This piece is one of three in a series on Estonia's choral culture. In what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” residents of this Baltic state wielded a long-held cultural practice as a weapon of change, without a drop of blood spilled. Over the four years between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly in a series of spontaneous events to sing prohibited patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence from the Soviet Union, culminating in a choral event that close to one-third of the country’s citizens attended.
Expressing their national identity through song has been an Estonian tradition for as long as memory serves — the Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1.5 million pages of folk songs and there are continual competitions and festivals around the country. The country’s “choir culture” is flourishing, with music continuing to serve as the force that unites Estonians as they enter the third decade of their fledgling democracy.
Estonia is a window into how one small country moved from living in fear under a totalitarian system to an environment of such openness that today it is known as one of the most “wired” nations in the world.
After three weeks travelling across Estonia, I had come to the end of the road—literally. In the far southeastern corner of the country, in area known as Setomaa, or “Land of the Seto,” I found myself on Russian soil. About eight kilometers outside Värska, my guide Elina and I drove along a narrow ribbon of road that sliced through dense woods. Elina pumped the car’s brakes and as we slowed, she pointed into the trees standing sentinel in close formation along the rural route.
“After the Estonian independence in 1991, Russia made the border according to their wishes, not respecting the 1920 Tartu peace agreement,” Elina told me. “The border here follows the one delineated by the 1946 Soviet government and for about 200 meters the road is in Russia. One is not allowed to stop the car nor get out of the car here. Once I was guiding an English writer in this area and almost immediately, a Russian border guard patrol appeared. The border is under radar surveillance—after all, it is only a line in the forest.”
Despite the warmth of the August sun, I felt an involuntary shudder. The specter of a sinister Soviet soldier snatching me away to Siberia was conjured by the cumulative effect of being in a foreign country for a few weeks, combined with mental re-runs of the TV program “Locked Up Abroad” and childhood memories of diving under my desk in elementary school as a siren shrieked, signaling an air raid drill.
I shook off the evil apparition and turned to face Elina, who mischievously grinned at the look on my face. She turned serious, and explained that the Seto are an ethnic minority whose land spans the Estonian-Russian border. Their culture developed from both Eastern and Western influences—their expression kato ilma veere paal means “on the border of two worlds.”
Over several days, I spent time with members of the Seto, and came to learn how that invisible line in the wilderness had affected the lives of generations. I also came to understand that even in societies that have suffered from oppression, there are those who are less understood. I saw how the power of song unites the Setos, just as it does for the broader community of Estonians of which they are a part. And during my stay in Setomaa, I crossed invisible borders within myself, breaking free from fears that had held me back and finding a song of my own.
Having stared down an invisible boogeyman of my Cold War era youth, Elina turned the car around and we headed back toward Värska to the Seto Farm Museum.
“What is so extraordinary about this open air museum is that it was a female initiative–traditionally Seto culture is male-based,” Elina told me en route. “Four or five women decided that they would not let the village slowly die as the younger people moved to bigger cities. They founded this place–bought the plot, brought the buildings from different parts of Seto land and recreated a traditional Seto family household.”
“Ethnographically the Museum gives a good general view of Seto lifestyle, their handicrafts, their cycle of life, marital, funeral and other customs,” she explained. “Every year they have permanent and changing exhibitions, and plenty of workshops that make the traditions alive and living. They have succeeded in saving some of the dying traditions, such as colorful lace making.”
Indeed, as I explored the Museum’s collection of buildings set around a green field where sheep and goats grazed, I found vibrant, whimsical splashes of color adorning the ruddy walls of hand-hewn timber. One barn featured an exhibit of socks knitted in a spectrum of brilliant shades of blue and decorated with an assortment of snowflake-like patterns. Elsewhere, hanging from the rafters were tapestries in rich hues of red, emblazoned with geometric designs.
The dominating colors of the Seto culture are red and white, which are embued with deep meaning. Red is associated with the sun, fire and blood and can have both good and bad connotations for the Seto. This color can symbolize activity, birth, strength and vitality–but it may also stand for vanishing, disappearing, dying out and even death. Red signifies something that is important and sacred, and for vitality and persistence.
Red in the Seto dialect is verrev, which originates from the word for “blood.” Light red is referred to with kumack. The materials used by the Seto have changed over time–deep red yarn was brought from Riga by Seto merchants in the 19th century, and cotton eventually replaced wool. These developments influenced the shade of color predominant in successive eras–the older the textile, the lighter the color red used.
Inside the main building of the Museum, an elderly woman wearing a kerchief sat at a picnic table with a stack of mittens in front of her. Across the table, a heavy bespectacled woman punched numbers in on a calculator, then wrote out a receipt and handed it to the white-haired matron who grinned. While the handicraft tradition originated with items being created out of necessity, today there is a thriving market among tourists for the pieces as treasured folk art.
A time-honored gathering spot for Estonians, including the Seto, is the community swing. I saw these structures all over the country in my travels, huge wooden platforms that can accommodate a crowd. With Elina, her husband Jryki and colleague Anders, I made my way down the road to the center of Varska and the village’s iconic swing. There, I enjoyed another tradition that is a cornerstone of Seto identity–leelo, an ancient polyphonic style of singing.
