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Varnja: The people and potential on the shores of Lake Peipus

In a village of just 250 residents on the western, Estonian shore of the fifth-largest lake in Europe, known as Peipus ('Peipsi järv') in Estonian and Chudskoe in Russian, a mix of old blood and new — Russian-speakers and Estonians, Old Believers and newcomers — live and work side by side. Despite any differences, however, Varnja's residents have at least one thing in common: their belief in the village's potential.

Pjotr Mihhailov organized and in large part himself helped build a new Orthodox church on the edge of Varnja, a tiny village on the western shore of Lake Peipus historically populated by Old Believers.

While Old Believers, of which there were approximately 2,600 living in Estonia according to the 2011 census, living mostly in villages along swathes of the Lake Peipus shore, followed the liturgical practices that were maintained by the Russian Orthodox Church before the schism, or raskol, caused by reforms implemented by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow in the mid-17th century, the new Varnja Orthodox Church of the Presentation of the Lord into the Temple belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, or the modern Russian Orthodox Church, which also helped finance its construction. The ruins of the previous church, which collapsed approximately twenty years ago, remain untouched in the middle of the village.

While Mihhailov is currently studying the Word of God and serving as an apprentice at the new church, hoping to become the small congregation's batjuska someday, he is perhaps better known by locals as a fisherman, as is his grown son, Andrei.

As Herling Jürimäe, neighbor and co-owner of nearby Mesi Tare Guesthouse, translated from Russian to Estonian, Mihhailov explained that fishing for a living on Lake Peipus wasn't as simple as one might think.

Fishermen by hire

According to the Varnja fisherman, individuals are allowed by law to fish for themselves using a fishing rod, but the use of commercial fishing nets was regulated by fishing licenses, which were limited in number and could easily cost more than 10,000 euros per license, far beyond what small companies could afford to pay. Thus, fishing licenses were usually held by larger firms, who in turn hired fishermen such as Mihhailov and his son, often for minimum wage, to do the actual fishing for them. While fish prices in supermarkets soared, individual fishermen often saw no profit whatsoever.

Asked about whether or not he and other fishermen like him could benefit from various grants earmarked for the Lake Peipus region, such as the 4.5 million euros awarded through 2020 by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) for the improvement of the fisheries area comprised of Lakes Peipus, Pskov and Lammijärv on Estonia's eastern border, Mihhailov explained that in addition to the language barrier — many of the region's villages were primarily or even entirely Russian-speaking — they simply lacked the knowledge needed to write the projects and navigate the bureaucracy involved in applying for such funds, and so many fishermen never benefited from them.

If he were to somehow be awarded this money directly, however, the Varnja resident would first and foremost purchase a commercial fishing license for himself. He also spoke of the idea of building a fish-processing plant in the area, which would help create more jobs for local residents as well. Such a plant, he found, was what the area most sorely needed — and this was his priority message to government officials.

Mihhailov is from Russia originally, but has lived in small villages his entire life. Despite his concerns regarding Varnja, however, he would not consider leaving the small village and moving to a bigger town — he found that city life is too exhausting. "Life is good here," he summed up.

His son Andrei, on the other hand, explained, partly in Estonian, partly in Russian, that while he enjoyed growing up in Varnja, that it was peaceful and he had friends there, he would like to move to a bigger town. "Not into an apartment!" he added, saying that he'd prefer a small house, where he could still do some work if he liked. The desire to move somewhere bigger seemed motivated mainly by the prospect of increasing his earning potential, however, as Andrei admitted that he would stay in Varnja if he could earn more money — for example at the fish-processing plant his father had talked about.

From guests to guesthouse owners

Like the older of the two fishermen, neither Herling Jürimäe nor her partner Marko Mesi, co-owners of Varnja's Mesi Tare Guesthouse, were originally from this region either. Jürimäe is from Tallinn, Estonia's capital and biggest city, while Mesi hails from Tartu, Estonia's second-largest city, which is a little over half an hour away by car — or an hour by county bus, which departs from the small lakeside village five times per day.

According to Jürimäe, Mesi worked for the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) at the Varnja border guard station, and as she would come to visit him they both gradually became more invested in the area and the village in particular.

Eventually they decided to purchase a home there, with the plan to run it as a bed and breakfast, but as renovations began on the first home, they soon chose to purchase a separate, second house in which to live themselves, just up the street from the first one.

The bright green guesthouse opened for business on St. John's Day in 2015, and has since been the first accommodation establishment in Estonia to earn the Genuine and Interesting Estonia (EHE) eco-tourism quality label. Jürimäe explained that in fixing up the guesthouse, which they have done themselves, one small project at a time, they have tried to use and reuse as many items and materials found on site as possible, including old fishnets for curtains, and generally remain as true as possible to the village's traditional old houses — which, among other details, meant no indoor plumbing. Water comes from an on-site well, however, and guests can bathe traditionally in either a Finnish or tarp sauna while enjoying locally-caught and house-dried vobla caught right there in Lake Peipus, which is located just across the street from the guesthouse, hidden just out of sight by reeds growing on its shore.

