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Orthodox Estonians – Seto

The southernmost tip of Estonia and the borderland of Russia form the country of Setomaa. This region is characterized by ethnic and religious distinctiveness. It is inhabited by Orthodox Estonians – Seto, Russians and also some Lutherans which came from Estonia’s north. Close proximity of Latvia causes this region to be a place where Baltic, Finno-Ugric and Slavonic influences come together. The Seto people are of an Estonian ethnographic group, which came under Russian influence and adopted Orthodox Christianity, as opposed to the rest of the society in Estonia which is predominantly Lutheran.

The borderland of two large centers with a very different religious, cultural and mental organization is an announcement of great material for research (as well as a great tourist spot), which allows one to get to know the Seto religiousness and its role in the life of this group. Our interlocutors declared a strong religious affinity. A similar declaration was made by the Seto neighbors who considered them very religious and quite attached to tradition. As it turned out after closer inspection, these declarations were not exactly true.

It is good to note that the Seto, as borderland folk, were known as poluvierniks, which they themselves define as not being part of any of the neighboring religions: Lutheran or Orthodox. The term comes from the XIX century, and has a slight negative connotation. It was given to the Setu by the Russian Orthodox clergy. The ethnonym „Setu”, has a similar meaning, and it probably comes from the Estonian phrase: ej see, ej tuu. It was translated into Russian as meaning: „not Estonian, not Russian”. In this laughable way the Lutheran Estonians referred to the people to Setomaa. Both these terms show that the ethnic, state, as well as the religious aspects were very important in the borderland region, for both the dominant groups as well as the subjugated group. Such places are quite a windfall: the hybrid which would develop from a combination of two very different traditions and cultures might turn out to be a new, interesting standard. However, it is difficult to overlook that which is most noticeable from the beginning. The long-lasting Soviet presence had left very distinct prints on the mentality, economic and political organization, as well as attitude to religion. These memories are quite fresh in all of the former Soviet republics.

People who were subjugated to few generations of indoctrination, cannot cope with their own identity, it can make neither choices nor decisions. Unanimity and supervised management left an inheritance in the shape of inertia of habits and our interlocutors lack criticism or distance to reality, which they feel through their own, current experience. As an effect, there is a characteristic nostalgia, a longing for the times, when everyone was equal i.e. average. An anti-communist attitude is mixed together with the feeling of “paradise lost.” This average ness was also visible in their attitude towards religion.

The history of settlement and the origin of the Seto, which is connected with it still the subject of many arguments. The ethnographer Paul Hagu, of Seto descent, brings into light the voices of researchers who suggest that the group is made up of ancestors of settlers who came in the XVI and XVII centuries from Võrumaa in southern Estonia. Others maintain that these settlers only joined with folk who were already present there. These folk were made up of a tribe (few tribes) of Balto-Finnic peoples who lived in the regions located east of Pskov and Pejpus Lake and who were later russified. In accordance with this theory part of the inhabitants of Setomaa avoided russification thanks to the influx of settlers from southern Estonia, who in time became an independent ethnic group – Seto. The third conception, which is also the most radical, believes that the Seto are a completely independent tribe, which in favorable conditions was able to create its own ethos. . Indrek Jääts, another researcher of this problem, shows two other theories dealing with the origins of the Seto. According to the first of these, the Seto are the ancestors of peasant who fled from feudal oppression in the late Middle Ages or at the beginning of the modern era. According to the second – the Seto have lived in these regions since the very beginning, their forefathers were already here in 3000 BC. Despite the difficulties in establishing the origin of this group, one thing seems certain: they belong to the Finno-Ugric peoples.

Setomaa, which means „the land of the Seto”, is concentrated around Petseri, forming the administrative region Petserimaa. Its geographical borders are the result of historical processes forming modern Estonia and Russia, having thus become borders of cultural, religious and civilization divisions. The fate of Setomaa is the resultant of the history of Estonia and Russia, the history of borderland. Estonia, which prior to 1918 did not have its own state, in the Middle Ages was made up of small church states. In the XI century south-eastern part of present-day Estonia was a fief to the Kievan Grand Duchy and from the XIII century Estonia and Latvia became a goal of German expansion, when tribes of Livonians, Estonians, and Latvians came under the influence of German, Christian missionaries and merchants from the south and Danes from the north. In this way, a new political structure came into being, known later as “Old Livonia”. It was ruled by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and catholic bishops. The newcomers forcefully established a typical social system of that time, themselves forming the upper class, while the local populace remained as peasantry.

