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Siberian Estonians

Siberian Estonians

ETHNONYM: Eestlased


Currently, there are approximately 20,000 Estonians in Siberia. Most are descendants of the volunteer settlers who went there around the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Today, some have started referring to themselves as "Eestlased"Siberian Estonians. In western Siberia, Estonians live mostly in the Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, and Kemerovo regions and, in eastern Siberia, in the Krasnoyarsk and Primorsk regions. Estonians are the main population of the Estonian Republic (approximately 1.1 million people). There are also large numbers of ethnic Estonians living in Russia, Australia, Canada, the United States, and Sweden. The Estonian language belongs to the Baltic-Finnish Subgroup of the Finnish-Uric Group of the Ural Language Family. The writing system is based on the Latin alphabet.

History and Cultural Relations

The first settlers in Siberia were administrative and criminal exiles who were moved to the village of Rizkovo in Tukalsk County of the Tobolsk region, on the order of Czar Nicholas I. The plan was to make this village the home for all the Lutheran exiles (Germans, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Swedes, etc.). The plan was never carried out, however, as there was not enough land for the settlers, different nationalities did not get along, and disorder (fights, drunkenness, and robbery) became a problem. Thus, following a proposal by the Evangelist Lutheran Consistory, a new Lutheran community was founded on the Om River, where most of the inhabitants of Rizkovo then moved. Most Estonians moved to the village of Revel (Virukula).

In the 1850s and 1860s new Estonian colonies appeared in eastern Siberia as well. In 1850 an exile by the name of Uri Kuldmae founded the village of Upper Suetuk in the Minusinsk region and in 1861 another Estonian village, Upper Bulanka, was founded nearby. Most of the exiles in both western and eastern Siberia led an unsettled life, however; some were hired as craftsmen or worked in gold mines, and some lived by burglarizing neighboring Russian villages or were simply homeless. It took some years to turn the Estonians into agriculturalists.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century voluntary migration of Estonian peasants to Siberia began. Thousands of landless and land-starved peasants set off to the inner regions of Russia, including Siberia, in their quest for better life. The migration process was accelerated considerably by construction of the Siberian railroad in 1891-1899. In 1897, 4,202 Estonians lived in Siberia (2,031 out of them in the Tobolsk region and 1,406 in the Eniseji region). The largest settlements (besides the above-mentioned) were the villages of Kovalevo and Zolotaja Niva in Tukal County of the Tobolsk region. In 1895-1990, twenty-three Estonian villages were founded in Siberia, and in 1899 Estonians reached the Pacific coast, where the village of Novaja (New) Livonija (Liivikula) was established.

Migration to Siberia culminated during the period of the Stolypin agrarian reform (1906-1911). Large Estonian colonies appeared in western Siberia in 1907-1909; a total of more than 40 Estonian settlements were established in Siberia after 1906. In 1918 over 40,000 Estonians lived in more than 150 villages there. Pastor A. Nigol, who went to the Estonian settlements of the Tobolsk region in 1917 wrote: "Everything here is almost the way it is in the motherland. There is no trace of any kind of Russian influence."

On 4 February 1920 a peace treaty between Soviet Russia and the Estonian Republic was signed in Tartu. One of the provisions of this treaty was the option of Estonian citizenship for all the Estonians living in the lands of the Russian Federation. Thousands of Siberian Estonians opted for Estonian citizenship and returned to their ethnic homeland. The majority of Estonians chose to stay in Russia, however. In 1926 there were 32,000 Estonians in Siberia.

A major cultural revival occurred in Estonian villages in Siberia during the 1920s and 1930s. Schools were opened everywhere, teaching was conducted both in Estonian and Russian, and the network of clubs, reading rooms, and "red corners" grew. Many of the Estonian settlers were literate, but they did not speak Russian fluently (in 1922 in the Tomsk region only 3 percent of Estonians could speak Russian well, and 55 percent did not speak it at all). For this reason, the Estonian press remained popular. In 1920 the newspapers Siberi tooline (Worker of Siberia) and Toolise kalender (Worker's Calendar) came out. The Siberi teataja (Siberian Herald) and Kommunaar (Communar) and its literary supplement Vus kula (New Village) were very popular. In these were published the work of journalists Eduard Paal, Felix Kotta, Anton Nimm, and others. In addition, the Siberian Estonians knew of the newspaper Uus ilm (New World), published in the United States for American and Canadian farmers of Estonian ancestry.

