Life on the Estonia-Russia border or from bureaucracy to ghost cemeteries

Mirjam Mõttus.
Mirjam Mõttus. Source: Private collection

An acquaintance of mine well-versed in the ways of life in Russia describes it as a paradise of simple choices that are always between bad and worse. That is exactly the situation people living close to the Russian border now find themselves in, journalist Mirjam Mõttus says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

For people inhabiting border regions, the significance of crossing the boundary line means much more than cheap fuel, Pskov shopping centers and drugs long since illegal in Estonia.

Caring for the souls of lost loved ones in the church and their graves in the cemetery is a very important part of Orthodox and Seto culture. Yet, many families are cut off from the graves of their loved ones by exhausting red tape.

The choice is either to give up and forget the resting places of one's ancestors or continue to fight one's way through the gauntlet of bureaucracy.

A look back in time

When the temporary boundary line was first marked out in 1991, neither the people nor rulers knew what it would mean and how to behave in the new situation. The two countries used a system of border crossing permits for a time that allowed people inhabiting border regions on both sides to quickly cross the border.

The permits were soon replaced by lists following an agreement between the Estonian foreign ministry and representatives of the Pskov Oblast and the Pechorsky District.

Around 8,000 people were given the right to cross the border around Orthodox holidays, and considering how busy the Orthodox holiday calendar is, people were allowed to cross the border frequently. And they did. To visit their church, attend the graves of ancestors and meet with relatives. The boundary line had a wealth of border crossing points. More than one have become little more than landmarks full of memories.

The first major change to the system happened when Estonia joined the EU and the Schengen visa area. It was unimaginable for someone to enter the Schengen zone simply based on it being a church holiday and their name on a list somewhere.

The Estonian foreign ministry contacted its Russian counterpart on a new list and Estonia hired a visa coordinator. The new list was only open to people who could prove they had relatives, real estate or graves of loved ones on the other side of the border. Cultural groups were also included – 2,000 people altogether.

Both lists were inspected by the other side and people were issued special visas that could be used several times and remained valid for at least a year.

The system worked flawlessly for nearly 14 years. It should be working today, while the fact is only a few hundred people were issued a special visa last year. They did not include a single long-term visa for visiting graves of relatives.

Great selection of visas

Local observers say that relations took a turn for the restrained after Estonia expelled two Russian diplomats in May of 2017. The process has culminated in a situation where people who are on the list are turned back by the visa coordinator.

Instead of the former special visas, only one-off cemetery visit visas are available. The actual situation is more complicated still.

Petserimaa has a number of villages and cemeteries in the border zone. You need a special permit to go there you need to apply for in Pechory. That requires a visa. Getting one is a long and complicated process. The selection of different Russian visas is more colorful than some country shops' dairy section.

Not everyone is eligible for every visa. For example, business visas that are somewhat cheaper and quicker than tourist visas are not made available to elderly people. When applying for a cultural visa, one must convincingly prove the aim of the trip is cultural exchange. A cultural visa also requires an invitation.

Unlike business visa invitations successfully forged by tourist bureaus, cultural invitations are far trickier to secure.

In the end, the choice is between a tourist visa or a one-off cemetery visit visa. Both require photographs in the correct format, insurance and filling out a number of complicated forms. The latter action requires waiting for the visa coordinator to work nearby or visiting a tourism bureau in Tartu.

Once you have the visa, you need to go to Petserimaa to apply for a border zone permit. The permit needs to be picked up once it is completed a few weeks later after which the person can finally go to the cemetery. Tough as old Seto ladies are, it is too much even for them.

More active people have already taken it upon themselves to take care of their extended family's burial sites. However, this situation probably cannot last forever.

Ghost cemeteries

The result is the eventual emergence of ghost cemeteries. Just as Russian graves go unattended in Saatse, Estonian graves will go unattended in Petserimaa.

The process is already underway at cemeteries in the border zone and works to paralyze culture as a whole.

Seto women in Estonia leave their silver jewelry at home when going to Russia. Declaring five kilograms of silver coins and chains one by one in customs takes too long and is too painful a process.

What does that hold for future scholars who will be studying Seto women in Petserimaa – were the 21st century Estonian Seto women so poor they couldn't even afford jewelry.

Of what do unattended graves speak? That there is no longer enough respect for one's ancestors to rake up dry leaves every now and again?

Culture and identity form a whole where wounding one aspect has a broader effect. We would not have Trad.Attack! without Seto culture that includes family traditions and celebrating the memory of ancestors at the cemetery.

Luckily, all is not lost. Activists are already working on a series of innovations. There is talk of applying a EU visa regulation that would create a certain range between Estonia and Russia where people could cross the border in simplified procedure. A similar system is in use in Latvia.

Electronic visas for vising Saint Petersburg and using them also on the Pskov heading have also been discussed. There are other ideas. All of it requires greater preparedness on the government's part to address the problem and a good measure of cunning besides.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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