Gathered around the enormous swing were members of a Seto choir: Veera, 84; Anna, 82; Lidia, 80; Maime, 64 and Veera’s grandaughter Ruti, 16, who is an honorary member. The women were all dressed in exotic costumes with patterns reminiscent of the handiwork I had seen at the Museum.
Dressing in the full Seto traditional costume worn for occasions such as festivals typically takes a woman about an hour. The jewelry symbolizes protection–both keeping safe the women’s spirit within, as well as preventing her negative energy from reaching others. The heavy silver necklaces women wear are embellished with decorative flourishes, including a large conical breastplate. These ornaments can weigh up to six kilos—about the maximum weight that can be comfortably worn around their neck. Many of the women own multiple pieces–Veera has several breast plates. The jewelry pieces are considered family heirlooms and can date to the 1700s. The shirts in their folk costumes are passed down from one generation to the next–some are 100-150 years old.
There are four categories of leelo songs—those that are improvised, which are the most prized; those folk songs that all universally known among all Setos; songs in which the tunes are familiar to all but the words may vary from village to village, and vice versa–songs for which all Setos know the words but the melodies may vary in different communities.
Seto songs are also known for being epic sagas. I was told that the choir once improvised for eight hours. Each of the women take turns leading the group and creating the verse, which has to rhyme, and the others chime in together as the chorus at specific intervals, repeating the last line sung by the leader. The Leiko choir is atypical in its shared leadership—typically the post is given to one person, known as the iisutleja, who is seen as having the “power of songs.”
The choir’s name is Varska Leelokoor Leiko, which means “play,” and I was about to find out what an apt monikor that was for these extraordinary women. Maime and Ruti climbed up on the swing’s platform and Veera, Lidia and Anna stood alongside it.
The group sang a song of thanks to the men who built the village’s swing, which gives the people such pleasure. The lyrics tell of the girls giving the builders Easter eggs, a reference to the fact that a village’s swing would be built during that season. In mid-March or April there was no agriculture work to be done, and the men’s thoughts turned to courting—the swing site is where romance blossomed among the village young people. The mothers of the young bachelors would also come here–to eye the eligible girls, check out their posture and handicrafts, and assess who was good enough for their son.
Lidia remarked “The songs are very long because we have so much to say,” but I learned another reason for their extended length is that the Seto women also had a lot of work to perform, much of it monotonous, and the singing made it go by more quickly.
The group performed a rousing “party” song, one typically sung at a gathering attended by both men and women. Periodically one of them would let loose a cry of “Ai-YAH” with a great spirit of jubilation—I was later told that the high-pitched sound is called killõ and uttered by a woman when she wanted to call attention to herself.
Veera said with a twinkle in her eye “When a Seto wife is chosen, a man looks not just for someone who is a good cook, but someone who is a good singer–it’s the family’s entertainment!”
On that note, Maime and Ruti set the swing rocking, stationing themselves on opposite sides of the platform–Maime crouched at the front and Ruti standing tall at the back. Both expertly worked with the force of gravity to build up motion and speed and soon the giant swing was high in the air, with the duo practically parallel with the ground. The other women began to clap and Anna and Lidia’s canes were forgotten as they began to step and sway together in a little dance. The swing gained even more momentum, the clapping quickened and laughter began to bubble. Giddy with the excitement of the ever-rising swing, I laughed and laughed until my cheeks hurt…and I understood why the women’s eyes sparkled and their faces glowed.
The shadows had begun to lengthen and the waning light made me realize how exhausted I was. It was a good kind of tired, a sleepy sense of being sated after a sumptuous feast of fresh air, laughter, song, color, customs, history and artistry.
After saying our goodbyes to the choir, Elina and I got in my rental car and Jyrki and Anders headed for their van. I had been travelling with the trio for the better part of the week and tonight we would say our farewells. After they departed, I would spend another day in Setomaa on my own before driving solo to the capital of Tallinn at the opposite end of the small country.
I felt a wave of another sensation, one that I have learned to expect at the conclusion of a journey to a place that has touched me. Like the embrace of an old friend who always appears right on cue, I invariably have an experience of timelessness, when the present and the future briefly co-exist. With this magical phenomenon, I am simultaneously deeply grateful and humbled to be exactly where I am in that moment, while also saddened with anticipatory nostalgia and homesickness for a place I have been affected by, despite only just passing through.
Travelling with someone fosters a familiarity that can take years to achieve in other circumstances. Compressed into long hours touring together are both exhilarating peak experiences, as well as relentless monotony. You see someone at their best, and their worst. This instant intimacy has produced some of the most profound conversations I have been privileged to have, and inspired astonishing revelations—about myself, others and Life. In Elina, I found a kindred spirit and soul sister, and was amazed to learn we shared similar pieces of difficult personal history.
Our two-car convoy headed to the Värska Sanatoorium. While I knew the word “sanatorium” meant spa in the European context, to my American ears it carried the stigma of an institution for chronically ill. My hometown of Nahant had recently hosted the film crew of the horror movie “Shutter Island,” which revolved around diabolical doctors and the criminally insane at a 19th century sanatorium. Once again, I was trying to shake off preconceived notions based on someone’s celluloid fantasy.
