karmoška plahvatus

It’s a human being out of his element. A hangover the day after consuming handsa homemade vodka. An awkward dialogue in a shop with a clerk who speaks Seto, a tongue that could either be a dialect of Estonian or a language in its own right — the jury’s still out, and the arguments yea and nay are inherently political.

I am an adaptive type, but when in Setomaa, I sometimes feel like I am being pushed and pulled, squeezed back and forth like a local musician’s karmoška. I don’t know what I am doing, I don’t know where I am going, and I have absolutely no idea what they are saying. Setomaa. It’s a completely foreign place to me, and I say that as an American who lives in Estonia.

Where is Setomaa? Setomaa is a sliver of land that straddles the Estonian-Russian border. The shape of the land is one of thick forests, sea-like fields, and rolling hills. Setomaa is different. It feels wild, untamed, while much of Estonia has a bit of a royal hunting grounds aesthetic, with its orderly fields and state forests. The official point of demarcation between Lutheran Eestimaa and Orthodox Setomaa is the Piusa river, which, coincidentally, runs about a kilometer northwest from our country house. Offically, we are on the Seto side but the border here and between Estonia and Russia in general is like most borders, porous, impossible to truly delineate, populated by bilinguids and free thinkers, people who are used to saluting contrasting regimes.

I would add that Setomaa is the forgotten backyard of both Estonia and Russia. Politicians go there to scare up extra votes and maybe indulge themselves in its cultural idiosyncrasies, but the region is of little real geopolitical significance; there is no oil shale, no ice-free harbor, no gold. While Estonia is led by Tallinn, which is shy of 300 kilometers northwest from Setomaa, Russia is led by Moscow, which is about a thousand kilometers away. Setomaa itself is, forgive me, devoid of significant human development. There are no gas stations, for instance, between Värska, on Lake Pihkva/Pskov in the east, and Vastseliina, at one time a frontier outpost of the Teutonic Order on the west, nor are there major opportunities to procure material goods. Instead, you will find small “villages” of farms, and sometimes even just three families will comprise a village. And in these villages live Seto people, who are not Estonians.

To be an Estonian these days means increasingly to simply hold Estonian nationality. To be an Estonian, one must own the latest technology, consume the domestically produced products, and be attentive to the national debates as broadcast from Tallinn. The Estonian language, once a great source of ethnic pride, has become commoditized, generic. It’s the language of politics, of economics, of sweepstakes and one-time offers and lotto jackpots. If archaic Seto language is homemade apple juice in a jar, then Estonian language is a multivitamin fluorescent fruit drink in a plastic bottle. If Seto is a choir of old ladies singing runo songs in Obinitsa, Estonian is a topless DJ spinning electronic beats in Pärnu. The Estonians are from the Skype-struck future. The Setos themselves are from somewhere that seems vaguely like the past. And who are these Seto people anyway?

They are goddamn party animals. I am sure they would like to put on like they are hardworking types, the real salt of the earth, but for every hammer lifted in Setomaa, several liters of handsa vodka are consumed. For every fence mended, several loaves of local sõir, a soft cheese spiced with caraway seeds, are digested. If there is an opportunity for Setos to throw a party, they throw one. They’ll blame the poor condition of some of their homesteads on the economy or the break up of the Soviet Union, but the real reason is that most days they hang around outside singing, playing tunes on the karmoška, drinking handsa, and arguing about what makes a Seto a Seto, or how võro kiil — the southern Estonian dialect-language spoken north of the Piusa — is different from seto kiil.

The Setos call Estonians tsuhknad, which is related to the old Russian word chud, indeed, Lake Peipsi is known to Russians as Chudskoye ozero. It’s not a term of endearment, but not an insult either. Instead, it denotes a sort of polite, aloof, clunky northern person. Setos and Russians see Estonians the way Estonians see Finns. I imagine that to Setos, an Estonian is the kind of person it might take several shots of handsa or several helpings of homemade beer to start having a good time. From the Estonian viewpoint, the Seto are wayward Estonians in Russian national costume, linguistic relatives but bohemian to a fault. There is a touch of envy there too, as if the Seto have preserved the traditions that the Estonians themselves have lost.

