This is the final installment in a series on my experience of Estonia on the occasion of its 20th anniversary of re-independence from the Soviet Union. In what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” residents of this Baltic state wielded a long-held cultural practice as a weapon of change, without a drop of blood spilled. Over the four years between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly in a series of spontaneous events to sing prohibited patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence, culminating in a choral event that close to one-third of the country’s citizens attended.
Expressing their national identity through song has been an Estonian tradition for as long as memory serves — the Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1.5 million pages of folk songs and there are continual competitions and festivals around the country. The country’s “choir culture” is flourishing, with music continuing to serve as the force that unites Estonians as they enter the third decade of their fledgling democracy.
Estonia is a window into how one small country moved from living in fear under a totalitarian system to an environment of such openness that today it is known as one of the most “wired” nations in the world. In my journey across this small country, I met a cross-section of people whose experiences tell the story of Estonia’s past, present and future — and provide powerful lessons in how the irrepressible human spirit can overcome bondage. While there, I had my own awakening, realizing that repression can also be self-imposed and that freedom sometimes is simply a choice to cast off old chains of ancient history and embrace today.
After three weeks travelling across Estonia, I had come to the end of the road—literally. In the far southeastern corner of the country, in area known as Setomaa, or “Land of the Seto,” I found myself on Russian soil.
About eight kilometers outside Värska, my guide Elina and I drove along a narrow ribbon of road that sliced through dense woods. Elina pumped the car’s brakes and as we slowed, she pointed into the trees standing sentinel in close formation along the rural route.
“After the Estonian independence in 1991, Russia made the border according to their wishes, not respecting the 1920 Tartu peace agreement,” Elina told me. “The border here follows the one delineated by the 1946 Soviet government and for about 200 meters the road is in Russia. One is not allowed to stop the car nor get out of the car here. Once I was guiding an English writer in this area and almost immediately, a Russian border guard patrol appeared. The border is under radar surveillance—after all, it is only a line in the forest.”
Despite the warmth of the August sun, I felt an involuntary shudder. The specter of a sinister Soviet soldier snatching me away to Siberia was conjured by the cumulative effect of being in a foreign country for a few weeks, combined with mental re-runs of the TV program “Locked Up Abroad” and childhood memories of diving under my desk in elementary school as a siren shrieked, signaling an air raid drill.
I shook off the evil apparition and turned to face Elina, who mischievously grinned at the look on my face. She turned serious, and explained that the Seto are an ethnic minority whose land spans the Estonian-Russian border. Their culture developed from both Eastern and Western influences—their expression kato ilma veere paal means “on the border of two worlds.”
Over several days, I spent time with members of the Seto, and came to learn how that invisible line in the wilderness had affected the lives of generations. I also came to understand that even in societies that have suffered from oppression, there are those who are less understood. I saw how the power of song unites the Setos, just as it does for the broader community of Estonians of which they are a part. And during my stay in Setomaa, I crossed invisible borders within myself, breaking free from fears that had held me back and finding a song of my own.
Having stared down an invisible boogeyman of my Cold War era youth, Elina turned the car around and we headed back toward Värska to the Seto Farm Museum.
“What is so extraordinary about this open air museum is that it was a female initiative–traditionally Seto culture is male-based,” Elina told me en route. “Four or five women decided that they would not let the village slowly die as the younger people moved to bigger cities. They founded this place–bought the plot, brought the buildings from different parts of Seto land and recreated a traditional Seto family household.”
“Ethnographically the Museum gives a good general view of Seto lifestyle, their handicrafts, their cycle of life, marital, funeral and other customs,” she explained. “Every year they have permanent and changing exhibitions, and plenty of workshops that make the traditions alive and living. They have succeeded in saving some of the dying traditions, such as colorful lace making.”
Indeed, as I explored the Museum’s collection of buildings set around a green field where sheep and goats grazed, I found vibrant, whimsical splashes of color adorning the ruddy walls of hand-hewn timber. One barn featured an exhibit of socks knitted in a spectrum of brilliant shades of blue and decorated with an assortment of snowflake-like patterns. Elsewhere, hanging from the rafters were tapestries in rich hues of red, emblazoned with geometric designs.
The dominating colors of the Seto culture are red and white, which are embued with deep meaning. Red is associated with the sun, fire and blood and can have both good and bad connotations for the Seto. This color can symbolize activity, birth, strength and vitality–but it may also stand for vanishing, disappearing, dying out and even death. Red signifies something that is important and sacred, and for vitality and persistence.
Red in the Seto dialect is verrev, which originates from the word for “blood.” Light red is referred to with kumack. The materials used by the Seto have changed over time–deep red yarn was brought from Riga by Seto merchants in the 19th century, and cotton eventually replaced wool. These developments influenced the shade of color predominant in successive eras–the older the textile, the lighter the color red used.
Inside the main building of the Museum, an elderly woman wearing a kerchief sat at a picnic table with a stack of mittens in front of her. Across the table, a heavy bespectacled woman punched numbers in on a calculator, then wrote out a receipt and handed it to the white-haired matron who grinned. While the handicraft tradition originated with items being created out of necessity, today there is a thriving market among tourists for the pieces as treasured folk art.
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