“The sanatorium was established in the Soviet era for miners and other workers from heavy industry,” Elina told me as we drove away from the swing. “The place was chosen for its large pine forest and plenty of aromatics in the air. The lake’s mire is considered one of the best spa muds in Europe. The mineral water here is also among the best in Europe. If Värska had been developed as a resort in the 19th century, it most probably would be a world famous spa like Baden Baden in Germany.”
We pulled into a gravel lot above which loomed a massive concrete monstrosity. The building evoked a 1970s Soviet style that valued function over form and utility over imagination. After a day enveloped in the colorful cocoon of Seto spontaneity and song, the place seemed bleak and unwelcoming.
My sensibilities were jarred by the sterile lobby and humorless desk clerk who greeted me with the enthusiasm of a robot on Prozac. I was informed dinner was now being served and I would have to eat within precisely an hour. I had hoped that before having my supper I could unwind a little, which didn’t seem an option here.
Elina, Jyrki, Anders and I trudged down a seemingly endless white-walled corridor, then took an elevator to an identical tunnel of blandness, reaching my room at its end. I was eager to make sure there was internet access, as the homesickness I felt now was genuine and I wanted to connect with my husband if only over cyberspace. I could tell my new friends sensed by uneasiness and they lingered while I tried unsuccessfully to get online.
Seeing my frustration, Jyrki picked up the phone and called the front desk to ask about the internet, while Elina slipped out into the hallway. The tone of Jyrki’s voice as he spoke to the hotel clerk in Estonian became increasingly impatient. The languid sleepiness I had felt earlier devolved into the raggedy tiredness of a two year old on the brink of a tantrum.
As Jyrki sputtered into the telephone in a language I couldn’t understand, Elina sat down next to me.
“If you’d like to go now to the lodge you are booked at for tomorrow night, I just called–they have internet,” she said. “The restaurant is closed, but they will open up the kitchen for you.”
I was moved by her kindness, and that of the unknown innkeeper, and felt immense relief, certain that any place was cozier than the sanatorium.
“Let’s go!” I exclaimed.
As someone who has spent most of my life following “the rules,” the older I have become, the more I have realized that those rules are often figments of my imagination. Somewhat incredulously, I have discovered that there are many things I have put great pressure on myself to do or not do that no one else really cares one iota about. Leaving the sanatorium was one such liberating moment. While the robotic front desk clerk was only slightly ruffled, I felt like I was breaking out of jail. My giddiness was shared by my comrades and we dissolved into silliness and gales of laughter as we got in our “get-away” cars.
A half hour later we were welcomed by a smiling young woman to the rustic and charming dining room of an old stone building. The ambiance was cheerful and cozy and a fragrant aroma promised a meal that would be enjoyed. The tension drained from my body and I felt my shoulders relax, the reflexive action making me realize how uptight I had been.
But now it was time to say goodbye to my new friends and I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, bidding adieu to the scarecrow, tin man and lion. I gave Jryki and Anders a heartfelt hug and then turned to Elina. As she gave me a goodbye embrace, the emotion of my entire visit to Estonia seemed to well up and then release. Much to my embarrassed horror, I began sobbing.
One of the many characteristics Elina and I had bonded over was recognition of our shared sensitive nature and tendency to feel things very deeply. On long drives, we had shared stories of incidents that had elicited strong emotional responses, and discussed what a blessing and a curse this capacity was. As I cried on Elina’s shoulder, I cringed at what the innkeeper must think of this middle-aged travel writer having a breakdown at saying goodbye to her guide. Then, in a small instance of the grace that visits me when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I felt a shift within from shame to gratitude, brushing aside whatever anyone else thought.
Elina whispered “Life will not always be easy for you, but there will always be guardian angels looking after you.”
With that parting wisdom, the trio took their leave and my dinner was set on the table in front of me.
Laivi Mesikäpp owns the lodge with her husband and while I hungrily wolfed down a delicious meal, she told me about its history. Laivi and her husband opened the property 12 years ago; its name in Estonian means “cottage house of Setomaa.”
“My mother’s family is from this area and a cousin told me the house here was for sale,” Laivi said. “We bought the property ‘as is’ and the building that is now this restaurant had been the stables. The other houses were in ruins. We were living in Tallinn and purchasing the property was a big investment and we thought we would offset that by offering summer lodging. We now live nearby but not on the property–we need privacy.”
“It was so unbelievable that we could do what we wanted to do, that you could have an idea and realize it,” Laivi said. “Under the Soviet system, you couldn’t travel and you couldn’t own property, you had to rent.”
“All the people who work here are Seto,” she told me. “The culture was the most important aspect of the enterprise. Every room bears the name of a local person and the decorations are made by someone from the community. For example, Mari Tarõ is a woman from the neighboring village who is a singer. She makes handicrafts and created all the door numbers using the Seto belt technique. In one room we have textiles she made when she was a young girl–every Seto girl must do handicraft for future.”
