If Estonians are mainly Lutherans then Setu follow the Russian orthodox/ Greek-Catholic orthodox religion. They have been strong believers for a rather long period of time. For instance during the Soviet regime when all religious activities were banned by the state the Setus decided to build new wooden churches. When they could not build the church during the day they would do it undercover of night and when the officials tore the construction down they would build it back the night after. Etc. Even today the monastery of Petseri is an important Russian orthodox monastery with its legendary sandstone caves. There are about 80 monks in this monastery now.
But what makes the Setus a special people is not so much their religion but their ancient oral cultural heritage. The Setus remember their ancient customs, folk songs, tales, dances and rituals remarkably better than all other regions in Estonia. A subsistantial amount of folk song texts in the Estonian Literature Museum have been recorded in Setumaa. The remarkable aspect here is that the songs sung by some illiterate Setu singers have been estimated to be over 5000 years old and several experts claim the Setu people to be the oldest settled people in Europe – they have not participated in any migrations.
Next to Christianity the Setu people have held on to their ancient pagan beliefs. Until quite recently it would have been no surprise to find a primeval wooden statue of fertility god Peko hidden somewhere near to the picture of Jesus. Until the beginning of the 20th century the Setus made blood sacrifices to Peko in secret rituals – full-grown men would fight until blood is spilled. Worshipping the souls of dead ancestors is still a vital practice. In the1970s I myself had the opportunity to observe the Setus celebrate All Souls’ Day. It took place at the cemetery. Ancestors’ graves were turned into dinner tables with food and drinks on them. The Setus ate and drank there and offered to visitors, leaving a meal also for the dead ones as they left. A real primeval experience as I recall it now. By the way until the 1950s the Setus accompanied their work in the fields with communal singing.
Crisis of Identity
The problem of Setus was that the Russians have always tried to indoctrinate them and the Estonians on the other had consider them Estonian. With independence of Estonia in 1918 according to the Russian-Estonian border treaty Setumaa belonged to Estonia. At conferences held in 1920s and 1930s about the Setus the general attitude was that “Setus should become Estonian”. And actions were taken by the government to reach this goal.
The identity of Setus was once again put on trial during the Soviet regime. When in 1950s under the rule of Stalin private farms were turned into faming collectives many Setus found themselves to be unneeded at their homes and wandered out to cities. And the more wealthy farmers were deported to Siberia. All through the Soviet time children in Setumaa had to learn in Estonian or in Russian language while both Estonians and Setus lived in the constant fear that all education will be converted to Russian. The state was meant to be a melting pot subsuming all cultural differences. Setu language was only used at home amongst family. People would even be ashamed of their language hiding their Setu origin for decades.
The new border treaty between Estonia and Russia (ratified by Estonian Parliament on the 22nd of June 2005) was one of the most recent blows on the Setu people. During the independent republic of Estonia all of Setumaa belonged to Estonia. In the Soviet Union they were a part of one Russian county but there was no border between Estonia and Russia then. But the new Estonian-Russian border runs through Setumaa, dividing the people in two. Petseri, the biggest town in Setumaa lies now in Russia. When before all the roads lead to Petseri, these roads now have no entry signs. This has created a virtual wall between the Setu people analogous to the Berlin wall. There have been cases when an emergency car had to drive across a field to reach the accident, a bus-driver emptied the tyres of his bus to be able to cross under a railway, several people have applied for a multiple entry visa for Russia to be able to visit the graves of their parents etc.
Rather late but finally time has become more supportive for the Setu people. Estonian republic no longer follows the strategy of state being a melting pot but rather a salad bowl where different people are able to preserve their origins and cultural differences. Being different is now an advantage rather than something to be ashamed of. A Setu support group has been created in the Estonian parliament. Six conferences on Setu issues have contributed a great deal to the revitalization of Setumaa. Even ideas such as cultural autonomy for Setumaa, a separate Setu law etc. have been suggested but not broadly accepted.
August 20. 1994 Setumaa was declared a kingdom. This date is considered the event of rebirth for Setumaa. Even though the monarchy lasted for one day only it captured the attention of whole Estonia. On this day besides the king, also the king’s singer, giant-hero, glove and belt-knitter, baker, brewer and other officials were elected. People also decided upon the earthly embodiment of the mythical king Peko, they sang the hymn of Setumaa and performed ancient rituals. Supposedly some Finnish people in eastern part of Norway also declare their kingdom for one day every year. Finnish people have also shown great interest in the Setus.
The biggest highlight of the Setu Kingdom Days is leelo – a primordial way of singing which has regained popularity amongst the Setu people. Choirs have appeared uniting the old and the young generations of singers. Leelo is a way of singing where a soloist is singing a verse which is then repeated polyphonically by the entire choir. When hearing leelo for the first time it might sound as strange as for example the joig of the Saamis in Finland. In any case the aim of leelo is not bel canto or beautiful singing but expressivity. The soloist can be improvising – singing about what he or she sees or thinks at the moment. By the way in the Soviet time some leelo singers served a political order singing about the greatness of Stalin and communism in leelo- form. A more absurd situation would be difficult to imagine.
Setu language is no longer a matter of shame but of pride. A newspaper called “Setomaa” is being published now, several radio stations send programs in Setu language, one can join Setu portals and mailing lists on the internet. Schools are using study books and literature in Setu, children study about the cultural history of Setumaa, stage plays in Setu language etc.