Of course, I am exaggerating. My impression of Setomaa are forged mainly from attending events big and small, a local wedding, an annual gathering. The latest one, Setomaa Kuningriigi Päevad, held in Mikitamäe last week, witnessed a parade of the Seto “army,” where brigades of men and women armed with shovels and hoes and other implements of destruction marched before their newly chosen ülemsootska, King Ahto Raudoja, and vowed to politically unite Seto lands on both sides of the border. Raudoja, age 35, is a piece of work, a living legend. Known throughout his kingdom for his ironic sense of humor and his Cossack dancing ability, he is now the face of Setodom.

Some might look at Estonians and Setos and judge them to be basically the same, and they are. In fact, Setos are Estonians, in that they hold Estonian nationality, play the lotto, sunbathe in Pärnu, do everything else the Estonians do. But still, I have attended song festivals in Tallinn. I have attended weddings and funerals in Estonia proper. I am familiar with Estonian culture. And so maybe I have some ability to compare Setomaa and Eestimaa and to say it’s a little different. Seto society is conservative, old fashioned, but still not wholly exclusive. One can, given time and dedication, join this lump of humanity. Such people are called isetehtud setod — self-made Setos.

What do you need to be a self-made Seto? Well, you need your own talo, or farmstead. You also need to befriend a Seto in the know who will guide you along the way. He (or she) will instruct you as to where to put your religious icon, how to cut your pork with a spoon (as Setos don’t use forks), and how to make sõir a magic ingredient in most of your cuisine. Your Seto guide will introduce you to people in the ‘hood so that they know you are kosher. You may not be a real Seto, but at least you know a real one. To fit in, you’ll also need a Seto flag, Seto national costume, and your own Russian accordion, the karmoška, to play during festivities, which always seem to be happening.

I haven’t bought into the whole package yet, but I did succumb to making Zetod my favorite band. These guys, four kids from Värska, have mixed traditional song with blue ska beats and rock’n’roll guitar hooks. When they get going, they can really shake a concert hall. There is a bit of pagan thunder to their sound, so I would compare them to Led Zeppelin, the English rockers who mixed Celtic lore with Delta blues. A Seto friend disagrees. He thinks Zetod are the Creedence Clearwater Revival of Estonia, bringing back that oldtimey born on the bayou funk that is lacking from the Estonian Top 40. Either way, I am a fan. Their new disc is called Lätsi Sanna — in Estonian, I believe it’s Läksid Sauna, in English it should be “Went to the Sauna.” It’s perfect music for when you are lost, driving through some unpaved country road at night, low on gas, trying to get back to your talo.

It’s fitting that I found my way into Seto identity via the music, because I actually know something about music. I don’t know much about anything else. A number of alien-looking spiders have esconced around our talo, and I had to ask my Seto guide Mart if they were poisonous. You could call me paranoid or just cautious, but I sincerely don’t know. I don’t know about spiders and I don’t know about well water and I don’t know about electrical wiring. I am, you could say, a Seto know-nothing.

I wonder, though, about the locals’ gung-ho approach to life. On the road, I mostly drive the speed limit, tend to avoid spoiled foods, and prefer metal, factory made ladders to the wooden, homemade ladders that are common in Eestimaa and Setomaa. One could call such cautiousness cowardice. Others might call it common sense. I bring to your attention the fact that the average Estonian male’s life expectancy (68.7) is among the lowest in the European Union, and is 11 years behind the average Estonian female’s life expectancy (79.5). Why is that? It’s not because of smoking and drinking and eating too much sour cream: it’s because Estonian, and presumably Seto, guys get killed in accidents, doing really stupid things.

Here, I pause to spit three times over my shoulder and knock on wood. Setomaa has claimed me as a music fan and property owner and kindred spirit. I do not wish for it to claim me as anything else.


