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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dwindling Seto Numbers Feel Estonia's Pull

MTA grave marker in Pechory's combined Russian-Estonian-Seto cemetery. The census held in 2002 registered a mere 197 ethnic Setos in the whole of Russia.
PECHORY, Pskov Region — Helju Majak is among the last of her people to remain in Russia. Even her two younger sisters now live across the Estonian border, just a few kilometers away.

Majak is one of the Setos, sometimes spelled Setu, a tiny ethnic group of about 15,000 that has lived for centuries in this borderland but has been gradually vanishing from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Setos speak a language related to Finnish and Estonian, elect a ceremonial "king" every year and tell stories about their ancient fertility god, Peko, who was worshiped in pagan rituals conducted side by side with Orthodox church services until the late 1950s.

Today, only about 300 mostly elderly Setos remain in Russia, said Majak, who heads a Seto community organization in the Pechory district.

"Some people leave simply to be closer to their children," she said. "Some are too old and can't take care of themselves anymore. Many have died, and there aren't many young people left."

Russia's 2002 census arrived at an even smaller number: That year, there were only 197 members of the "Estonian-Seto" nationality in Russia, according to the census, which classified Setos as a subset of Estonians.

That classification rankles Setos, who insist that they are a separate nationality with a distinct language and culture of their own. "[Seto culture] is neither Russian nor Estonian," Majak said. "It is completely unique and different."

In recent years, Estonia has been courting the Seto population away from Russia. Tallinn has supported efforts to revive Seto culture, as well as a relocation program that helped move about 200 Setos to the country from Russia earlier this decade.

But many more Setos have moved because of Tallinn's policy of issuing passports to anyone descended from citizens of the pre-World War II Estonian republic.

During the first period of Estonian independence, which lasted from 1918 to 1939, the Pechory district — regarded by Setos as their heartland — was part of Estonia, which means that Tallinn has issued passports to thousands of Pechory residents, who now have dual citizenship and can cross the border freely.

In May, a Russian official accused Tallinn of using this policy as part of a creeping effort to re-establish Estonian control of the Pechory district. In a long-running dispute, Tallinn says it deserves the district because of the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, even though Moscow has governed the area since Stalin approved a redrawing of the Russian-Estonian administrative border in 1944.

"The Estonian authorities are actively expanding their political, economic, social and information influence in the Pechory district," Ivan Bobryashov, head of the Federal Security Service's border guard in Pskov, told reporters, Interfax reported.

Bobryashov said 10,000 Russians had been granted Estonian passports since 1992. He added that young men were serving in the army of Estonia — a NATO member — to avoid serving in the Russian army, which does not admit anyone who has served in the army of a foreign state.

Alexander Osipovich / MT
Children playing at Pechory School No. 2, the only primary school in Russia teaching in Russian, Estonian and Seto.

Curiously, the Estonian policy that Bobryashov criticized is similar to the Russian policy of issuing passports to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.

The Georgian government has charged that giving Russian passports to Abkhaz and South Ossetians amounts to creeping Russian annexation of the two breakaway republics, which have close ties to Moscow.

For many Setos, an Estonian passport is a ticket to greater opportunities. Majak said younger Setos often settled in the Baltic nation after going to universities there. "They moved to Estonia to continue their education and ended up starting families," she said.

While Seto history has yet to be thoroughly researched, the Setos themselves say their lands have been inhabited for more than 8,000 years. They came under Russian rule in 862 and converted to Orthodox Christianity in the centuries afterward, according to, a Seto web site.

The Setos' Orthodox faith is one of the main features that distinguish them from their Estonian neighbors, who are predominantly Lutheran.

But Setos have traditionally practiced the Orthodox religion along with pre-Christian rituals dedicated to Peko, who is variously described as a fertility god and as the first king of the Seto people.

Peko is said to be buried — or sometimes just "sleeping" — in the Pskov-Pechorsky Monastery, a 14th-century monastery in Pechory revered by Setos as well as many Russians. Peko is the also subject of epic songs that were first recorded in the early 20th century, when scholars first turned their attention to Seto culture.

Although traditional Peko-worship has largely died out, some practices remain, such as placing offerings of coins on certain rocks and the annual election of the ceremonial Seto king, said to be Peko's deputy.

"There is a legend that Peko is sleeping in the Pechory monastery and that he will come back when times get very bad, when there will be a big war and other calamities," Aare HЪrn, the current Seto king, said by telephone from Estonia.

Alexander Osipovich / MT
Pechory School No. 2 director Svetlana Rakuta holding out a Seto flag.

"We do not want to disturb Peko, so every year we choose a deputy for him who can sense what Peko wants his people to do," he added.

HЪrn conceded that his role was purely ceremonial, although he said he carries some weight in the Estonian government.

"One minister told me that he would always answer my phone calls because he would see that the Seto king was calling," he said.

Tallinn has not always been so friendly to the Setos. In the interwar period, the independent Estonian republic pushed them toward assimilation, forcing many children to study Estonian rather than the Seto language in school.

"The general opinion in the Estonian republic was that Setos were illiterate, poor and needed help," HЪrn said.

But the worst years for the Setos were in the decades of Soviet rule. "The most serious pressure came in the 1960s, when Khrushchev stepped up the campaign against religious believers," the king said.

The last known traditional Peko-worshiping rites were held in the late 1950s, HЪrn said, although a revival of Seto culture began in the late 1970s, when some younger Setos who had received higher educations in Soviet Estonia returned to their home villages, determined to stop the fading of Seto identity.

Now there are a variety of Seto institutions, including a Seto congress that meets every few years and a Seto-language newspaper, called Setomaa.

But these are all in Estonia. On the Russian side of the border, the development of Seto institutions has been hampered by the fact that there are so few of the people left.

One place where Seto culture has not been forgotten is in Pechory School No. 2, the only primary school in Russia that offers classes in the Russian, Estonian and Seto languages. Majak, the Seto community leader, said she and many other Setos had studied at the school and still gathered for reunions.

But today, there are no full-blooded Seto children enrolled in Pechory School No. 2, although there are a few with mixed, partially Seto backgrounds, said Svetlana Rakuta, the school's director.

She described the school as an island of tolerance. "Our kids don't really make a distinction about who's Russian, who's Estonian and who's Seto," Rakuta said.

Perhaps a bit belatedly, the Russian government is sponsoring a Seto cultural festival for the first time this year.

The two-day festival of singing, folk dancing and bonfires — scheduled to take place Aug. 27 and 28 in Pechory and the nearby village of Sigovo — has the backing of the Regional Development Ministry. Previous events have had the support of the Pskov regional government but never that of the authorities in Moscow.

Some Russians in the Pskov region express regret at the disappearance of their Seto neighbors.

"Twenty years ago, there were full-blooded Seto villages where people walked around in their national costumes," said Yury Strekalovsky, a journalist who writes about culture for the Pskov-based newspaper Pskovskaya Guberniya.

"It wasn't a masquerade," he said. "It was the real thing."