Photo © Ash Bhardwaj

Film: The Culture of the Seto

Celebrating Easter the Estonian way.

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By Ash Bhardwaj

Filmmaker

11 Sep 2018 - 5 Minute Read

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Imagine living in a region that suddenly belongs to another country. That’s what happened to the Seto at the end of the Cold War.

The Seto are a group of indigenous Estonians – one of the oldest indigenous groups in Europe – and their land, Setomaa, is right on the border with Russia. Estonia was part of the USSR, and when new borders were drawn after the fall of the Soviet Union, part of Setomaa became Russian territory.

I became fascinated with the countries along the Russian border when I was in the Baltics as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence deployment. I decided to return and travel this line, exploring the history and schisms of the region. My goal, with all of my films, is get an eye-level insight into the big picture.

During my research, I learned about the Seto, who are unusual in that they’re Russian Orthodox while the rest of Estonia is largely Lutheran. Then, I found out Seto Easter was coming up. I had to experience this for myself.

The Seto impressed me immensely with their warmth and friendliness, welcoming me into the celebration – they are not the stoic people that they’re reputed to be. I was surprised that the Orthodox priests were so tolerant of Peko, the ancient Seto god of fertility, who still receives offerings from the locals. And I was surprised to learn about a quirk of the border (a New Iron Curtain) which cut the Seto off from a portion of their ancestral land.

Because of what national leaders did, far away in Washington and Moscow, the Seto had their lives turned upside down. But they’re philosophical about it, and proud that they’ve been able to maintain their unique culture through it all.

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Ash is a travel writer, filmmaker and storyteller who explores the world with curiosity, excitement, and a sense of adventure. He has just finished a 5,282mi (8,500km) overland from the top of Norway to Crimea.

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