24 thoughts on “karmoška plahvatus”

  1. Great read.

    Some thoughts regarding the relationship between estonians and seto's.

    I don't know if you've noticed, but in Estonia there's largely two different identity ideologies – self-colonizers and finno-ugricists.

    There are more nuances than that, but if I go into nuances I'll never stop talking.

    Now Finno-Ugricists are obvious by name. These are the folk that used to say (in 1920's) that we should replace chistianity with shinto and restore our original animistic sense of the world. Nowadays, when uralic-altaic theories and anti-german sentiments are less popular you won't see ideas like this anymore. But it can be said, that finno-ugricists are people who like the idea of “asian origin” and “animistic worldview”, even if only on a romanticized cultural level (music, art, essays and books about the great “finnic spirit”).

    Self-colonizers are the people who say that “Muistne Vabadusvõitlus” is actually “The Great Civilizing and Culturisation of Estonia”. And that's a disturbingly common sentiment. They are the folk who are somewhat ashamed of anything ugri-mugri, extremists of them even trying to prove that finns were the original white people of Europe and thus arch-european everyway, and that baltic germans were more estonian than peasants anyway. And if ever a disturbing suppressed realization might emerge from the depths of their souls, then they'll just say “it's good that the germans fucked us into white people, otherwise we would be russian.”

    And self-colonizers also tend to look down upon lower classes as something sub-human and a big disgrace to Estonia. “We're so ashamed of our lower classes, I wish they didn't exist, so we could all pretend to be happy european and cultural human beings.” Now that doesn't mean that the opposing ideology is anti-elitist or anti-caste. There are many finno-ugricist thinkers who believe in the idea of elite and intellectual castes, but since their identity ideology is just much more pro-folk, they never go into this sort of despise for the lower classes like self-colonizers too.

    Now I've described these two identity ideologies in extreme tones. In real persons they're emerging in less extremist ways. But judging from observation, I'd say that self-colonizers are a majority in modern Estonia, while you can't take a walk in cultural and acdemic circles without stumbling on finno-ugricists. And sometimes, these two different identity ideologies exist within one person.

    And I'm even afraid that self-colonizers have always been a majority, throughout the history of free independent estonian thought. So with that information in mind, let's think of Mexico.

    Once a great nahuatl country, now only a million nahuatl remain. And yet aren't mexicans too nahuatl, even if they have all sorts of weird ideas about it.

    With that sociological model in mind – seto=nahuatl,estonians=mexicans.

    Even though estonians still speak their nahuatl language, while mexicans don't; if reading mexican cultural thinkers one will find a lot of similarities in this conflict between indigenous origin and wanting to be all colonist-like.

    I guess what I'm trying to say that colonized people have a trouble relating to their own culture in an accepting manner and develop all sorts of weird ideas and behaviour patterns towards any apparent emerging of it, and eventually become destructive towards it.

    And if you read some seto poets sayings (Kauksi Ülle), who too play around with this idea, you too might get an impression that estonians are a people that have killed “the finn” in themselves and are basically something foreign, non-indigenous who deny the rights and means to the last remaining indigenous folk to be their own people.


  2. to Joshua,

    You may be right about the colonized nation theory, but what is also true is that people from Mexico have different origins too (64 different indigenous groups in addition to Nahuatl and in addition to Spanish and other European), and so some will feel more “truly indigenous” and claim that all disgraces have occurred from the newcomers and they represent the true national identity, which is flawed thinking. Others may feel they have a different background and have contributed to the land they or their ancestors arrived in. An ethnic group does not constitute a nation, in my opinion. Just like Israel is not the “Jewish state” they like to call in the Estonian press, since there are arabs and christians living there as well.


  3. The rapeseed oil ad was one of the worst taste things I've seen in a long time. Someone (paid loads of kroons for his 'creativity') though the KKK was cool.
    And since we got to that, I feel there is no need for the use of the word neeger, even if it has supposedly been used for times immemorial. Mustanahaline won't do either. I would propose mustavärvinahaline or simply aafrikanlane or aafroameerikanlane.