“I enjoy making handicrafts–if I am nervous it helps me to relax,” Laivi said. “Seto handicraft is so unique–usually in Estonian culture, the color of lace is always white. But Setos used many variations of colors – red, white, blue, green, yellow, and pink.”
I asked Laivi about the collection of buildings scattered across the property and learned about a beloved tradition of Estonians and other Baltic and Scandinavian countries.
“We have one of the biggest smoked saunas in the area,” Laivi said. “The smoke sauna is a special type of sauna without a chimney. Wood is burned in a large stove and the smoke fills the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and the smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat of the stove is enough for the duration of the sauna.
“This represents the ancestral type of sauna, since chimneys are a later addition,” she said. “Smoke saunas have experienced great revival in recent years since they are considered superior by the connoisseurs. They are not, however, likely to replace all or even most of the regular saunas because the heating process requires more skill, effort and time–usually most of the day.”
“Taking a sauna begins by washing up and then going to sit in the hot room, typically warmed to 170-230 degrees Fahrenheit for some time,” Laivi explained. “Water is thrown on hot stones atop the special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces steam, which increases the moisture and heat within the sauna. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake, sea, or a swimming pool, or to have a shower. In the winter rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice.”
“The sauna is an important part of the national identity,” Laivi said. “Those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week–the traditional sauna day is Saturday. The sauna is almost a sacred place.”
I had polished off my dinner and complimented Laivi on the meal.
“I like cooking and the Seto kitchen is in my heart,” Laivi said. “Seto cuisine relates to local food, to season of the year, to oral history. All components and tastes are very simple. Setos cuisine is a mix from Estonian and Russian kitchens– some things are the same and some things are very different.”
“One of my dreams was to do a Seto cookbook,” she shared. “I was thinking about this for 10 years! The concept was translating the Seto cuisine from the old generation to young generation. It includes ideas of how you can update traditional recipes to reflect modern cuisine. The point is for younger people will recognize the importance of traditions that we need to keep.
”Two years ago I had a good idea and partnered to create the cookbook with Indrek Kivisalu, who is a former chef for Estonia’s president,” Laivi said. “I just realized this idea last year in cooperation with other people too. It wasn´t easy to do this book without a publishing house but thanks to good partnerships it was possible.”
“So, now I can say that one of my dreams come to fruition–that’s nice!” she exclaimed. “To follow your dream, you just need a lot of iron will, a clear purpose, hard work and good contributors.”
Laivi led me to my quarters in a small log building that housed four rooms as well as a common living area. The accommodations were simple and comfortable, and decorated with the Seto handiwork that Laivi had described. I caught a glimpse out the window of a lavender sky and decided to enjoy the first stars as they began to sparkle.
Outside, the tail lights of Laivi’s car disappeared down the long driveway, a plume of dust rising in its trail. I walked over to a nearby pond, its glass-like surface making me aware of how profoundly still the evening was. I hadn’t seen another soul other than Laivi since I arrived and I suddenly realized it was possible no one else was here on a Monday night.
The air had cooled with the descending twilight and I hugged my arms around me. Thoughts began to swirl of bats, then bears and, then worse, an Estonian Charlie Manson. I laughed to myself, amused by my own neurosis…but walked briskly back to my cottage. Locking my door, I snuggled under the covers. I may have had a moment or two of the night terrors before I was fast sleep, I honestly don’t remember.
Late the next morning, I headed to the nearby village of Obinista, driving through low rolling hills planted with crops now tall and ready for harvest. I saw the occasional kerchiefed woman working out in a field and was touched to get a friendly wave with each passing.
Obinista is not much more than a cross-roads and I easily found the Seto community house. After parking the car, I was greeted by a tall totem with the stylized face of a bearded man. The sprawling yard was set with long tables lined with wooden folding chairs, creating the impression of an outdoor banquet either just over or about to begin. Beyond a stand of birch trees, gray weathered barns of different sizes lined the perimeter of the property; one sported white and red banners in a floral motif.
Entering the building, I found myself in a hallway, where I was met by a mewing kitten and pair of slippers. I heard the sound of clanging pots and pans and made my way to the kitchen. A woman looked up and smiled, drying her hands on an apron. She seemed to expect me and motioned me to follow her, leading me to a dining room, where long tables were set with white table clothes and red earthen pottery. With a gesture she invited me to sit and then disappeared, returning with a pitcher of red liquid and a basket of the moist, dark bread I had come to love. Moments later she set in front of me a hearty lunch of potatoes and a stew.
After eating, my silent smiling hostess brought me up a flight of stairs to a large airy room where I met Helen Külvik. An editor with a nature magazine, Helen spoke English and had offered to educate me on the Seto culture. After we settled in, I asked her to tell me about herself.
“I was born in Tallinn; my husband spent holidays in Pechory, a town in Russia,” Helen began. “We bought a house here and got active right away in the Seto movement. There has been a national awakening in regard to the Setos, who were looked down on for centuries, especially in Soviet times. In the 1990s, together with re-independence, Setos started to realize and appreciate their unique identity, and the need to do something to keep that identity from disappearing. This movement has involved a great number of people and activities. The Setos are now looked at with certain respect and Setomaa has become a quite popular travel destination due to the unique culture.”
