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A Fairytale Kingdom Faces Real-Life Troubles

On the border of Estonia and Russia, the Setos struggle to create a modern identity from ancient beliefs

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In Obinitsa, Estonia, a young Seto girl named Liisi Lõiv wears a traditional costume in her grandparents' garden. Seto women typically have both an old costume and a new one. This is an older one—white, with long, rolled sleeves. The clothing reveals other details too. A married woman must cover her hair, while an unmarried young woman or girl like Liisi will wear only a garland or a headscarf, leaving her long braid visible. Today Setos wear their traditional clothes only on special occasions. Liisi says she embroidered this costume herself. "I'm proud of being Seto,” she says. “It is where I come from, where I grew up."


On two sides of a disputed border lies a kingdom. It is young in age and ancient in beliefs, forged from the chaos of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The people of this kingdom are the Setos, an indigenous ethnic minority of just a few thousand people from Setomaa, a small region nestled between southeastern Estonia and northwestern Russia.

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Peko—the Seto god of fertility and crops and, since the fall of the Soviet Union, king of the Setos—is said to be resting for eternity in the caves under the Holy Dormition Pskov-Caves Monastery in Pechory, Russian. Belief holds that he will wake up only if a great danger threatens the Setos. This Russian Orthodox monastery lies on what is now the Russian side of Setomaa, but between the two World Wars it was part of Estonia. Two thirds of Seto land falls in the Pskov region of Russia, though only a few hundred Setos live there.


The Setos have fiercely maintained their traditions for centuries. Those include their ancient polyphonic singing, recently recognized on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

RUSSIA

Tallinn

ESTONIA

Lake

Peipus

SETOMAA

Gulf of

Riga

50 mi

50 km

LATVIA

EU member, 2016

U.S.S.R., 1991

RUSSIA

AREA

ENLARGED

ABOVE

Moscow

EUROPE

NG MAPS

SOURCE: R. Kaiser and E. Nikiforova, Ethnic and Racial Studies (2006)

 

But they’ve also created entirely new traditions, complete with their own royalty, to stave off modern threats to their cultural identity.

The greatest threat today is a border between Russia and Estonia—traditionally more of a suggestion than a demarcation—that divides the Setos. The border shifted multiple times over the 20th century—a span that saw two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and the early stirrings of a European Union.

But by the mid-1990s, Estonia was relishing its post-Soviet independence. And the border—though still not ratified to this day—was becoming an enforced one, dividing Setomaa’s Russian and Estonian sides. Yet it was also dividing the Setos from one another, cleaving their crop fields, churches, and cemeteries.

“The border came, and it broke their daily life,” says Elena Nikiforova, a research fellow at the Center for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg who conducted field work in Setomaa as the border was strengthened.

“The border became this trigger for them to start thinking of themselves as a separate people,” she says. “Being divided by the border, they became united.”

Unable to alter the course of foreign policy and torn between two countries, the Setos in 1994 declared for themselves a new, unified entity: the Kingdom of Setomaa.

Now, more than two decades later, they are keeping that kingdom alive.

Listen to the Seto anthem, sung by Lea Ojamets, a Seto woman who lives in a small village called Vinski.


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On the Day of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a religious holiday, the icon of Dormition—believed to work miracles—is carried from the Dormition Church and walked around the Petseri Monastery. Believers who follow the procession will be blessed by the priests.

This Russian Orthodox religious celebration is also an important event for Setos, who follow both pagan and Orthodox belief systems (and are thus sometimes called "half-believers" by the Orthodox faithful). Many Setos come from Estonia to celebrate, crossing a border that was not enforced until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Near Saatse, Estonia, the Russian-Estonian border runs through the middle of this lake, where bathers play a ball game and frolic.


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On a warm summer day, an artist paints the Russian Orthodox Pechory monastery, which Setos believe is the resting place of Peko.


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Jane Vako, a young violin player, lives and studies in the Värska, the biggest Seto village on the Estonian side of the border. She says she doesn’t want to be like the many other Seto youth who have left the region for cities and larger towns. “I’m finishing school this year,” she says, “and after [that] I want to see the world. It’s important. But I will come back. I don’t know how long it will take, but I’ll come back.” Jane explains that she needs to stay with her people, and that she could not live without the Seto forests. “I spend hours here, looking at the birds.”


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Evar Riitsaar, a Seto artist and maker of traditional jewelry, rests at home in Obinitsa, on the Estonian side of the border, after a long day in the cold winter air. Riitsaar was vice-king of the Setos from 2003 to 2007. He now serves as chief editor of the Seto-language magazine Peko Helü and, along with his wife—the poet Kauksi Ülle—owns an art gallery.


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The statue of the Seto lauluima, or Seto singing mother, was created by the sculptor Elmar Rebane and erected in Obinitsa in 1995. A lauluima is a lead singer of a Seto leelo choir, which performs traditional polyphonic songs considered an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. This statue is said to represent all the singing mothers, but specifically honors three famous Seto singers: Hilana Taarka, Miko Ode, and Irö Matrrina.