the country from
Russia earlier this decade.  But many more Setos have moved because of
Tallinn's policy of issuing passports to anyone descended from citizens of
the pre-World War II Estonian republic. During the first period of Estonian
independence, which lasted from 1918 to 1939, the Pechory district ―
regarded by Setos as their heartland ― was part of Estonia, which means that
Tallinn has issued passports to thousands of Pechory residents, who now have
dual citizenship and can cross the border freely.

In May, a Russian official accused Tallinn of using this policy as part of a
creeping effort to re-establish Estonian control of the Pechory district. In
a long-running dispute, Tallinn says it deserves the district because of the
1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, even though Moscow has governed the area since
Stalin approved a redrawing of the Russian-Estonian administrative border in
1944. "The Estonian authorities are actively expanding their political,
economic, social and information influence in the Pechory district," Ivan
Bobryashov, head of the Federal
border guard in Pskov, told reporters, Interfax reported.

Bobryashov said 10,000 Russians had been granted Estonian passports since
1992. He added that young men were serving in the army of Estonia ― a NATO
member ― to avoid serving in the Russian army, which does not admit anyone
who has served in the army of a foreign state.  Curiously, the Estonian
policy that Bobryashov criticized is similar to the Russian policy of
issuing passports to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions
that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.  The Georgian government
has charged that giving Russian passports to Abkhaz and South Ossetians
amounts to creeping Russian annexation of the two breakaway republics, which
have close ties to Moscow.

For many Setos, an Estonian passport is a ticket to greater opportunities.
Majak said younger Setos often settled in the Baltic nation after going to
universities there. "They moved to Estonia to continue their education and
ended up starting families," she said.

While Seto history has yet to be thoroughly researched, the Setos themselves
say their lands have been inhabited for more than 8,000 years. They came
under Russian rule in 862 and converted to Orthodox
the centuries afterward, according to
www.setomaa.ee, a Seto web

The Setos' Orthodox faith is one of the main features that distinguish them
from their Estonian neighbors, who are predominantly

But Setos have traditionally practiced the Orthodox religion along with
pre-Christian rituals dedicated to Peko, who is variously described as a
fertility god and as the first king of the Seto people.

Peko is said to be buried ― or sometimes just "sleeping" ― in the
Pskov-Pechorsky Monastery, a 14th-century monastery in Pechory revered by
Setos as well as many Russians. Peko is the also subject of epic songs that
were first recorded in the early 20th century, when scholars first turned
their attention to Seto culture.

Although traditional Peko-worship has largely died out, some practices
remain, such as placing offerings of coins on certain rocks and the annual
election of the ceremonial Seto king, said to be Peko's deputy.

"There is a legend that Peko is sleeping in the Pechory monastery and that
he will come back when times get very bad, when there will be a big war and
other calamities," Aare HЪrn, the current Seto king, said by telephone from

"We do not want to disturb Peko, so every year we choose a deputy for him
who can sense what Peko wants his people to do," he added.

HЪrn conceded that his role was purely ceremonial, although he said he
carries some weight in the Estonian government.

"One minister told me that he would always answer my phone calls because he
would see that the Seto king was calling," he said.

Tallinn has not always been so friendly to the Setos. In the interwar
period, the independent Estonian republic pushed them toward assimilation,
forcing many children to study Estonian rather than the Seto language in

"The general opinion in the Estonian republic was that Setos were
illiterate, poor and needed help," HЪrn said.

But the worst years for the Setos were in the decades of Soviet rule. "The
most serious pressure came in the 1960s, when Khrushchev stepped up the
campaign against religious believers," the king said.

The last known traditional Peko-worshiping rites were held in the late
1950s, HЪrn said, although a revival of Seto culture began in the late
1970s, when some younger Setos who had received higher educations in Soviet
Estonia returned to their home villages, determined to stop the fading of
Seto identity.

Now there are a variety of Seto institutions, including a Seto congress that
meets every few years and a Seto-language newspaper, called Setomaa.

But these are all in Estonia. On the Russian side of the border, the
development of Seto institutions has been hampered by the fact that there
are so few of the people left.

One place where Seto culture has not been forgotten is in Pechory School No.
2, the only primary school in Russia that offers classes in the Russian,
Estonian and Seto languages. Majak, the Seto community leader, said she and
many other Setos had studied at the school and still gathered for reunions.

But today, there are no full-blooded Seto children enrolled in Pechory
School No. 2, although there are a few with mixed, partially Seto
backgrounds <http://shaan.typepad.com/shaanou/2008/07/dwindling-seto.html#>,
said Svetlana Rakuta, the school's director.

She described the school as an island of tolerance. "Our kids don't really
make a distinction about who's Russian, who's Estonian and who's Seto,"
Rakuta said.

Perhaps a bit belatedly, the Russian government is sponsoring a Seto
cultural festival for the first time this year.

The two-day festival of singing, folk dancing and bonfires ― scheduled to
take place Aug. 27 and 28 in Pechory and the nearby village of Sigovo ― has
the backing of the Regional Development
Previous events have had the support of the Pskov regional government but
never that of the authorities in Moscow.

Some Russians in the Pskov region express regret at the disappearance of
their Seto neighbors.

"Twenty years ago, there were full-blooded Seto villages where people walked
around in their national costumes," said Yury Strekalovsky, a journalist who
writes about culture for the Pskov-based newspaper Pskovskaya Guberniya.

"It wasn't a masquerade," he said. "It was the real thing."


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