    And just to finish with my comment to Joshua, in Mexico there is indeed a very strong national culture that has taken from all the different heritage cultures, but is still unique. I would argue that there is also a strong Estonian culture which has adopted from its several origins.


  4. The ugri stuff is awesome.

    Still, given the choice (bullshit, as if we have ever given a choice) between German and Russian colonization, I'll take German any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

    Really, Russia is that awful.


  5. The Germans Estonia got are not the Germans we got in Germany. The Germans are Baltic Germans from almoust certain northern German decent (not the average German at that time). And at a time when the concept of beeing “German” did not exist in that way or not at all.
    Conclusion, beeing colonised does not mean to be German.


  6. “Still, given the choice (bullshit, as if we have ever given a choice) between German and Russian colonization, I'll take German any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

    Really, Russia is that awful.”

    There wouldn't ahve been much difference. In Orlando Figes “People's Tragedy” it pretty much shows that the russian peasant situation was pretty much the same like the estonian's one. For comparison, one can read memoirs about life in early to mid-late 19th century in Estonia. Not that different.

    It was the same kind of petty eastern european serfdom, and baltic germans were the same kind of petty provincial “nobles” like the russian manor lords were.

    And for a while, russians and estonians shared the same baltic germans in high places. And all them herrenvolk spoke french.

    So what's the difference? It eventually was the same thing.

    Now the time of baltic germans comes to an end when romantic nationalism raises it's head in estonians and russians. The late 19th century russification was actually directed against the baltic germans.

    Don't worry, baltic germans also had their own nationalism – they were into pan-germanism in those days.

    And here's one of those funny history moments. Like today, when estonians look at baltic russians with the suspicion that they work together with russian central power, then back in those days baltic germans accused estonians of the same thing!

    And they were kind of right. In 1910's estonians and russians constantly allied with each other in linnavalitsused against baltic germans.

    In essence, petty eastern europan manor lords are petty eastern european manor lords. Russian or German colonization – no difference in eastern european serfdom. Modern day rehtoric of Russia as something sub-human, is modern day rehtoric. I'm thinking that World War II has really colored estonians impressions of russians and germans roles in the past. But I don't think there was the same “Russia” or same “Germany” in the past. One is not more european than the other. Tammsaare has quite a lot of to say about the so-called “europeaness” of baltic germans and “the western civilization” they brought in one of his essays, that is in his Kogututud Teosed 17 I think. And when it comes to this that I have to quote that, I won't translate that. Just letting you know.


  7. *continuing from before, because my text was too long*

    Besides, it's highly arguable that there ever would have been any “russian colonization”. Certainly there's a thread in the days of Ivan the Terrible when he was building his “grand Rus”, but before when there were many several different Rus'es?

    Thinking about Lembitu and Pihkva, one gets an impression that estonians would have lived off from the inner power struggles between these several rus'es, something like Lithuania perhaps.

    And here the reader might think that, “yeah it's all nice and all, and perhaps indeed in the days of several different Rus'es there would have been no colonization, but what about Ivan the Terrible and Livonian War. Certainly we can credit baltic germans for saving us from russification then?” Now, I mentioned Ivan the Terrible before in the hopes of getting to that.

    There's this wonderful book about Livonian War, written in 1580's, called Balthasar Russow's Livonian Chronicle.

    And from there you can see how little the Livonian Order actually did to fight the terrible armies of Juhan Hirmus. It basically did nothing, the order master fleeing for his life. And everyone allied with anyone in those days – there were those who fought for Juhan Hirmus and Herzog Magnus, those who fought for Poland, and those who were allied with Sweden (Tallinn).

    And what if there had been no colonization and Orderstaat? I don't know, though I have a suspicion that rather being “russified”, estonians and latvians would have been “lithuanized”. They lead the similar baltic way of life here before, and Lembitu's life sort of gives that Grand Duchy (before Poland) way of life feel.

    But I didn't want to get into this speculation. I lost my original thought somewhere there.

