The Seto Way

Setomaa's native people, the Setos, have a culture that incorporates a mix of Old Estonian and Russian traditions. 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, like the rest of Estonia was.

They never fully assimilated into Russian culture and throughout the centuries retained their language, many features of which are actually closer in structure to Old Estonian than the modern Estonian language (Seto is the spelling in the local language; Northern Estonians use Setu). The same goes for certain pagan traditions that linger, for instance, leaving food on a relative’s grave; this was a common Estonian practice before the German crusaders brought Christianity on the point of a sword.

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. While efforts have been 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.

There are 12,600 Seto speakers in Estonia, with only around 3000 of these still residing in Estonian Setomaa. As Setos on the Russian side of the border are entitled to Estonian citizenship based on the pre-USSR border, almost all of the Russian Setos have chosen to move to Estonia. It's estimated that less than 200 remain on the Russian side of the border, meaning that many now require a passport to visit the churches and graves of their ancestors.

A cursory 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 farmhouses are positioned as far as possible from each other. 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 apart is their singing style. Setomaa is particularly known for its female 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 evokes great antiquity.

A cult of Peko, a pagan harvest god, has managed to coexist alongside the Orthodox religion, although the Seto tend to refer to him more as a kingly figure. The 8000-line Seto epic Pekolanõ tells the tale of this macho god, the rites of whom are known only to men. The epic dates back to 1927 when the Setos’ most celebrated folk singer, Anne Vabarna, was told the plot and spontaneously burst into song, barely pausing to draw breath until she had sung the last (8000th) line.

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