“My husband and I were married in a big Seto wedding in July of 2010–there hadn’t been one for many decades,” she said. “Weddings are traditionally a three-day event with lots of distinctive elements that have existed for hundreds of years. We concentrated the wedding into one-and-a-half days and it was attended by 100 people.”
“I had never wanted a big white wedding,” she confessed. “My husband and I had already been together for nine years and had two children. But it was not just our wedding, it was the community’s and a chance for us to give back to people we have gotten so much from emotionally and intellectually. It also makes being married more significant.”
Helen explained that in a Seto wedding, the bride was given away and the groom’s family was the one who gained.
“In Seto tradition, girls started to prepare for the wedding at a very early age, as soon as they could make some type of handicraft,” she explained. “When she reached marrying age, a big chest had to be full of handicraft–gifts for everyone in the new family, and the families were very large. The bride’s father had to buy a lot of jewelry, too. So it was economically really bad to have many daughters–you’d lose them all in the end anyway.”
“The bride’s family is taken to see the groom’s fields and look at the cattle,” Helen continued. “The women sing and a bouquet of sticks is put between the bride’s legs and then she sits on a bucket. We don’t know why this is done but the songs and the words have survived. The meaning behind it is gone but we think it is about fertility.”
“In earlier times, girls did not want to get married as they couldn’t choose the man,” she said. “An 18 year-old girl may have to marry a man who was 45 years old who was widowed and had eight kids. Brides were often forbidden to visit their parents for one year–otherwise it was too sad.”
“The Seto wedding was partly a sad event–especially for the bride and her best friends,” she said.” It was even said that the sadder the wedding, the happier the future life. The life of a married woman was very hard. In addition to all the work on the field, there were obviously no birth control methods, families were large and many kids died.”
“Part of the wedding tradition is a bridal lament, in which the woman cries about her past life and how hard her life would be now,” Helen continued. “It is a very important tradition, actually. It’s called a transition. Especially in old days, getting married really meant a start of a new life. There were three important events in the life of a woman: the birth, the wedding and the death. One would not know much about one’s birth or death, but is very aware at the wedding which forms the central point of a woman’s life. Stressing the transition is supposed to help the bride to move from one life to another, to help her in this difficult transition. It is a powerful ritual, which had more meaning in the olden days, but it could still be considered important today.”
I asked Helen if she participated in this tradition.
“Yes, I sang some laments,” she acknowledged. “I sang about my father dying when I was 17 years old and how I had to grow up without a father, how my mother sent me to the U.S. to be an exchange student and I didn’t want to go. My laments came alive, I had not expected that. It was not a show, it was the real thing, and very powerful indeed. Everything came from the heart and we all cried–all the persons I sang the laments with cried too.”
“For most of the members of the community under 50 years of age, ours was the first traditional Seto wedding they had seen,” Helen noted. “Several of the older women who had shared with my husband and me what the old traditions were–they have since died, and our wedding was the last time they experienced these traditions.”
“The Seto weddings have disappeared as the culture of Setos was dishonored and looked at as something too aboriginal in a bad sense,” she explained. “It was the Soviet time that put an end to this tradition. The reasons were complex, of course. Setos were more mixed with Estonians and they started to inter-marry each other, and lost part of their identity.”
I asked Helen about the Seto religion.
“The Seto religion is a mix of Orthodox and pagan,” she replied. “The Orthodox priests have just learned to live with it. Orthodox are much more tolerant. Some church holidays are related to certain food. I mean, the Orthodox part isn’t, but the pagan side is. It’s a mixture. For example, August 19th is celebrated as a day of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. But in addition, it is celebrated as a day when you can start using the new yield–especially apples and honey. Apples and honey are brought to the church where the pope gives these a blessing and only then can people start tasting the first fruits of the season.”
“For the Seto, the forest and nature are very, very important,” she elaborated. “It can give you an addition to your livelihood–you can go berry or mushroom picking. Older people will come out of the forests and make a pile of mushrooms and berries as a kind of sacrifice. I know of at least two old sacrificial stones near a spring–people put money in, and put their arm or leg in the spring to heal.”
I asked Helen if there had been resistance to her adoption of the Seto way of life.
“Seto people are open to those who drawn to their way of life,” she replied. “I think it is simple psychology–everyone tends to like persons who are sincerely interested in them. We will never completely be “insiders” but we are a part of them.”
“Quite many people will carry on this culture for the next 30 years or so but after that, I don’t know,” she said. “The language was forbidden during Soviet times–two generations of Seto have grown up speaking it only to their grandmothers–who have now died. Many people don’t understand the words of the leelo songs. Many words that have been specific to Seto have now been replaced with Estonian words. The practices will survive but not as a culture.”
The next morning, I was back at the community house to meet Aare Hõrn, the so-called “foreign minister” of Setomaa. Aare is employed by union of Setomaa municipalities, as well as serving as the leader of the Seto community house.
I was welcomed by a young woman who would interpret for us and then introduced to Aare. He was dressed in traditional Seto attire, wearing a white, belted tunic embroidered in red around the collar and hem over light striped trousers tucked into patterned stockings. We settled in at a table in a sunny room and I was soon immersed in the story of life on a borderland, past and present.