As for taking advantages of grants meant for the region, the guesthouse owner noted that she has experience writing the necessary projects, which they have utilized in expanding the services they can offer guests and visitors to the region, including fishing expeditions on Lake Peipus, and their next plan for grant money was to buy a boat trailer, which would allow them to offer visitors boat connections between Varnja and Tartu via the Emajõgi River.

It takes a village

Coming from life in Estonia's largest and most modern cities in particular, Varnja may seem remote and barren of everyday necessities and amenities, but according to Jürimäe, almost everything one really needs is a stone's throw away at most. Varnja has its own village grocery store boasting both Estonian and Russian goods, a guesthouse, a seasonal art gallery which also offers limited accommodations, an Old-Believer prayer house, and an Orthodox church. Over the past winter, a relatively mild one by Estonian standards, a public beach was also constructed in Varnja; visitors previously had to travel quite a distance north along the shore to reach the nearest sandy beach.

The closest Russian-language kindergarten is in another village 7 kilometers, or just over 4 miles, away, and the closest Estonian-language kindergarten and grade schools are in Alatskivi, a 15-minute drive north of Varnja. Alatskivi also has its own ambulance brigade, but in the event of more urgent medical care, locals must turn to Tartu University Hospital, as is typically the case for many smaller villages in the region.

Jürmäe did, however, cite a few issues that could use addressing. While indoor plumbing truly wasn't standard in the old houses of Varnja, not every property's wells provided potable water, including that on the property their own home just a few houses up the street from their guesthouse. While the water is clean enough for bathing and doing regular laundry — "I don't want to know what havoc it's wreaking on our washing machine!" she remarked — they store drinking water brought in from the nearby border guard station in a large plastic barrel for cooking and drinking purposes, and take their whites to the closest laundromat in Tartu for washing.

She also pointed out that while tourism in the area is increasing, Varnja with its narrow roads is sorely lacking in parking spaces for visitors, which is especially problematic when larger events, including markets, are organized in the village — events which stood to not only increase awareness of Varnja but also directly benefit local residents, who were able to earn a bit of money by selling local and homemade goods.

All concerns aside, Jürimäe expressed hope that their tourism business would bring in enough income to allow the family to remain living in Varnja, whose local residents' quirks and customs became more familiar to them as time went on. While many of the older residents' children were growing up and moving out of Varnja, she hoped that some new blood would help motivate residents to breathe new life into the old village.

From boathouse to art gallery

Raul Oreškin and Kaili Kask, owners of the nearby Voronja Gallery, share Jürimäe's positive hopes for the Lake Peipus village. The seasonal gallery, which just opened for its third summer on Saturday, is located in the half-converted attached boathouse of an old fisherman's cottage, one that they have intentionally left largely intact and unrenovated. Every year, the gallery has showcased the work of a different artist or group of artists, and this year's exhibition is Sandra Jõgeva's "Question of Faith."

According to Oreškin, the gallery has had visitors from all over Europe, including France and Germany, of which many are visiting fishermen who have decided to explore what else villages along Lake Peipus have to offer. The gallery's punk themed exhibit during its first season was even visited by Villu Tamme, lead singer of seminal Estonian punk band J.M.K.E.

The gallery co-owner explained that the two of them ended up passing through Varnja totally by chance once simply by following GPS directions from the Alatskivi region back to Tartu, where they continue to live and work off-season, and something about the old village and its cottages with its double boathouse doors charmed them into returning again and again. "And then — I mean we weren't even planning on buying a house here, we just visited from time to time, and then it so happened that I had a dream one summer night that we bought a summer home here, and somehow that's what happened," explained Oreškin. "Fate brought us here."

Improvements must be made from the ground up

Like Jürimäe, the gallery owner found the village sorely lacking in parking spaces, accommodations and other infrastructure that would help support influxes of visitors during special events and during the summer season in particular — a critical issue as tourism helps support the village and its inhabitants. Oreškin and Kask even chartered a private bus at their own expense to shuttle visitors from Tartu to Varnja and back on the gallery's opening day on Saturday in order to help ease vehicular congestion in the village, as they were expecting over one hundred visitors that day alone.

Oreškin found that locals are interested in organizing special events and hosting visitors, and if local governments were to invest in the improvements to public infrastructure in the Lake Peipus region's smaller villages needed to support such increases in visitors, increased activity in them would follow naturally. He noted that investing in establishment of small businesses and perhaps the introduction or reintroduction of some kind of industry to the area would also help create jobs and improve locals' welfare, but regardless, improvements in the region would have to come from the ground up.

In the meantime, as Estonia enters into the lightest period of the year, with just over a week to go until summer solstice, it may be worth considering visiting a perhaps less-known region of the country. The people and shores of Lake Peipus await.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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