    Oh, I remembered now with what all this rambling started… I was saying that I think that there wouldn't have been much difference, that whatever might have happened, the future would have looked very eastern european no matter what. And baltic germans were typical eastern europeans.


  8. “The Germans are Baltic Germans from almoust certain northern German decent (not the average German at that time). And at a time when the concept of beeing “German” did not exist in that way or not at all.”

    Well then the concept of being “German” was then created quite quickly. With all those “undeutsche's” back in Middle Ages. And baltic germans were quite into pan-germanism and aryanism in their later days. But then again, they were into blood purity a long time before that, with all them “in-betweens” trying to hide that they might have “tainted blood” in them.

    No matter their roots (and their diverse roots are obvious from names like de Tolly), they created a society where the person was either a german or ungerman. And that's why for a long time, “german” was also a synonym for rich and educated and fancy in estonian.

    So being “german” is what life was all about back then.

    However, I think you're saying that baltic germans are not germany's germans, in which case I agree that they were their own ethnicity and culture.

    And I obviously don't like that culture and it's role in estonian history.

    “Conclusion, beeing colonised does not mean to be German.”

    Of course it doesn't, because of the ethnic chasm. However, once becoming their own masters, who did the estonians started to copy? The same baltic germans, and precisely that culture that I described above. Estonians colonized themselves.

    I blame estonian racism, elitism, xenophobia, provincial snobism and chauvinism on baltic germans and the way how estonians adopted exactly those traits.


  9. “However, once becoming their own masters, who did the estonians started to copy? The same baltic germans, and precisely that culture that I described above. Estonians colonized themselves.

    I blame estonian racism, elitism, xenophobia, provincial snobism and chauvinism on baltic germans and the way how estonians adopted exactly those traits.”

    Heh. And how would that explain the common sightings of those traits in other eastern european countries, I wonder?

    And just before I was saying and speculating that history would have been (and was) eastern europan no matter what.

    And it's all the same kind of eastern european feudal society, in essence.

    I guess it all has to do with serfdom, and how recent it was, and the early mixes of serfdom and capitalism, creating just more petty self-important people.

    People coming from a culture when they have no self-value, they don't become dignified individuals full of respect for other's, but they become people who have to “steal and cheat” that self-value, parading in their small riches and imitations of high culture, being all condescending and looking to hate on someone to prove their self-image. To be better than someone.

    But then again, that was exactly the culture of manor lords too. “Parading and imitating” to be cultural, creating a society of “humans and sub-humans”.

    Baltic Germans were definitely like that, and Russian manor lords even more so.

    So, where did they get their inferiority complex from?

    Is that the key to eastern european mystery? That both lords and serfs were suffering from an inferiority complex?


  10. Wow, what an interesting post and interesting comments!

    Reminds me that I have met one seto in my life too. Unfortunately, I had to share his company for full two years. Way back in 1985-87 in the Soviet Army. A tad too long and the funny factor kind of wore off toward the end.

    I always remember him using the word “kalidor” instead of “koridor” for the corridor.

    Dude was a fierce sonofoagun. I wonder where is he now. Forgot his last name.


  11. @ Joshua
    great comments. Talking about the Baltic Germans. Many were from young cities in Northern Germany that florished around 1200. Traders, handcraft. These two groups were struggling during the 14 th and 15 the century for the political power in the city governments. Around 80 or 90 % of the people in Middle Europe did NOT live in cities, they were farmers rules by noble people. Inside the city the traders and skilled workers were not the only inhabitans. There were servants and many others. And there were the noble people and knights. The city “Oberschicht” tried to become a kind of noble people by themselfs. So what happend in Germany in some of the cites when after 1800 big changes in society happend (Napoleon). In case of my city they tried to stick with their medieval constitution, that was in force for 500 years. The upper class remained very closed to outsiders.
    Shortcut: a very special, tiny social group in Germany, from where the Baltic Germans came from. And when they established their Baltic rule it was something even more special with certain aspects reflecting certain structures in Middle Europe. No need to mention for example about the free Frisian farmers who could avoid noble rule on the German coast. These chance the Estonian farmers never had.


