YOU ARE ENTERING THE TERRITORY OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION!
Yeah, so we technically veered into Russia without a visa a couple of times during our visit to the Setomaa region of Estonia, but someone tell my mom it was okay because we didn’t stop the car.
Swerving through national borders: that’s a pretty good introduction to the complexity of Seto culture in the region covering southeastern Estonia and northwestern Russia.
We started our visit to Setomaa in Värska where our guide Helen met us shortly after we got off our bus. Our first stop was at a Seto farm turned museum.
The Seto people are native to this region, with their own language and architecture that reflects the tight knit culture. Traditionally they lived in clusters of buildings inside of a sort of courtyard. They often had fancy gates like this.
Don’t you love the thatched roof?
An oven is at the center of the living quarters. As you can imagine in country with cold winters, a spot close to the oven was a coveted place to sleep.
After the farm we stopped at a “pop up café”— these are homes where locals cook for guests part of the year. Our hostess presented us with a lovely spread of homemade bread, smoked ham, jams and pickles.
The dish that looks like polenta is sõir, a Seto specialty which is kind of like warm cottage cheese but better.
Unlike the rest of Estonia, which is largely either non-religious or Lutheran, the Setos are Orthodox Christian.
The Orthodox practice in Setomaa is unique. This charming Madonna icon inside Paraskeva’s Church, for example, is decorated with the traditional silver necklace worn by Seto women.
Pagan practices are intermixed with the Orthodox in Seto. The god Peko, seen here in a recently made sculpture, is both a harvest god and a folk hero honored in a yearly festival
We had the chance to participate in Seto religious customs thanks to Helen, who took us to a feast day celebration in honor of St. Mary at a chapel in the village of Laossina.
Following a service, the people of the village laid out picnics on the graves of their ancestors and hung out there, snacking, chatting, and chasing toddlers around. The nice people we met offered HOB local wine and we ate herring on buttered bread. The priest went about from grave to grave, eating, drinking and praying with each family. (The poor guy was probably awake for three days after all the coffee he gulped down.)
Visiting and maintaining ancestral gravesites is essential to Seto culture. The Estonian/Russian border, however, can make this tradition a challenge. A Seto family might live in Russia, but their ancestral graves are a few kilometers away just inside of Estonia. They need to care for the gravesites but in order to do so, they have to pay for an expensive visa and can only enter through an approved border crossing 100 kilometers away and only then on a few pre-approved days of the year.
The gravesite snacking migrated over to a nearby area with a fire pit, where a man started putting together a giant lamb stew over the fire. He is wearing a traditional embroidered shirt—-you can’t see how the shirt is belted because the table is in the way, but the side where the belt is knotted indicates whether the man is married or (k)not.
This man—clearly because he is an excellent cook—is already spoken for: sorry ladies.
While the lamb stew bubbled over the fire, we took a walk though the nearby village of Lüübnitsa. On the upper left you can see a bit of Lake Pskov. The other side of the lake is—you guessed it—Russia.
Lüübnitsa is known for growing onions. Helen bought some from a woman stringing them together in her garage.
When we returned to Laossina we found some of the people singing in a circle. This form of singing, called Seto Leelo, was what had attracted me to the Seto culture in the first place. Seto Leelo, recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage practice, is a form of polyphonic signing from mostly Seto women.
It was quite a privilege to hear this gorgeous singing up close. As far as I can understand, each woman takes her turn introducing the song and the rest join in to repeat the chorus. I believe there is a fair amount of improvisation involved and of course, the songs are sung in the Seto language.
(One of the singers in the video—the lady with the tan jacket—was our excellent guide Helen).
I’ve never been anywhere where people aren’t proud of their cultural heritage. People around the world are savvy, self-aware and friendly (like the residents of Laossina who kindly allowed us to crash their feast day festivities). The Seto people, however, are exceptional in their fierce dedication to preserving their cultural traditions. All of the (super cute) kids seem to be taking Seto music lessons. People are knitting, embroidering and making homemade wine. Those families who live and work outside of Setomaa return to the area during the summer and live in traditional homes with outdoor smoke saunas. Contests and festivals reward those who retain the language and embrace traditional practices. Keeping this culture alive is going to be a struggle, especially due to the Russia/Estonia border, but if anyone can do it the Setos can.
Värska, the town where we stayed the night, is known for its mineral water so we bought a bottle. Since I can’t sleep, I stayed up reading in bed and took a weirdly beautiful picture with my book light projecting the green bottle of mineral water over the sleeping form of HOB.