Aare explained that the concept of the “Seto Kingdom” comes from the epic “Peko,” originally composed in the 1920s by a Seto singer who couldn’t read or write and recorded with help from her children. She created the epic from different folk songs and spiritual beliefs, among which are the concept of a fertility god and a 16th century legend associated with the head of the Christian church, who was later killed by Ivan the Terrible.
The Seto Kingdom Day is an annual festival of the Seto people. It came into being after Paul Hagu, a local leader, attended a similar event in 1991 held by the Finnskogen Finns, a small minority in Norway.
“The Finnskogen Finns and Seto people are descendants of the Fenno-Ugric tribes,” Aare said. “The Seto have maintained several cultural features that they share with the other Fenno-Ugric tribes like the Mordovians and the Udmurt people in Russia, while Estonians have lost these features a long time ago due to influences from the west.”
He explained that the festival rotates geographically between the four Seto municipalities, so each municipality gets to host and organize it in every four years. The approximate number of participants is 5,000–7,000 people annually, with about half being Setos and their ancestors and half tourists. There is a lot of singing, dancing, different contests–who makes the best bread, pies, cheese, beer and handsa–a strong local drink.
“The logistics are challenging,” said Aare. “People used to come on horse and today come by car and there are problems with parking. This year people were not allowed to sell hamburgers and soda and had to sell traditional food.”
During Kingdom Days, the focus is on historical elements of the culture. As society is changing, it is a priority to connect the old and new. Aare cited an example of the type of issues that arises is whether to adopt the use of microphones and speakers for events or whether that might change the actual sound of the music and the instruments.
At the end of each Kingdom Day, a new sootska is elected for the coming year. The sootska is the king’s representative, a democratically-elected administrator or president, a spokesman. The sootska is not written about in the epic, but the role was developed from it. King Peko, the main character of the epic is sleeping in the sand caves of Pechory, so someone has to replace him while he is sleeping to watch over the Seto people. Peko appears in the dreams of sootska to show guidance.
Aare explained that the role of the sootska has become more and more active—people really feel he is their representative. In the first five years that the Seto Kingdom existed, the sootska was elected on Kingdom Day by people using voting cards. This method changed as people felt it wasn’t democratic enough. Today the candidates stand on stage and people literally go stand behind the person who they support–whoever has the most people behind him wins.
“By standing behind the candidate of your choice, the process is more transparent,” said Aare. “You feel you are participating and a visual picture is created of the support for a candidate that you don’t have when you are reading numbers.”
A candidate must articulate his or her platform and have the support of ten Seto people to qualify, as well as one leelo choir willing to campaign for the candidate by singing about them.
A person can be re-elected to more than one term. One person was sootska for four terms–he is associated with encouraging people to speak in the Seto language and to embrace the singing tradition. The current sootska is in his second term and has always been connected with building chapels. The previous sootska was a woman who was a singer and made a rule that every speech must be sung. Now there is a new sootska, Aarne Leima, a man who has come back to Setomaa to his roots from Tallinn, and is very active and smart.
Aare has served as sootska twice: in 2000 and 2007. His platform as sootska was to promote communicating more through song, honoring the tradition of folk songs as part of the culture, and encouraging attendance at events. Aare’s tenure as sootska also involved making preparations for submitting the Seto leelo tradition for consideration as an item of endangered cultural heritage by UNESCO.
“The Seto society was very involved in compiling the UNESCO application,” Aare explained. “As there was the need to describe the leelo style of singing, we met with all leelo choirs, whose members gave us their view of the leelo tradition. The most experienced singers from different choirs had more right in saying how leelo should be described. It’s quite unique that the responsibility for the necessary action plan was taken by both the state and the choirs. It is kind of like a social treaty to maintain and develop the leelo.”
In looking back on past Kingdom Days, Aare really considers greater communication among the Seto people to be the priority.
“The Seto are like a bridge between the Fennu-Ugric tribes scattered throughout Estonia and Finland and Russia,” Aare said. “Due to the fact that the Seto are spread out, an important role of the sootska is to help to unite people. He or she is expected to visit most events across Setomaa, and make a speech. Thanks to the common background, it’s easier for the Setos to understand the Fenno-Ugric tribes in Russia, and good contacts have been developed. In addition to the Kingdom Day on the Estonian side of Setomaa, there is now an equally significant festival on the Russian side of the border.”
“There had been no big Seto gatherings on the Russian side for a long time,” he continued. “About a decade ago an idea came from the museum of Izborsk to have a parallel event like the Kingdom Day in Russia. It is known as the Radaja Festival, and referred to as the Gathering of Families.
The Radaja Festival offers free lodging, transport and food for Setos from Estonia, and about 350 people went this year. The festival also affords the Estonian Setos the possibility to go the graveyards where family members are buried–very important for Setos, who are deeply connected to their ancestors. Aare has no living relatives in Russia but the graves of his grandmother and grandfather are across the border.
