On the border of Estonia and Russia, the Setos struggle to create a modern identity from ancient beliefs
On two sides of a disputed border lies a kingdom. It is young in age and ancient in beliefs, forged from the chaos of the Soviet Unionâ€™s collapse.
The people of this kingdom are the Setos, an indigenous ethnic minority of just a few thousand people from Setomaa, a small region nestled between southeastern Estonia and northwestern Russia.
The Setos have fiercely maintained their traditions for centuries. Those include their ancient polyphonic singing, recently recognized on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
But theyâ€™ve also created entirely new traditions, complete with their own royalty, to stave off modern threats to their cultural identity.
The greatest threat today is a border between Russia and Estoniaâ€”traditionally more of a suggestion than a demarcationâ€”that divides the Setos. The border shifted multiple times over the 20th centuryâ€”a span that saw two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and the early stirrings of a European Union.
But by the mid-1990s, Estonia was relishing its post-Soviet independence. And the borderâ€”though still not ratified to this dayâ€”was becoming an enforced one, dividing Setomaaâ€™s Russian and Estonian sides. Yet it was also dividing the Setos from one another, cleaving their crop fields, churches, and cemeteries.
â€œThe border came, and it broke their daily life,â€ says Elena Nikiforova, a research fellow at the Center for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg who conducted field work in Setomaa as the border was strengthened.
â€œThe border became this trigger for them to start thinking of themselves as a separate people,â€ she says. â€œBeing divided by the border, they became united.â€
Unable to alter the course of foreign policy and torn between two countries, the Setos in 1994 declared for themselves a new, unified entity: the Kingdom of Setomaa.
Now, more than two decades later, they are keeping that kingdom alive.