On the border of Estonia and Russia, the Setos struggle to create a modern identity from ancient beliefs
By Eve Conant
Photographs by Jérémie Jung,
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.
The Setos have fiercely maintained their traditions for centuries. Those include their ancient polyphonic singing, recently recognized on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
EU member, 2016
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.