Taking care of relatives' graves is an extremely important part of Seto culture. However, in recent years, many Setos living in Estonia have been unable to get to their ancestors' burial sites on the Russian side of the border to ensure their upkeep. Now, a new database has been established to help keep track of the Seto and Estonian graves in neighboring Petserimaa.
According to Ahto Raudoja, director of the Seto Institute, the Estonian-Russian border has never been as closed as it is right now. Under Raudoja's leadership, however, an extensive database of cemeteries in eastern Petserimaa has been created. The database can help people find the graves of loved ones who are buried on the Russian side of the border.
The graves of thousands of Setos and Estonians are located in the cemeteries of Petserimaa, on the Russian side of the border. Most of the graves can be found in the cemeteries of the Lutheran and Orthodox churches in the city of Petseri. Others are in Orthodox cemeteries in the towns of Taeluva, Saalessa, Mõla and Pankjavitsa.
"The Petseri Lutheran cemetery was established in 1911. The Estonians and intellectuals who lived and worked (in Petseri), are mostly buried there. However, Setos are buried in the Orthodox cemetery," said Raudoja.
In Seto culture, it is said that the path leading to an ancestors' grave cannot become overgrown. However, Setos living in Estonia have not been able to get to the graves of their ancestors buried on the Russian side of the border in order to tend to them, for several years. First, due to the coronavirus pandemic and now as a result of Russia's war in Ukraine.
"It's very difficult, because I've been brought up with this culture since I was born. For grandmothers, who are now here on the Estonian side, (it is difficult not knowing) whether they can they still get to their ancestors' graves, and if the border will be opened," says Martin Kullasaar, a Seto, who lives in Värska.
"This is particularly important and especially sad for them. At the moment we can't take care of anything there ourselves, but luckily my mother and aunts have acquaintances, classmates and schoolmates who help by going there to clean the graves of our relatives," he explained.
The graves of Martin's grandparents and relatives are in both the Mõla and Taelova cemeteries in Petserimaa and he still knows exactly where they are located. "But, I have siblings and their children certainly don't know where their great-grandparents are buried." Kullasaar said.
This is where the newly created database of cemeteries in eastern Petserimaa, which currently lists 5,000 burial sites, can be of help.
Kullasaar explained, that the database contains beautiful, clear pictures of the graves, along with short descriptions and information about the dates that their occupants were born and died. There are even small maps of the cemeteries, which can help people to find where exactly their relatives are buried.
The idea for the database came about thanks to Triin Parts, who was working as a consul in Pskov. Parts was interested in the history of the region and wanted to record the burial sites of Estonians and Setos on the Russian side of the border.
However, as it turned out, compiling the database was not the easiest of tasks. Many of the graves do not have headstones, and a large number of burial sites are marked only by a cross.
"Families know who is buried where, and which graves are marked with a cross. However, (recording) who is buried there has not (previously) been considered important, as people passed down this knowledge from generation to generation. So, we are now hoping for the people who are using (the database) to come to our aid and add in this information," Raudoja said.
He added that there are well over 5,000 graves of Setos and Estonians in Petserimaa, information about all of which is being added to the database.
More information about the database (in Estonian) and the database itself can be found here.
Editor: Michael Cole