The Seto People
Text – Piers Gladstone
Photos – Sveva Costa Sanseverino
In September 2005, the Russian government withdrew its signature from a border treaty with Estonia, setting an international precedent in this on-going border dispute between the two countries. On either side of the disputed part of the border lies the land of the Seto people, Setomaa (meaning ‘Land of Wars’ in the Seto language). A separate ethnic group to the rest of Estonia, the Setos have their own unique traditions of singing runic verse and worshipping pagan deities and are one of the last remaining traditional folk cultures in Europe.
Evar Riitsar in his studio
From 862 to 1920, Setomaa was part of Russia, before being ‘incorporated’ into the Soviet Union along with the rest of Estonia in the 1940s. After independence in 1991, Setomaa once again became part of Estonia before being divided when the Estonian government relinquished part of Setomaa to Russia during negotiations in 1996. To this day the border remains unratified and therefore technically not legal. The Setos on both sides of the border continue to face the political uncertainty of this un-ratified border and, like many other Finno-Ugric peoples, also face extinction.
Standing in the yard of her farm in the small village of Helbi, a few hundred metres from the Russian border, 80 year-old Kala Maria is one of the last examples of traditional Seto life. She wears the traditional multicoloured national costume and conical silver breastplate, Suur Solg, traditionally worn by married Seto women. “I don’t know exactly how old my Suur Solg is, but you can see that some of the coins are from the time of the Tzar”, she says inspecting some of the large coins hanging at the end of silver chains. “It was originally from my great-great-great grandmother, and has been inherited from mother to mother. Normally when you have a grandchild you give your Suur Solg to your daughter.” Like so many of her generation, Kala Maria’s daughters have left Setomaa, and she lives alone.
Singing is the central thread of the social and cultural fabric of the Setos. “The songs are inherited from generation to generation”, explains Kala Maria. “I learnt my songs from my mother. We want to keep this tradition alive because it is a direct inheritance. Singing is therefore very important for our culture.”
Indeed, song permeates the whole of Seto life: from work to their three-day weddings. “In the old days, life was difficult. All of the work was done by hand. If people got tired, they would sit down for a while and sing, before continuing working. Younger people came along and joined in and learnt the songs. Now there are no young people and there is no work, so people don’t sing as much as they should do.”
Preparations for the start of Paasobar
“The biggest threat during my lifetime was the beginning of the Soviet occupation in the 1940s,” Kala Maria says as she places a homemade cheese on the kitchen table of her farmhouse with a rattle of her breastplate chains. “We were really afraid and we had to hide all the silver and all of our national costumes. We didn’t dare to sing because people were arrested and deported. We just did not know what would happen next. It was forbidden even to speak the Seto language, but there was nobody to enforce it”, she adds with a wry smile and a chuckle.
Whilst the early years of being part of the Soviet Union represented danger for the Setos, the collectivisation of their farms helped to preserve and strengthen their culture. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Estonia’s subsequent market reforms resulted in the destruction of the Setos farming tradition, their livelihood and the foundation to their culture. Kala Maria looks out of her window and sighs deeply; “Those of us that are left do not see each other as we did when we worked together on the farms. The villages are getting emptier and emptier and therefore there is no hope. Seto villages used to consist of twenty or thirty farms. It is not a village anymore when there are only five people, and half of them are very old.”
The on-going problems with Russia have taken a greater significance because the border issue is now an external EU border issue. “We were very surprised that Russia withdrew their signature from the treaty”, states Franek Persidski of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. “Our position is that we have done everything we could in order to get the treaty signed.” This included the relinquishing of some of Setomaa to Russia in 1996, which has lead many Setos to feel that their land is under “occupation”. Although the Setos have been granted special visas to simplify the border crossing, there are also practical issues such as the not uncommon eight-hour wait on the Russian side. Similarly, the problems of international customs regulations when entering the EU have a huge bearing on the Setos ancient practices. “For the Setos who live across the border in Russia, when they come here for celebrations, they cannot bring their silver with them”, Kala Maria explains. “The silver is an essential and significant tradition of our culture and our personality. The silver, like the songs, have been inherited down the generations, and connect us with our ancestors and our tradition.”
The Seto Congress was established to promote the culture and traditions of Setomaa in order to try to preserve and reinvigorate them. Similarly, the Seto Commission has also been active in representing the marginalized interests of its people politically. The re-introduction of Kuniigrii (the annual Seto Kingdom day where a king is chosen), the writing and singing of the Seto national anthem whose lyrics speak of the hardships Setomaa has endured, and most recently the designing and flying of the Setomaa flag, have all helped to rekindle an interest in the Seto culture. It is a measure of their success that Kuniigrri is attended by thousands of Estonian and Russian Setos, and that Setomaa is now promoted by the Estonian tourist board.
At the forefront of the movement to save the Seto traditions is Evar Riitsaar, a tall and charismatic figure who is the current and longest serving King of Setomaa, or Sootska in the Seto language. “It is still a worry whether the culture will remain or not”, Evar says after hanging a large Seto flag above the entrance to an exhibition of his artwork. “If we do not push the ideas of the Seto culture, then it will be lost by the next generation. I feel that this is our last chance to save the Seto culture. Much has already been forgotten and will be forgotten still. For example, there used to be special ways to speak with animals and plants. Things like this have now been lost.”
