Forgotten Izhorian fishermen of Russia’s Baltic coast

Yelizaveta teaches the Izhorian language to anyone interested via the internet. Source: Oleg Skripnik

Yelizaveta teaches the Izhorian language to anyone interested via the internet. Source: Oleg Skripnik

There are several villages inhabited by the Izhorians, an ancient ethnic group that now number just a few hundred, in the vicinity of St. Petersburg. A visit to one of these settlements revealed how the Izhorians are keeping their culture alive.

"And then a fiery ladle flies across the sky, having grabbed someone's happiness," Nikita exclaims in a dramatic tone. He is a dark-haired, 30 year old, proud Izhorian man.

A dozen school children are listening humbly to Nikita, who has a stuffed forest spirit standing next to him, a doll in an Izhorian national costume. Classes at the Izhora museum in the village of Vistino (65 miles west of St. Petersburg) are not exactly what you might expect.

The Izhorians are a small group Finno-Ugric people, the original indigenous population of the section of Baltic coast between Narva in Estonia and St. Petersburg. Only a few hundred people now remain of this once powerful tribe. The Pope wrote about their harsh disposition in a papal bull in the 12th century, when several Latin missionaries who tried to convert these pagans (Izhorians) to their faith were brutally murdered.

A bilingual sign in the center of Vistino. Source: Oleg Skripnik

Numerous wars and the political upheavals of more recent times have placed the Izhorian culture on the brink of extinction; like a number of Russia’s 50 small indigenous ethnic peoples. However, the Izhorians have no time for stories about their plight.

A race of proud fishermen

Vistino, the centre of the Izhorian culture, is a clean village with paved roads, neat wooden houses with carved wooden architraves and small fruit orchards. Several typical urban high-rise buildings have wooden wells in their courtyards.

"But a couple of years ago, there wasn’t even one fence in the village," said Zinaida, who has lived here since 1935.

Fencing themselves off from one another is not in the Izhorian tradition, but their proximity to a developing major port, Ust-Luga, is encouraging them to take their safety more seriously.

Do not be misled by the asphalt road – the settlement is surrounded by a dark and dense forest. Last year, the inhabitants of Vistino had to take up arms and fight against an insolent pack of wolves that attacked the village.

Zinaida was born into an Izhorian family. She experienced the war as a child, having survived the horrors of the German occupation and concentration camps. For a long time, she worked as a fisherman, often risking her life in storms. Source: Oleg Skripnik

An Izhorian with a gun is a rarity – they are not hunters. But fishing is another story – it has always been their main, almost sacred occupation. People composed songs and proverbs about the sea, and women went out on boats on a par with men. Even the kannel (a native stringed plucked instrument), according to legend, was supposed to calm the raging Baltic Sea with the strains of its sounds.

The construction of the major commercial port of Ust-Luga on these lands has seriously hampered small boats navigating in the Gulf of Finland.

"There was no one to celebrate Fisherman’s Day for two years," one of the old women complained. "It was replaced with Izhorian Culture Day. But how can the Izhorian culture be without fishermen?"

Young Izhorian people recently began to form fishing cooperatives, giving rise to hopes for the revival of fishing. Now the majority of the residents of Vistino work in the port, and almost all have small farms.

In their spare time, they go to the club or stadium. Only 33-year-old fisherman Alexei follows the precepts of his ancestors: He provides for his family with subsistence farming, and the only modern technology he uses is a mobile phone.

Culture and religion

The saying there goes, ‘an Izhorian talks three times in his life; he cries at birth, agrees at his wedding, and groans before death’. They are a closed and self-absorbed people, who continue to largely adhere to pagan traditions.

Nikita has perfectly mastered the Izhorian language, which he taught himself as an adult. Now he teaches the language to children and works as a guide at the museum. He sings in a folk ensemble. Source: Oleg Skripnik

"Do we believe in spirits? We ... do not deny them," smiles local historian Nikita. "Our priest severely fights against it, but can you get rid of the tradition so easily?"

The Izhorians are adamant in their attempts to preserve their cultural heritage. Enthusiasts teach Izhorian language courses in St. Petersburg, and the state helps with the publication of textbooks and finances the only regional museum in Vistino, where Izhorian school students study their native language.

There are a few pots in a corner of the museum; they are left from a children's master class on the art of pottery. The museum also teaches embroidery, cooking, wood-carving, weaving, and even building.

Even now, when the area inhabited by the Izhorians has shrunk to a couple of villages, ancient rites, rituals and wisdoms play an important role in Izhorian lives. While the locals were, in fact, christened as early as the Middle Ages, their pagan traditions are still going strong.

For weddings, they dress up a fir tree and suspend it from the ceiling. They also use fir trees when seeing people off on their final journey, littering the road to the hearse with its branches. Relatives of the deceased keep these branches for 40 days and then burn them.

"They write that we have almost been assimilated," said Yelena Kostrova, the museum's director. "[In fact,] we do not expose our traditions, it's too personal. Of course, you can't see it from the city, you have to live with us a little longer."

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