In 1937-1938, under the cover of the struggle against "national democracy," all the Estonian newspapers published in the former USSR were closed, as were all Estonian institutions and clubs. Approximately 200 Estonian schools closed, and many teachers were repressed. All these measures had a negative influence on Estonian culture, and led to the exclusion of Estonians from industry and the sequestering of Estonian as a household language.

In the 1960s the kolkhoz movement grew, but many Siberian Estonian villages were not considered worth developing. The youth of these villages began to move either to villageswhere housing and cultural institutions were built and where there was a need for laboror to cities. Many left for Estonia. Moreover, as a result of ties between Siberian Estonians and other ethnic groups, there were many mixed marriages. The overwhelming majority of Estonian-Russian and Russian-Estonian families chose a Russian identity. These occurrences led to a continuing diminishment of Siberian Estonians as a distinct group.

Attempts to revive the Estonian national culture in Siberia face many obstacles, primarily related to the small population and dispersed settlement of the group. In recent years, however, amateur art groups have been created anew in many villages. The Estonian folk festival "Baltics 1989" was held in the village of Tsvetnopolje of the Odessa District of the Omsk region. Certain craftsmen and professionals among the Siberian Estonians carve wood, knit, and weave. The number of Estonians engaged in professional occupations and sports is growing, and includes the poet A. Sarg, the author of "Poem about Rizkovo," and the gymnast N. Puusepp.


In Siberia, Estonians settled in hamlets (talu ) or villages (kula ) built along riverbanks or close to artesian springs. Very few settlements were along roads or the railroad line. Dispersed housing was predominant in the villages. A homestead included buildings for housing cattle, barns (ait), and bathhouses (saun ) in addition to the house. Usually a decorative garden with several trees or berry bushes was adjacent to the house.

Often, the Siberian Estonians used a threshing barn (rehielamu, rehutuba ) as living quarters; it consisted of two partsthe living area itself and the threshing floor. Later the Estonians copied the Russian type of housinga wooden five-wall house on a high stand. Siberian Estonians frequently built houses with several rooms (a kitchen, a hall, and a storeroom). In the steppe zone, clay houses were sometimes constructed. Of public buildings, schools stood out: there were some two-story buildings and "people's houses" (rahvamaja ).

The interiors of the houses had many distinctive decorative elementsfor example, wardrobes, linen trunks, carved wooden beds, and home-woven blankets and runners. The table usually stood by the window across from the stove. Estonians used mostly Russian stoves.

Carved shutters were the usual decoration of the house. In the steppe zone, a simple geometrical design prevailed. Sometimes, as in neighboring Russian villages, the ends of logs of the frame were painted white.


In the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the main economic pursuits of the Siberian Estonians were agriculture and animal husbandry. Hunting, fishing, and subsidiary activities (gathering berries, mushrooms, and nuts) were popular mainly in the taiga regions but were of secondary importance. In industrial arts, the Siberian Estonians made tar, baskets of linden and birch, weavings, and furniture of various kinds of wood. Among them were many shoemakers, plumbers, coopers, woodcarvers, blacksmiths, stove makers, and butter makers.

For transportation, Estonians used horses harnessed to sledges and carts. Carts (vanker ) did not, on the whole, differ from those used by the neighboring Russian population. Estonians made sledges (saan ) with the runners turned up and a high back. Boat (punt) making was found mainly in the Far East, where fishing was the chief economic pursuit. Keel boats were constructed for ocean excursions. In western Siberia, mostly wooden, flat-bottomed boats were made.