“The idea of a Seto festival on Russian soil was supported by the Russian politicians–they want the activities of the Pechory Seto people to be separate from the Estonian-side Seto movement,” Aare explained. “At the same time, the improved communication and cultural exchange between the Seto people on both sides of the border has resulted in quite a bit of pressure from the Russians.”
“Lists are being made and about 45 Seto people in Estonia are not allowed to go to Russia at all,” he continued. “People might be checked at the border and held for more than an hour. People can be banned from entering Russia for five years with no explanation given; those banned are usually people involved in seeking to promote Seto cultural heritage. The Seto people involved in Fenno-Ugric movement are especially observed. Russians might fear that one tribe or another might want to break free, or start talking of Russians as oppressors”
Aare was the subject of such a ban and had last been in Russia in 2008.
As we spoke, Aare was waiting to find out if he would be allowed to travel to Russia for the Radaja Festival. He explained that when you have been given a five year ban, you can start applying in the third year for a new visa. A few weeks earlier, Aare’s visa application was declined. A week ago, it was accepted. He expressed anticipation and a sense of not knowing if the visa he was recently granted will be taken away from him. The policy on the Russian side is 50/50 and it is complicated and unpredictable. Aare tries to be as polite as possible but the security officers are skeptical and paranoid and it is difficult.
“On the Estonian side, we now use the visa contract of the European Union, which affects 2,000 Seto on the Estonian side of the border and 2,000 Setos and Russians on the Russian side,” Aare said. “For these people, you can get a visa for up to five years to cross the border without having to pay. First you have to have a one-time visa, then you can apply for a longer-term visa.
According to the contract, both Setos and Russians on the Russian side and Setos and Estonians on the Estonian side should be able to get such visas, but in reality it is only the consul of Estonia who issues such long visas, while the Russian side only issues visas that last less than a year. On the Estonian side the process takes 10 days; on the Russian side it can take several months.
A few years ago, at the initiative of the Seto, the Estonian government has a fund for people who now live on the Russian side who want to come here. So far about 200 people have come. The Russian government has started their own program–the cost is about 50,000 rubles.
As people who have inhabited borderlands for generations, the Seto have long been at the mercy of politics; sometimes it has proven advantageous and at other times, it has been devastating.
“Until the 10th century, there were independent tribes,” Aare explained. “In the 11th century, the Slavic Prince invaded and established Russian rule here. Then in the 13th century when the Germans came, they stopped at the Seto border and Seto remained part of Russia. We were placed between two great powers–the German Catholics and the Russian Orthodox. It worked to our advantage–we are not part of either.”
“In the 17th century, during the era of the Swedish king, people were freed from paying taxes,” he continued. “The way taxes were paid was through doing work for the government. During this time, there were two brothers who lived on either side of the border–one brother had a farm on the Russian side, the other brother had a farm on the Swedish side. They switched every five years so one wouldn’t have to do all the work for the government.”
“Until 1917, before the first Estonian Republic, Setomaa was part of the Russian Empire,” Aare said. “The period between 1917 and 1920 marked the end of the Russian Empire and was a transition period. During these years, the Seto area was under reign for short periods by the Germans and then the Soviets.”
“Being on the border was not good in times of war. The enemies, all the nations who have conquered the territory of Estonia throughout the history—Germans, Polish, Swedes, Lithuanians–did a lot of harm. While the Seto had long lived in territory considered part of Russia, those forces were just as bad, as they had to be given food and shelter, and they took the Seto boys into war,” said Aare. “However, in times of peace the border was good for selling merchandise – you could go to both sides. Also, in border areas in was difficult to have serfdom, as people could just escape across the border. The rulers had to instead attract people with tax reductions, for example.So that made life pretty good.”
As World War I ended favorably for Estonians, they had the right to demand these previously Russian territories. The Setos applied to the government of Estonia when it was founded in 1918 to be united with the Estonian Republic.
In 1939-1940, after 22 years of independence, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. In 1941, Estonia was occupied by Nazi Germany, then reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1944 until Estonia declared re-independence on August 20 1991.
“During the first Estonian republic, the Seto culture started to live again, young people would travel 40-50 kilometers to go to Seto parties,” Aare said. “Church holidays have always been more important to Setos than Estonians–we take three-four days off before the holiday to celebrate, which was not allowed during the Soviet times.”
“In 1939, Seto people living on the Russian side could get an Estonian passport with no restrictions; they just had to prove that their relatives were part of the first Estonian Republic,” he explained. “Five to ten thousand Seto in Russia have Estonian passports and can travel to Estonia—it’s not that complicated.”
“During Soviet times, the collective farms isolated people from each other,” Aare continued. “Even though the geographic area populated by the Seto is not that big, people were isolated as the events that would bring people together weren’t allowed, such as church or outdoor parties called kirmask.”
“There is now a new generation of Seto youth, whose parents have been more involved in cultural activities, since the 1990s,” he said. “The youth have also been involved, they have been at events. While in earlier times the cultural traditions were more directed inwards, practiced in families, then since 1990s it’s more public. There is a lot of public attention like theatre, books, cinema, big events. The media has also had its influence, usually depicting the Setos in a positive way. Also, looking for your roots seems to be trendy in Estonia these days.”
