For Estonians, the border region of Setumaa is of deep cultural importance. It is viewed as a region of dislocated Finno-Ugric-ness, perhaps on par with the Finnish reverence for Karelia as something more Finnish than Finland proper. Setumaa plays this role in the Estonian mindset, a region populated by Setu -- who speak their own variety of Baltic-Finnish -- that is in someways more Estonian than just plain old Estonian.
Setu are considered people that have kept true to their roots more than the people of Tallinn of Tartu, and it is for this reason that people from these cities, as well as others in Estonia, got into their cars and traveled south to the village of Lüübnitsa this week to celebrate the Setu and to load up on onions.
We were among the many that went to Lüübnitsa. First we traveled south to Räpina, which is a pleasantly Estonian town, dominated by a Selver and a bus station, and then onwards through Võõpsu to the gravel road to Lüübnitsa. For Estonian roads, this one was crowded, and as we got near we could see why. Cars were parked on both sides of the road straight up to the little village which actually overlooks the waters of Lake Pskov, a section of Lake Peipsi.
As we discovered during an earlier trip to the Old Believer's villages north of Lüübnitsa -- Kasepää and Kolkja -- this week, the cash crop of the Peipsi region is onions. The Setu festival at Lüübnitsa proved no exception. People walked through the streets with baby strollers brimming with freshly bought onions. The dominance of onions in the marketplace is such that you really can't decide who's got the best, so you just randomly pick a seller and buy from them. In our case in Kasepää, the seller happened to be an attractive young woman. What luck!
The Old Believer's villages on Peipsi and the Setu villages have some things in common. They share the Orthodox religion and all its peculiarities -- babushkas, priests with long, dark beards and robes, and the Slavic habbit of building villages in tight groups of buildings, as opposed to the spread-out 'villages' you will find in Western Estonia of one homeowner per kilometer.
The greatest difference, of course, is the language. In Kasepää they speak Russian as they have been doing since they first arrived in Estonia in the 18th century to escape Orthodox Church reform. They also know Estonian, as my experience with the seller proved. But they speak Russian, with a slight accent, or even perhaps their own dialect. Where the urban Russian-speaker of Narva has a very straightforward "Da" for "yes", the old ladies of Kasepää said theirs with more 'ä', as in 'Dää'.
The Setu language, sometimes considered an off-shoot or sub-group of Estonian, is actually its own tongue. The linguistic similarities are such among Baltic Finnic language groups that even I can watch Finnish TV and understand what they are saying, or hear a Karelian song and know what it's about. Rather than having distinct border lines, the languages flow into one another, from Estonian to Ingrian to Karelian, or from Estonian to South Estonian to Võro to Seto.
Despite these similarities I still needed a translator when I tried to order food at the Setomaa Farm Museum in Värska, a Setomaa town right on the border with Russia, where we visited after we had enough folk music and onions at Lüübnitsa.
The top of the menu was dominated by a strange substance called suulliim, which I roughly translated to "suu" (mouth) and "liim" (glue). "Hmm, mouth-glue," I thought. "Not sure if I want to try that." Then there was oa-liha hämmätüs, which was total gibberish to me. 'Hammastas' in Estonian translates roughly as 'he bit', as in Andres hammastas mind (Andres bit me).
I was later informed that suulliim is 'külm supi' (cold soup) while 'hämmastüs' is 'kaste' (sauce). So much for Estonian helping me out there! They also sold sõir, the famous south Estonian cheese, which, quite telling, is also the Russian word for cheese.
One interesting factor that comes into play in Setomaa is the nearness of Venemaa, the mighty Russian bear, whose land stretches from Lake Peipsi to the Bering Straights. In fact, part of Setomaa lies on the Russian side of the border. In the years 1920 to 1945, a good chunk of what is known as Setomaa was in Petserimaa, which was later added to the Russian SFSR in 1945.
During the Soviet era this division of land meant relatively little. But since 1991, and the restoration of independence this arbitrary line through the heart of Setomaa marks the boundary between the European Union and the Russian Federation, making it difficult for Setus from Petseri Rajon to travel up to places like Lüübnitsa to sell their onions on special occasions.
During the run-up to the signing of the border treaty with Russia in 2005, then President Arnold Rüütel addressed those concerned about signing over Setomaa to Venemaa forever by saying that Setu from the Russian side of the border could be 'repatriated' to Estonia. However, like a lot of things that came out of Rüütel's mouth, I am not sure if that ever happened.