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Introducing Setomaa

In the far southeast of Estonia lies the (politically unrecognised) area of Setomaa (this is the spelling in the local language; non-Seto Estonians use Setumaa and Setu), stretching over into Russia. It’s one of the most interesting and tragic areas of the country, politically and culturally. Its native people, the Setos, have a mixed Estonian-Russian culture. Like the Estonians they are of Finno-Ugric origin, but the people became Orthodox, not Lutheran, because this part of the country fell under the subjugation of Novgorod and later Pihkva (Russian: Pskov) and was not controlled by German barons, as was the rest of Estonia. They never fully assimilated into Russian culture and throughout the centuries retained their language (today known as Võro-Seto), many features of which are actually closer in structure to Old Estonian than the modern Estonian language. The same goes for certain cultural traditions, for instance leaving food on a relative’s grave; this was practised by Estonian tribes before Lutheranism.

All of Setomaa was contained within independent Estonia between 1920 and 1940, but the greater part of it is now in Russia. The town of Pechory (Petseri in Estonian), 2km across the border in Russia and regarded as the ‘capital’ of Setomaa, is famed for its fabulous 15th-century monastery, considered one of the most breathtaking in Russia.

Today the Seto culture looks to be in a slow process of decline. There are approximately 4000 Setos in Estonia (and another 3000 in Russia), which is half the population of the early 20th century. While efforts are made to teach and preserve the language, and promote customs through organised feasts, the younger generation is being quickly assimilated into the Estonian mainstream. The impenetrable border with Russia that has split their community since 1991 has further crippled it.

A rough look at the Seto landscape illustrates how unique it is in the Estonian context. Notably, their villages are structured like castles, with houses facing each other in clusters, often surrounded by a fence. This is in stark contrast to the typical Estonian village where open farmhouses are separated from each other as far as possible. Here, the Orthodox tradition has fostered a tighter sense of community and sociability.

Aside from the large silver breastplate that is worn on the women’s national costume, what sets the Seto aside is their singing style. Setomaa is particularly known for its women folk singers who improvise new words each time they chant their verses. Seto songs, known as leelo, are polyphonic and characterised by solo, spoken verses followed by a refrain chanted by a chorus. There is no musical accompaniment and the overall effect is archaic.

Information on the region can be found online at www.setomaa.ee.