Russian Old Believers in Estonia

11 communities of Russian Old Believers (starovery) remain within the borders of modern Estonia. Nine of these are situated around the lake known in Estonian as Peipsi järv and to the Russians as Chudskoe: Kallaste, Kasepää, Kolkja (two parishes), Kükita, Mustvee, Piirissaar, Raja and Varnja. These are the Prichudie (“by Chudskoe”) parishes (there are, in addition, smaller settlements without a parish church). The other two communities are in the Estonian capital Tallinn and in the university town of Tartu.

Like the Amish in America, the Old Believers are a throwback to an earlier age, maintaining a life of simplicity and religious observance. Those in Estonia arrived in the late C17th, from cities such as Moscow and Novgorod, following persecution in the Russian heartland. An early monastery was established at Räpina but was destroyed in 1719. Persecution sought out the Old Believers again during the reign of the reactionary autocrat Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) and there was pressure to conform to the Russian Orthodox Church: Old Believers were forbidden to baptise, marry or bury according to their own rites. They were not officially recognised and tolerated until a religious freedom act of 1905.

The Prichudie communities were largely self-contained but had connections with co-religionists in, for example, Pskov and Moscow, and in Rīga and Vilnius. The inter-War independence of Estonia, and the drawing of an international border north to south bisecting Peipsi, made communication with communities in Soviet Russia difficult. The annexation of Estonia into the militantly atheist USSR created greater problems – for example, many Old Believers were deported to Siberia in March 1949, although some were able to return after the Thaw following the death of Stalin in 1953. Yet the Old Believers and their customs survived the turmoil of C20th and remain largely intact today in their fishing and onion-growing villages on the edge of Lake Peipsi in re-independent Estonia.

There is of course, as well as a population in Russia, an Old Believer diaspora abroad, in Canada, USA and Australia, established in the C19th and C20th. However, because of the various doctrinaire schisms within the starovery themselves, it is not clear how these often discrete communities are inter-related in family history terms and how many, if any, of these have direct kinship with the Estonian population. Records in state archives in Tartu and Tallinn appear to be extensive and there would seem to be good prospects for family history research for anyone knowing or believing themselves to have roots in this small but fascinating community.

The Google Map shows both the parishes and the Old Believer settlements without parish status.

 

The original version of this blog appeared on the bluebirdresearch site in 2010.

Setomaa – Seto communities in Estonia

Setomaa is a land that does not exist on maps, inhabited by the Seto, or Setu, a small nation which is both threatened by assimilation and experiencing something of a cultural renaissance.

It is divided by the border between Estonia and Russia.

On the Estonian side, the Seto live in Mikitimäe and Värska parishes in Põlvamaa, and in Meremäe and Misso parishes in Võrumaa. A traditional Seto settlement differs from an archetypal Estonian settlement in being a compact or linear village rather than a looser cluster of scattered dwellings and farmsteads. Also, the Seto are Russian Orthodox, rather than the typical Lutheran religion of Estonia, and worship in a distinctive wooden chapel known as a tsässon.

On the Russian side, the Seto live mainly between the towns of Petseri (Pechory in Russian) and Irboska (Izborsk in Russian), which lie on the western edge of Pskov oblast, part of the Northwestern Federal Okrug of Russia. The Seto are a recognised minority in Russia but this does not prevent assimilation. According to the 2002 census, only 197 Russian citizens declared themselves to be of Seto nationality (there were also some 28,113 Estonians). It is of course likely that some Seto stated that they were Estonian, or indeed Russian, or chose not to declare any nationality.

During Estonia’s first period of independence, from 1920 to 1940, however, before the German and then the Soviet occupation, all of Setomaa was in Estonia, in the then county of Petserimaa with its county town at Petseri. Petseri grew up around its monastery (now known as the Pskovo-Pechersky Dormition Monastery) which, as well as being the major landowner in Setomaa, was the spiritual centre of Russian Orthodoxy among the Seto.

Previously, before WW1, all of Setomaa was in the Pskov gubernia of the Russian Empire. For this reason, the population here did not acquire surnames as the Estonians did during the period from the 1810s to the 1830s. I have read that the Seto did not take surnames until 1921, before then using a simple Russian style combination of forename and otchestvo (patronymic). This date seems late but may well be true. After all, looking further west, not all Swedes had a surname as such until the Släktnamnslagen 1901 made fixed family names compulsory.

There must be a Seto diaspora. Possibly, it will be concentrated in Siberia and elsewhere across Russia, rather than in Australia, North America and Scandinavia. Presumably, Seto would have been among the June 1941 and March 1949 Soviet deportations of Estonians to Siberia and the descendants of those who survived and have not returned to Estonia might now live in the Ural and in the regions of Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk and Omsk in Siberia.

The Google Map shows the small communities in Estonia where the Seto reside – most of the mapped place names possess a tsässon, often of very modest dimensions. The two red pins indicate places on the Russian side of the border with known Seto residents; it is of course probable that Seto live silently in other places adjacent to Estonia.

 

A version of this blog was first posted on the bluebirdresearch website in 2010.