Through his art though, much of the Setos cultural identity, derived from their pagan past and epic, important cultural figures such as the singer and songwriter Tarka, and their gods such as the god of fertility, Peko, is being preserved and given a new lease of life. Evar also teaches painting and sculpture in the local school as well as performing with his band Loqoriq (meaning ‘joyful laughter’). The male members of this band performed old Seto songs in London as cultural representatives when Estonia was incorporated into the European Union. One of the band members also wrote Estonia’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2004, which was sung in Seto. Such examples are tangible successes in the Setos struggle to exist in the 21st Century.
“As Sootska, I do what I know best; singing, dancing and painting. This is the only way for me to serve Peko’s will”, explains Evar. “The tradition of Sootska nearly died out; when the Russians were here, it was not allowed, but it was revived about eleven years ago. There are no formal duties, but a lot of spiritual ones. We have a strong shamanic background in Setomaa. Nature gives its signs. Sometimes you receive a sign during dreams, sometimes during singing. Last night, we went to Tarka’s grave at midnight and I received a vision.”
The festival of Paasabar is the most important of the Seto religious festivals – the older generations count the time of year by it. Paasabar takes place annually in Obinitsa, Evar’s native village 3km from the border. Before independence, Obinitsa had more than a thousand inhabitants. Now there are just 245, but the village starts to swell with Setos returning to their families from other parts of Estonia and Russia for Paasabar. The day before the main festival, the cemetery in the forest at the edge of the village is a hive of activity as people tidy their family’s graves. After a sparsely attended church service, a procession slowly makes its way through the village to Obinitsa lake for a blessing. After the evening meal, families go to the cemetery and place candles on their ancestors’ graves, turning this forested cemetery into a magical scene.
The Setos were pagans until the 14th Century, when the monastery at Petseri (now 500 metres across the border in Russia) was built. Although they became Christian, they retained their pagan traditions and beliefs. The burying of their ancestors in the forest, the worshipping of the souls of their ancestors and the eating and leaving of food on their ancestors’ graves is perhaps the most obvious form of this cultural retention. For Pasaabar, every family grave has tables erected on them – some overloaded with food and crowded with people, while others have just two old people and one plate.
“This place is where I get my strength from my ancestors”, Evar explains as he stands in the dappled sunlight by his mother’s family graves. “We come here to remember them with kind words and happy thoughts, and it is therefore a happy and reflective day.” People also visit the graves of friends, each time being given a shot of the powerful Seto moonshine, Hanza, and being offered food, before talking of those who are no longer with them. Even strangers are welcomed in the same way. The priests also visit the graves, blessing them before eating and drinking, and receiving some money from the family. The cemetery is literally alive, and as the day progresses and the Hanza consumption continues, so things become more animated. By late afternoon, people start to leave while others collect the flowers and leftovers and take them to the ancient Seto burial mounds deep in the forest.
In the last few years a younger generation of non-Setos have started to arrive, buying and restoring old farms, in search of a more natural way of life. Ain and Segre Raal first came to Setomaa ten years ago and bought their farm in the village of Kullatuva three years ago. Both Ain and Segre have been accepted by the community and are involved in its daily life — Ain plays the Karmoska (a type of accordion) at parties and festivals and Segre runs the Seto Museum in Obinitsa. “I want and hope to be a Seto”, Segre says. “Now, I see myself as a very close friend of the Setos. It’s not so easy to become a Seto after just two years.” With the Russian border less than two kilometres away however, Segre fears for the future of her family, and both fear for the future of the Setos. Segre looks out across their land; “I hope that the Seto people will remain Setos, that they understand how rich they are, with their culture”. “Yes”, agrees Ain. “So that they love their culture and they keep it alive and give it to their children.”
The Setos, like so many other cultures who have suffered, continue to exist because of their need to fight for their survival. To simply preserve this culture is in effect a cultural death that would equate to the Setos becoming a museum piece: something from the past. With people such as Evar Riitsaar leading them, the Setos have a real chance of a future. “What is important is to bring new things to our culture”, he explains. “It will depend on the young generation; if they learn our traditions, our language, our old songs and write new songs. I hope that in the future, young designers and architects will bring Seto ideas and traditions to their work.” Herein lies the problem for the Setos, because all the young leave Setomaa to study or find work in the cities. As seventeen year-old Maria said; “I want to study interior design in Finland. I won’t return to Setomaa. I don’t like this place. It is very small and very boring here. I don’t like Seto culture. Setos are very strange people.”
Evar Riitsair, Kauksi Ulle and their daughter
With Estonia’s inclusion in the European Union, the Setos perhaps have been thrown a lifeline. The growth in tourism has brought much-needed jobs and money to the region, as have EU grants. Setomaa ironically voted unanimously “No” in the referendum, mainly because of their experience of being part of a previous union, the Soviet Union. Others, such as an Estonian diplomat based in Bruxelles, see the inclusion into the EU as part of the problem with Russia; “The Russian’s refusal to sign the border treaty is so that they can influence Estonian and EU policies.” As for the Russian Setos, they have no tourism, no EU grants and live in one of Russia’s poorest oblasts, Pskov.
Evar Riitsaar’s partner, Kauksi Ulle, Setomaa’s foremost and prolific writer, looks at their baby in her arms and says with conviction; “I hope that the richness of our culture will not be diluted into the Estonian culture; that our weddings, singing, family life and language will remain.” As the late linguistics professor Kenneth Hale once said; “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum.”