  12. Oh well, if you have to be colonized by anyone in the North-East of Europe, then be colonized by the Swedes. They beat the competition hands down. Apropos, can you say apropos here, the Estonian sour cream surely is the best in the world, it's easily better than the Russian sour cream. And why do we call sour cream smetana in Finland?


  13. Well, for Estonia and Livonia the Swedish conquest wasn't much of an improvement. The serfdom was established under Swedish crown. In South Estonia, Polish rule was definitely more benevolent while it lasted.


  14. And we got to hang out with the Jesuites and everything Poland's Livonia.

    Serfdom and “sunnismaisus” (imagine how horrible, never being able to leave your kihelkond… and that until to mid-1800's, when Jannsen's Perno Postimees was the first to make the peasants aware of the outside world), were indeed solidified in Swedish era.

    However there are reports that during the end of Swedish era, there were intentions of removing serfdom. At least, that's how one story goes with Patkul and other unhappy manor lords – Russia promised serfdom done better and so they went with that.

    It most likely was all about private proprety, since swedish central power was nationalising their manors and Russia promised to respect a manor lord's right to private property.

    And then all that thing about “freeing the peasants” might just have been an ideological interpretation from the estonian exiles in sweden from whose works I read that about.

    Swedish era has also the fortune of being the time when most famine and plague periods happened.

    And it wasn't that peaceful, here in the frontier, in-between all those powers. And from what I gather, since there was very few estonians alive in that period, then peasants were pretty anarchist too. I think this was in 1600-1630, when a peasant just tended to walk away if he didn't like something.

    It's been a while since I last reserched about swedish era.

    But it wasn't bad for everyone of course. Tallinn benefited for example. It got a complete monopol over Finnic Gulf, thus making Russow's political fantasy book “Why Reval is better than you!” true.

    And in late swedish era all those Froselius'es and Virginius'es were writing books in estonian. Some of them are in available for download in internet.

    I recently obtained “Ma Kele Koddo- nink Kirko Ramat” (1700) that way.

    You can too from here if you're curious about how estonian looked like 310 years ago – http://www.utlib.ee/ekollekt/eeva/index.php?lang=et&do=tekst&tid=1091

    You go there by “kohaviit”, which takes you to some digital database and that has a download link there.

    And it's even kinda possible to read it.

    Not every text is available for download though.

    What else about swedish era? It was also when Christian Kelch wrote his famous words: “Liivimaa on mõisnikkude taevas, pappide paradiis, võõraste kullaauk ja talupoegade põrgu.”

    “Livonia is a heaven to manor lords, a paradise to priests, a gold mine to foreigners and a hell to peasants.”

    Still rings true even in this day.


  15. Well, I would be the first to agree that many Estonians might have a bit of an overly exalted idea of the “vana hea Rootsi aeg”. But as regards Estonia Sweden pretty much only enforced the existing structures though there were some sporadic attempts by the crown to weaken the position of the magnates. Not out of any love for the peasants but to unify the imperial realms and strengthen the monarchy.

    Finland which was simply a collection of Swedish provinces did not have serfdom and sent representatives to the Riksdag (also the peasants did) and there were no serious attempts to replace Finnish with Swedish as the local language. Neither was having Swedish as a mother tongue an indication of social status: most Swedish speakers were poor coastal farmers and fishermen. In that sense I would say that better that than German robber barons or Russian autocrats.


  16. I am sure neither the Polish nor the Swedish crown had much “love for the peasants” (or for the barons, for that matter) anyway. It's just that Poles decided to play local peasants against nobles and Swedes – to play nobles against Poland/Russia and give them the candy. At least initially.

    Although Polish rule was generally quite lenient that time, eg. Poland was probably the most religiously tolerant country in whole Europe of the time. Unfortunately, not as comptetent militarily.


  17. I like how this is universal-access writing, good for both new and old audiences. I would suggest pitching it to various prestigious publications – that is, if you didn't have your own highly regarded printing press….


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