Clothing. Traditional ethnic attire was popular until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was replaced by urban-style dress. Men wore linen shirts with a straight collar line (särk ) and trousers (püksid ); sometimes they would wear a lace-up vest with the shirt. In winter they wore fur coats or sheepskins. Headgear consisted of hats (shapka ) or caps, and footgear was boots or leather past-lads. The women's costume was distinctive. It consisted of a blouse cut with a pronounced waistline and a skirt (seelik ), either checkered or with vertical stripes, with a decorative round metal buckle. As headgear they would wear scarves (ratik ) on a base of fabric or metal, sometimes decorated with beads. Estonian knitted itemssuch as mittens (kindad ), stockings (sukad ), socks (sokid ), and scarves (sall )were quite beautiful. They had a floral or, more rarely, a geometrical pattern.

Food. Estonian cuisine included hundreds of different dishes. The most popular ingredients were farmer's cheese (kohupiin ), butter (või ), cream (koor ), and sour cream (hapukoor ). Meatincluding pork, beef, lamb, and poultryplayed an important role in the diet. Almost every Estonian family made blood sausage with pearl barley (kholodets, sult, jahuliha ). One of the most favored dishes was potato stew with meat sauce. Of desserts and pastries, rhubarb pies were popular, along with those that had bird-cherry, beet, carrot, or berry fillings. The beverage of choice was birch kvass (kali ) or, more rarely, tea or juice.

Marriage and Family

The main pattern was the small monogamous family based on a separation of labor by sex. Cases of discrimination against women were very rare. In the last decades, many family rituals have changed. A number of rituals connected with the birth of a childsuch as pouring the baptism water on an apple tree or on a rose bush in blossom or throwing a bowl of holy water over the roof of the househave disappeared. It remains a custom to give presents to the mother and child, however. The marriage ceremony is staged as a performance that includes some national traditionsengagement, delaying the marriage procession to get ransom, the groom's search for his bride in a crowd of other women, the ritual of taking the wreath off the bride's head, and others.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. In the spiritual culture of the Siberian Estonians, folk wisdom played a rather important role, including technological know-how, meteorological observations, and knowledge about animal behavior and medicine.

Almost everywhere the folk holiday of Ivan Kupala (Saint John the Baptist; Jaanipaev) is celebrated, as are religious holidays, such as Trinity (nelipuhad, suvestipuha ), Christmas (joulupuha ), and others.

The majority of the believing EstoniansProtestantsare Lutherans; among them some traces of pagan religion remain, however; for example, beliefs in good and bad house spirits, witches, and in certain animals.

Medicine. Together with rational elements (herbal therapy and labor therapy), all kinds of charms to stop bleeding, treat colds, and get rid of warts were popular.

Arts. The most highly developed kind of folk art was folklore. Even now, many older people remember fairy tales, legends, proverbs, riddles, and songs. Singing was accompanied by the cannel (a stringed musical instrument resembling a psaltery), guitar, or balalaika. Until the late 1930s in many Estonian villages there were wind-instrument orchestras that played at public festivities, weddings, and funerals. Of the ancient Estonian songs"Minu isamaa on minu arm" (My Estoniamy love), with lyrics by the poet L. Kojdula, and "Kui Kungla rahvas kuldsel ajal" (Song about Vanemujnen), together with a number of ritual marriage and funeral songswere the best known. Nowadays young people prefer soft rock 'n' roll and modern Estonian singers (J. Joala, A. Veski, T. Magi, and others). Of fairy tales, the fairy cycle "Kaval Ants ja vanapa" (Sly Ants and the Devil) is the most popular: in it the smart and clever peasants constantly cheat the evil but stupid devil. Some also know the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg (Kalev's Son).

Death and Afterlife. The funeral ceremony has remained more stable than the customs associated with the wedding. As in older days, only the closest relatives are invited to the funeral, neither nine nor forty days are marked, and the memorial dinner is held right after the funeral.


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E. V. LOTKIN (Translated by Olga Beloded)

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