The clergy also came from Germany, and the most influential orders of that time who taught in the local language were the Dominicans, Franciscans, Cistercians, and the sisterhood of St. Bridget. At that time towns developed quickly becoming trade and craft centers. Tallin, Tartu, Viljandi, Pärnu were members of the Hanseatic League. The religious revolution also came here without any delay. In the XVI century, Estonian cities were swept up in a wave of reformation, shaping their religious structure according to German pattern. Up to this day Estonia remains a predominantly Lutheran country. Russian influences in modern day Estonia are connected with Russian expansion towards the Baltic Sea. The oldest part of their common history is connected with the military expedition of Yaroslav the Wise. In the XI century he conquered the south-eastern part of Estonia, establishing the city of Yuryev in 1030 (present-day Tartu). At that time first Christian Orthodox churches were built in the city, despite the fact that up to the XIII century Estonia remained almost completely pagan. Estonians reclaimed this land in 1061. When in the beginning of the XIII century German feudal lords conquered Estonia, the border between Old Livonia and Ruthenian duchies became more stabilized. It separated Setomaa from Estonia, but also served as a connector between two civilizations: Catholic (from the XVI century Protestant) in the west and Orthodox which was dominant in the east. When in the beginning of the XVIII century all of Estonia became part of the Russian Empire, the border between Estonia and Setomaa disappeared, yet the civilization barrier remained. At the same time the geographical frames of this division traced the borders of Setomaa: in the XIII century the border between properties of German and Novgorodian magnates ran along the Mädajőgi river and further up reached the river Piusa, therefore leaving Setomaa-Petserimaa on its eastern bank. After the fall of Novgorod it became part of Muscovite land as part of the Pskovian District and for the next centuries the rivers Mädajőgi and Piusa made up the western border of Russia, which disappeared in the XVIII century when Russia conquered the rest of Estonian lands. However, the regional border as well as the division between western and eastern Christianity remained. Yet according to some researchers, this division was artificial, and the influence of the Orthodox Church was superficial, due in large part to a language barrier. Probably because of this the Seto culture kept many archaic and pre-Christian elements. Officially, however, the people of Pesterimma – the Seto, fell under the influence of Russian culture and the Orthodox Church. From the time of its establishment in 1473, the monastery in Petseri became an important base for Russian religion and politics.

This is only a very general description of the history of influences in Setomaa. The Seto themselves, especially those, who are in favor of autonomy of their region, are very radical in their definition of the historical framework of religious identity of Setomaa. There is an existing idea which says that the Seto accepted Orthodox Christianity in 988, during the baptism of Kievan Rus, however in is not very probable. It is known though, that the date of the founding of the monastery in Petseri (1473) is the latest possible moment for Christianization of the Seto. The historian, Aare Hőrn, a Seto who is engaged in the search for his region’s identity, is the author of a treatise talking about the influence of Orthodox Christianity on Setomaa. According to him the beginnings are somewhere between X-XV centuries in Irborsk, located in south-eastern part of Setomaa, in what today is Russia. It was the main cultural center for the Seto. It is from there that Orthodox Christianity spread to further regions eliminating old beliefs. The first Orthodox church and monastery were established in Irborsk in the XIII century. In 1473, the strongest religious center in the region is established, the monastery in Petseri, whose spiritual, material, political and military significance reached the furthest parts of Setomaa. The position of Orthodox Christianity was further strengthened especially in the XVII and XVIII centuries when the local language – the Seto dialect, was introduced into the liturgy. At the same time old traditions were still alive, but in hiding. Some, especially, burial ceremonies became part of the Orthodox tradition. Despite the fact that Orthodox ceremony took in many pre-Christian elements and the Seto culture is not the exception here, it is often pointed out that syncretism is typical to the Seto religiousness. At the same time, actions were taken to uproot, pre-Christian remains in the Seto tradition. As inefficient as it was this policy helped stabilize the position of Orthodox Christianity. In the 20’s and 30’s of the XX century the clergy and the language of the liturgy became completely estonized – in the seminary in the Petseri monastery, the Seto clergy was educated in Estonian. The Estonian psyche was deeply affected by World War II and the loss of independence. Orthodox priests were exiled to Siberia or executed, the normal activity of the Orthodox Church was unsettled or in some places made impossible.


Translator: Szczepan Witaszek

About Agata Ładykowska