Report: Plight of Estonia's southeastern border villages

Serga village resident Eevi Linnamäe.
Serga village resident Eevi Linnamäe. Source: ERR

Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Tartu, which established the independent Estonian state and its eastern border with the fledgling Soviet Russian state. However, the border drawn up in the treaty does not correspond to the present-day demarcation, with nearly 60 former Estonian "ghost villages" existing in present-day Russia, according to a report on ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Sunday evening.

The change in border, resulting from the border at the restoration of Estonian independence in 1991 following the revised lines the occupied Estonian SSR had during the Soviet era, has left 59 largely abandoned, depopulated villages, chiefly in the Petseri region (present-day Pechory, in the Russian Federation), making up a large part of Setomaa, a distinctive ethinc and linguistic region which straddles the Estonian-Russian border. Over 100 potentially facing the same fate, the report said.

The issue affects in particular those whose relatives live, or have been buried, in the Petseri region, and southeastern Estonian territory abutting on to that.

Eevi Linnamäe, a resident of Serga village, about 20 kilometers from Petseri and on the present-day Estonian side of the border, said she knew all too well what a line drawn on a map can mean. An initially "soft" outline becomes, over the years, a harder border which is increasingly difficult to cross, though you still need to make the trip, she said.

"Our home church is at Tailovo (on the Russian Federation side of the border-ed.) which is eight kilometers from here; my father, all my grandparents and other relatives are buried there, but my mother is buried in Obitnitsa (on the Estonian side-ed.). So many families are not buried in the same place," Linnamäe said.

The hard border also affects Russian people in the same way, the report said. Saatse Church, on Estonian territory, which had long been the home church for people living just one kilometer away, as the crow flies, in Krupp, on the Russian side of the border.

This has changed the church and its cemetery dramatically, the report said.

"The tragedy for this congregation was that a third of them remained on the Estonian side, with the cemetery and church nearby, but two thirds were left on the Russian side," said Andreas Põld, head priest for the Saatse and Värska congregation.

"But nowadays it's a miracle if even one Russian person attends, and in that case I'm already reading some prayers in Church Slavonic," Põld continues (the prevailing religious denomination in Setomaa is eastern Orthodoxy-ed.).

Across the border in Krupp, Valentina Illina works as a school teacher. Needing to come to Saatse for the funeral of a grandmother born in Krupp and who lived in Saatse, Valentina says she dreams of a time in the future when the political situation is such that residents of the Russian Federation and the EU have as free movement across the border, as EU citizens do within the union. However, there is little sign of that at present, she said, noting a decline in cross-border movement.

"The border issue was very painful during the transition [to Estonian independence]. But it transpired that we got separated. A new church was built for us, because it was difficult to arrange a burial from here. it is difficult to get to Saatse, and this border control has done no good for anyone," she said.

Concerns are heightened by Seto traditions which say that the grave of an ancestor must never become overgrown with weeds and grass. However, this has indeed happened in some cases.

"Here in the cemetery, when we look at all the abandoned graves, it shows that the Russians are no longer actually coming here. Their graves are unattended," said Andreas Põld.

"Yes, that's right and it's very sad if I can't go anymore," Eevi Liinamäe said, in agreement.

"I haven't been to my father's grave this year. Last year I managed just three visits, as on February 2 my year-long visa expired and no replacements are being granted," she added.

It is not only cemetery visits which are hampered by the visa requirements, either, the report said.

The Koidula border checkpoint is a common crossing point, and not only for visiting cemeteries or for shopping.

People have relatives on both sides of the border - children, parents etc., but, "Aktuaalne kaamera" said, very few are willing to appear on camera to outline this, preferring instead to keep their heads down.

The fear of losing visa entitlement runs high, as well. Until recently, residents in border regions were able to apply for a multiple-entry visa, with about 2,000 being issued a year.

However, according to Andy Karjus, visa coordinator, the development of cross-border Seto culture, and cooperation between local authorities and sports clubs in southeastern Estonia is practically a thing of the past.

Today, however, only one-time visas are being issued, Karjus said.

"Some people are older and have a resigned mood, making them they say, 'ah, I won't bother anymore'. Another category are those who try to get business and tourist visas instead," Karjus explained.

463 square kilometers of Setomaa is in Estonia, and nearly three times that area, at 1,251 square kilometers, lies in Russia, according to the report. There are 632 villages on the Estonian side, with about 50 percent of inhabitants being Seto people (the Seto language is related to Estonian and other Finno-Ugric tongues). On the Russian side, according to data from 2010, there were 386 villages, 59 of which were uninhabited and over 150 of which had 10 or fewer inhabitants.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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