Estonia is allegedly a small country, but our life has been spent between three points: Tallinn, Tartu, and Karksi-Nuia. I have been to Kuressaare and Kärdla and Pärnu and Paide and Rakvere. But never to the big “cities” of Ida-Virumaa county, and never to the swath of land from Paide to Haapsalu.
I’d also, until this past week, never been to the southeastern most corner of Estonia, the home of the Orthodox, Finno-Ugric Setu people, save a road trip last summer. I am not sure how long a person has to be in a place to understand it or even claim to have been there. I once spent a night in a Warsaw airport hotel. I ate dumplings and drank black current juice and learned how to say dzien kuje, but I never try to pass it off as having visited Poland. This time, though, I think I can finally say that I have visited Setomaa, as it is called.
Our friends Mart and Helen have a summer place there, and after attending an ökofestival in Põlva, we traveled down to the hamlet of Obinitsa, just a few clicks from the Russian border. Borders are interesting things. Some are natural. The Pyrenees cleave Spain from France. More locally, the Narva river delineates Estonia from Russia. But in the southeastern part of this country, rivers and streams and bogs and thick forests abound. Where to draw the line? At orthodoxy? At tongue? At travel artery?
Estonian place names are everywhere. Every little clump of houses set between the knolls and fields of south Estonia has a name. You can literally walk from one tiny settlement to the other and claimed to have visited with in 20 minutes Hilana, Miku, Vasla, and Talka, Estonia. I am not quite sure where in relation to the real Obinitsa Mart and Helen’s summer house was located, but it was up a dirt road from many of these places.
There is no sea in Setomaa, but the endless fields act as a sea; one can stand on the edge of a field and feel as if they were standing on a beach, watching waves of oat shimmy in the wind. Mart and Helen’s home sat adjacent to these fields. It’s a wooden house, built perhaps early in the 20th century or even before that.
The Orthodox religion is one of the main differentiators between Estonia proper and Setomaa. Helen explained that Seto homes always have an ikooninulk — a corner where Orthodox icons of the virgin and child are hung, typically framed by a Seto cloth embroidered with folk patterns.
Mart is the family member with the links to Setomaa. Mart is both a typical and atypical Estonian man. He’s typical in that he is calm, peaceful, deliberate in his movements, mostly quiet, and knowledgeable about the inner mechanics of the ahi and the smoke sauna.
He is atypical in that he teaches conservation biology, and he taught me a new word that I should know by now — taimed [plants]. And despite the ease with which he moves around, he was also very friendly and untroubled by the mess of having visitors with a curious child in tow. Some Estonians are just not there; totally inaccessible. Mart was there. He even gave me some homemade rye vodka, which hit my nerves with the force of a giant exclamation point ! after I swallowed the shot.
“You’re not driving home tonight,” he said. “This is 50 percent alcohol.”*
Mart’s family story is indicative of the collective Seto angst. When all other Estonians celebrated the restoration of independence by getting back their pre-war properties that had been confiscated by the Soviet state, Mart’s inheritance sat several kilometers away in Petseri, a decently sized country town that was Estonian from 1920 to 1940 and part of Russia since Stalin lifted it from the freshly re-occupied Estonian SSR in 1944.
Being so close to the border, the unfairness of having to obtain a visa to visit what still is a very important cultural center for Seto people is tangible. Seto live on both sides of the border, and Seto traditions requires that they visit their relatives’ graves, partake in singing festivals, et cetera. Most Estonians have probably come to grips with the loss of Petseri. The border agreement ratified by the Estonian state with Russia in 2005 abandoned claims to the city. But the Estonians are not happy about it. Perhaps it is similar to Russia’s feelings towards the Crimea, only on a much tinier, Estonian scale.
If Mart is the one with the Seto roots, then Helen is the Seto enthusiast. She is actually from Tallinn, but got sucked into south Estonian cultural life while at Tartu University. Setos have the interesting habit of putting their family name first, even in writing. Estonians do this as well, but it’s strictly colloquial. Someone might refer to a neighbor in Estonia proper as “Mustkivi Piret” to differentiate her from Pirets belonging to other families, but at the bank she’s “Piret Mustkivi.” In Seto magazines, though, an article attributed to Ms. Mustkivi would have “Mustkivi Piret” as the byline.
Helen explained these nuances and more as her children played on the wooden floor of their Obinitsa home. “Suvila” — summer cottage — actually seems like the wrong word in this situation. It denotes comfort. But the Obinitsa house is more like roughing it. There’s no running water, which means you go outside to visit the outhouse or to bring in a bucket of well water for morning coffee.
Our breakfast of tangupuder was warmed in the heat of the vene ahi — the “Russian furnace” — different from typical Estonian furnaces in that there were brick steps behind it that led to a nook where a cold Seto couple could curl up on top of the warm furnace in wintertime and presumably conceive more Setos, if the need arose.
As previously mentioned, the fact that Petseri is not in Estonia leads to some complications. A main, possibly well-paved road led straight from Obinitsa through Petseri up to Värska, our Sunday destination. Instead, we had to take some side roads to make our way to Värska without encountering the Russian border police.
We went to Värska because it’s interesting, because it’s the last real town before the Russian border, because wonderful mineral water is bottled there, and because it’s where my wife Epp’s grandfather Karl was born and baptized into the Orthodox faith.
I think Värska is an aesthetically pleasing place. It straddles a bay — the Värska laht — and most of the homes along the road are in good shape. Epp phoned her grandfather, a former veterinarian, who gave her an overview of his itinerant childhood. He was born in Värska in 1928, and his father owned an apteek across from the Värska Orthodox church. However, at some point, they relocated to Saatse down the road, literally the last Estonian settlement before Russia in the far southeastern nook of the country.
To get from Värska to Saatse, you have to travel down a stretch of dirt road called the Saatse saabas or “Saatse boot” where you literally cross a sliver of Russian territory for eight or so minutes before rejoining Estonian territory. There’s no border check, but you are advised not to exit your car. We looked for a sign along the road that said “Welcome to the Russian Federation” with maybe a big billboard of Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin giving passersby the thumbs up, but instead we saw border posts painted red and green with odd combinations of Cyrillic lettering and numbers on top.
I was half expecting the Russian border police to come zooming out the woods with machine guns fixed. “Are you the one,” they would demand in broken English, “who inferred that Foreign Minister Lavrov refers to Prime Minister Putin as ‘honey‘?!” Instead I saw people who pretty much looked like Estonians picking berries in the woods towards the end of the boot. Maybe Russia isn’t so different after all.
In Saatse we approached the house where grandpa Karl lived as a boy in the 1930s and his traveling father Alexander kept a store. It was across from an Orthodox church, and I could hear music coming from inside its onion domes. Believe it or not, I had never been to an Orthodox cemetery before. At least not one like the one in Saatse. From hundreds of different tombstones the black and white portraits of the deceased stared back at me. Unsurprisingly, none of the dead were smiling.
We went inside the church, smoky and dark with the golds and reds of Orthodox art reflecting the glare of the service candles. A group of people stood around a bearded priest who chanted forth incantations in Estonian. Yes, even here, despite the onion-domes and Cyrillic tombstones and portraits of the dead, we were still in Estonia. Epp blessed herself and insisted that I do it too. But we then noticed people looking at us, and we left. She told me later that she should have had her head covered before entering the church.
When we rolled out of Saatse, I think we both felt that we were returning from one of the ends of the earth, or at least meie väike eesti maa.
* He said ‘kraadi’, which I originally translated as ‘proof.’