“During the past five or six years, development of the Seto culture has progressed thanks to renewed interest from young people and government support,” Aare said. “In coming years, we have to see if we can keep the culture alive–there is the threat of it not surviving. Young people have left to move to the city–we still see them as part of us and the Kingdom Days allows them to continue to be committed.”
Aare had been generous with his time, and mindful that he was awaiting news on whether he would be allowed to cross the border that day, I said my goodbyes.
Pulling into the driveway of the lodge, I glanced at the dashboard and felt my heart plummet to my stomach. I didn’t need an interpreter to see that the gas gauge was on empty and my jaunts around the Setomaa countryside gave me a pretty strong hunch that filling stations were few and far between.
I went in search of Laivi and explained my predicament. She calmly explained a gas station wasn’t far and, having personally witnessed my propensity to burst into tears at any provocation, she patiently drew me a detailed map, talking me through what I could see were basic instructions.
Feeling heartened, I set off on the final leg of my epic Estonian journey. Pulling out of the driveway, I noticed a figure in the immense field to my right, a carving of a larger-than-life character who seemed to be waving goodbye. I saluted back and sailed off over gentle hills of gold-colored grain waving in the breeze. Miles later, I came to a crossroad and consulted my map. As I turned left, a red light lit upon my dashboard above the gas gauge and I sought to still my quickening pulse with a silent prayer that I would see a gas station around the next bend.
After a few more miles, I again looked at my map, wondering how it could have been possible to miss the “T” in the road that should have appeared by now. Suddenly, the tense silence was broken by the sound of a woman’s voice loudly admonishing me in a clipped British accent “You must get gas immediately!” The completely unexpected advice emanating from the car sent shock waves through my body, which reverberated with fear as if I had been zapped by a stun gun.
Up ahead, I saw a farmhouse and in front of it, a woman emerging from her car. I raced down the street and swerved into the driveway, coming nose-to-nose with her car. I leapt out and motioned her to my car, pointing at the gas gauge and pantomimed filling up the tank. She nodded her head emphatically and then pointed me in the opposite direction of Laivi’s instructions.
I have been known on occasion to solicit so many opinions regarding a big decision that I thoroughly muddle myself; while my current dilemma only involved two dissenting opinions, my angst over which way to go was acute. I resorted to my old strategy of going with the last opinion I had received and as I headed off, my prayers were no longer silent. Soon there was a lively two-way conversation going on—the invisible lady with her proper English accent uttering what sounded like increasingly annoyed commands for me to get gas and, in response, my pleas to God for a gas station, which escalated in volume and urgency with each passing mile.
When I came to another crossroad, my phantom passenger mysteriously went silent, only to soon be replaced with dinging bells which rang in rapid succession. Not to be outdone, my adrenal system surged and I let loose a shriek, screaming “God, help me!”
Immediately, I saw my savior ahead on the side of the road, greeted by his broad backside, with his sagging baggy pants revealing more than I necessarily cared to see. I screeched off the road, startling the heavy man who was filling up the gas tank of his own car from the spout of a huge plastic container. I excitedly waved a fifty Euro note in his face, pointing to my gas tank and he immediately understood. He straightened up, walked over to my car and began to fill up my thirsty tank. Overjoyed, I clasped my hands together and made a little bow, a response I thought more civilized than the hug I wanted to give the bear of a man.
Back in my car and on the road, I shouted a happy ‘thank you’ to the Universe, my answered prayer having filled my spirit with profound gratitude just as the overweight Good Samaritan had replenished my gas tank. I thought of Elina’s promise to me that while life may not always be easy, I would always be under the care of a guardian angel and smiled. The memory of those words and the comfort they brought me have continued to serve me in good stead long after I returned home.
My trek across Estonia and back to Tallinn was uneventful and peaceful. I spent the six-hour drive absorbed in remembering the incredible people I had met, and the wisdom each of them had to offer. Something that Helen said seemed to encapsulate what I had experienced of the Estonian spirit, as well as being a truth that I recognized applied to me personally, if only in a small way.
“Having been an occupied nation helped Estonia develop a strong identity–you need it to survive,” she had told me. “Not just for the Seto, but for Estonia as a whole. The Seto don’t have their own nation, and as a result, their identity is under pressure and so is concentrated. Anything under pressure is stronger.”
A month or two after I returned home, I was delighted to see that I had received an email from Elina’s husband Jryki. Opening it, I found a short note introducing the lyrics of a song he had written for me.
There is a female journalist, who travelled through Estonia
She went to Tartu and Seto Land and listened the sound of harmonica
She went for the night to sanatorium and find that her eyes are wet,
Because the beautiful room she got, has no internet.
And she sang:
“Good bye, good bye sanatorium, I‘ve got to go else somewhere.”
And it took time to understand, that travel itself
Is the best sanatorial care.
We all are kind of journalists, who travel to wonderlands.
We go from places to places, to seek harmony for our hands.
We go for the nights to sanatoriums, and find that our eyes are wet,
Because the beautiful rooms we get, have no internet.
And we sing:
“Good bye, good bye sanatorium we got to go else somewhere.”
And maybe someday we understand, that life itself
Is the best sanatorial care.