Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Radajal festival of the Seto people    Source: Ivo Kruusamägi / CC BY-SA 4.0

Border Change Causes Cultural Destruction of the Seto People

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Estonia-Russian border controls are actively “tearing apart” the ancestral traditions of the Seto people.

Seto people are an indigenous Finno-Ugric ethnic and linguistic minority inhabiting south-eastern Estonia and north-western Russia. Now totaling a population of between 10 to 15,000 around the world,  prior to AD 600 the whole of Setomaa, a traditional region that straddles Estonia and Russia, was within the vast northern Finnic lands, until the Estonians’ forced conversion into Catholicism in the 13th century. The Seto remained pagan until the 15th century when they converted into Orthodox Christianity mixed with elements of their traditional beliefs.

The Setos’ ancestral territory extends around 17,000 sq km (6,550 sq m), spanning the modern nations of south-eastern Estonia, with at least two-thirds in Russia's Pskov Oblast region. Their culture is built on a god called King Peko who governs crop fertility and harvests. The Seto community leader Oie Sarv, who lives in Setomaa, recently told the BBC that changes in Russian border policies are destroying all of the above listed cultural facets and are “cutting through” her ancestral roots with the border being increasingly difficult for Setos to cross.

Bridge To The Otherside

According to a DeepBaltic article, Setomaa was part of the Russian Empire until Estonia's independence in 1918 which inspired the 1920 Treaty of Tartu demarcating the two states. At that time Setomaa was ceded to Estonia which came under Soviet occupation after World War Two and after Estonia's independence was restored in 1991 a new border split Seto communities, farms, churches and ancestral burial grounds.

A visa agreement between the EU and Russia made it easy for Setos to cross the border but since the beginning of 2018 Russian border authorities have restricted the number of visas issued. Furthermore, over the last few years the increasing difficulties for families and business owners wishing to cross between the two countries have caused many families to move away leaving strings of “ghost villages” which in some cases have fewer that 10 inhabitants.

Seto lady from Estonia in a national costume. (Ivo Kruusamägi / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Seto lady from Estonia in a national costume. (Ivo Kruusamägi / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Russia Plays Hard Ball On The Setos

Around 4,000 people live on the remaining Seto lands in Estonia, with just 300 in Russia, and a crucial ancestral custom is the visiting of deceased family member’s gravesites. Helen Kulvik, a tour guide and co-leader of the Seto Institute, told the BBC that “the soil and place matter” and community leader Oie Sarv said to the Setos the border issue is like “having their roots severed.”

When Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, border crossing started to become more complicated and required a “Cultural relations visa” issued officially for museum and school visits and for artistic performances, Andy Karjus, a visa co-ordinator for south-eastern Estonia, said that “unofficially” these visas were also used by many people to visit “family, friends and graveyards.” This system worked well until the beginning of 2018 when the Russian consulate began asking for extra forms of personal identification, including references from cultural group leaders, and evidence of those groups' official registration, which is all contrary to the EU-Russia agreement stating only “a letter of invitation was required.”

Setos in Radaja Seto Festival in 2016. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Setos in Radaja Seto Festival in 2016. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Putting the border changes in context, Mr Karjus said, traditionally, around 2,000 cultural relations visas were issued per year but in 2019 that number was 430, with an escalation in the last quarter of 2019 when all multiple-entry visas applications made through the visa co-ordination service were rejected by Russia. This extreme action is thought not to be racist, but more probably because the EU agreement states this type of visa must be free, meaning the visa process has been tightened up by Russia and this has caused many Setomaa residents to give up applying for cultural visas: hence, “severing their roots.”

Every year the Seto choose an Earthly steward representing King Peko from a list of local activists, politicians, entrepreneurs and scholars, but maybe it’s time to put a radical leader in their throne of god, someone with the will to stand up to Mr Putin, if such a person exists, that is.

Top image: Radajal festival of the Seto people    Source: Ivo Kruusamägi / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ashley Cowie

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

Next article