Setos (2015)


Setos are an ethnic and linguistic minority residing mostly in south-eastern Estonia and North-Western Russia. It’s a bit unclear, when and where have Setos come from: the first official document mentioning Setos is from 19th century. According to the most common theory the Setos are offsprings of ancient Baltic Finns. On the other hand one theory claims Setos to be slavic. The latter theory is not as widely spread and acknowledged as the first one. Go figure.


Source image: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see from the map, Setomaa is divided by two nations: Estonia and Russia.

Why’s that?

Estonia gained independence in 1918. The 1920 Tartu Peace treaty declared that green area (seen on the map) belonging entirely to independent Estonia. However, 24 years later Estonia was under Soviet rule, and the borderline between socialist republics were drawn once again. Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Estonia – once again – regained its independence, but the Soviet-drawn border remained, leaving Setos in between two nations.


Est. 10 000 – 20 000 Setos altogether, including those who live in Setomaa, and those who don’t. In Setomaa itself the Seto population is around 3000 – 6000 people. Despite Setomaa’s vast land area in Russia, the Seto population there is tiny: just barely reaching over 200 heads. Setos are mainly orthodox, unlike vast majority of Estonians (lutherans).


Modern standard Estonian has evolved on the basis of North Estonian. South Estonian dialects differ from standard Estonian (see examples below). Seto language, located in South Estonia, is furthest from the standard written Estonian. Some of standard Estonian speakers might have difficulties understanding Seto. (Yes, it’s that different.)

Seto is considered to be a dialect of the South Estonian Võro language. The difference between Võro and Seto is very tiny, but Setos consider Seto language to be a separate one. There are estimated 70 000 native Võro speakers, though only 5000 people who speak Seto as their first language.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Estonian: Kõik inimesed sünnivad vabadena ja võrdsetena oma väärikuselt ja õigustelt. Neile on antud mõistus ja südametunnistus ja nende suhtumist üksteisesse peab kandma vendluse vaim.

Võro: Kõik inemiseq sünnüseq avvo ja õiguisi poolõst ütesugumaidsis. Näile om annõt mudsu ja süämetunnistus ja nä piät ütstõõsõga vele muudu läbi käümä.

Seto: Kõik inemiseq sünnüseq avvo ja õiguisi poolõst ütesugumaidsist. Näile om annõt mudsu ja süämetun’stus ja nä piät ütstõõsõga vele muudu läbi kjauma.

Leelo – the singing tradition

The Seto Leelo, polyphonic singing tradition plays a huge part in Seto identity. In 2009 the Seto Leelo was added to the UNESCO list of world cultural heritage.

Setomaa and Setos today?

In 2015 Finno-Ugric capital of culture was Obinitsa village in Setomaa. This meant both Setomaa and Setos were in spotlight and widely seen in the media. Lönnroots marched straight to that spotlight and straight to those huge events set in Setomaa, but tried to see behind the curtain to get answers to following mind-boggling questions: what’s the deal with Setomaa and Seto people? How do Setos see their future? Is Seto language severely endangered? What are the challenges of Setomaa? How many schools and kids are left to carry on with the Seto language?