The Veps: people with ancient roots

Most Veps live in Petrozavodsk, but it is the ancient village of Shyoltozero that is considered to be the center of the Vepsian national district, where you can meet real Veps.

Most Veps live in Petrozavodsk, but it is the ancient village of Shyoltozero that is considered to be the center of the Vepsian national district, where you can meet real Veps.

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Descendants of the legendary Ves, often cited in ancient Russian chronicles, are alive and well in Karelia. The identity of this small, but stubborn Finno-Ugric people is manifested in very unexpected ways.

A roughly hewn wooden idol stands on a neatly trimmed green lawn. Behind it, there is a two-storey log hut, built in the traditional northern style, with carved architraves and overhanging balconies.

This is what the centre of the ancient village of Shyoltozero in Russian Karelia looks like today. Located around 60 miles from the regional capital, Petrozavodsk (600 miles from Moscow, 270 miles from St. Petersburg), Shyoltozero is also described as the capital of the Veps, a small group of people of Finno-Ugric descent.

Putin connection

The Veps however, have not always been a small community of people. The mighty tribe once controlled almost the entire northwest of present-day Russia, occupying an area larger than several European countries.

Russian history is closely linked to the Veps; Russia's early chronicle, ‘Tale of Bygone Years,’ relates how four tribes, "the Chud, Slovenes, Krivichi and Ves,"took the decision to invite Rurik's Varangians.

The Veps call themselves descendants of the legendary Ves. The medieval Arabs knew them as Wisu, while an Ostrogothic (Eastern Goth) historian called them ‘Vasina broncas’. Most rivers and lakes in this part of Russia bear Vepsian names.

However, the legendary days are gone. The chronicled Ves have assimilated over the years. Part of the Ves joined the related Karelian and Vepsian people, the other part joined the Russians.

The Estonian writer Jaak Prozes some years ago even published a sensational book called "Is Putin a Veps?" ("Kas Putin on vepslane?") The author suggested that the Russian President's ancestors could be from Karelia or the Leningrad Region, inhabited by the descendants of the Ves. Researchers conducted a study but found no evidence to support the hypothesis, although they did not rule it out completely either.

Stubborn trait

Today there are very few Veps. There were 32,000 Veps in Russia in the census of 1926, but only 6,000 people identified themselves as Veps in the 2010 census.

Most Veps live in Petrozavodsk, but it is the ancient village of Shyoltozero that is considered to be the centre of the Vepsian world, where you can meet real Veps. However, most of them are not fluent in their native language.

gov.karelia.ruA road sign reads: Shyoltozero.
gov.karelia.ruThe local museum
gov.karelia.ruA man in traditional costume
 
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Russian authorities now support the Vepsian language. It is taught in schools and at Petrozavodsk State University. There are newspapers and magazines in Vepsian and also radio programmes. But the language is barely needed for everyday life, so it is gradually fading out of use.

Some distinct traits of Shyoltozero's inhabitants have been clearly preserved and sometimes manifest themselves in the most unexpected ways. In recent elections, for example, Shyoltozero head Irina Safonova was struck off the electoral lists because of a failure to file proper paperwork. The village perceived it as an encroachment of its autonomy. When Shyoltozero residents went to the polls they voted against all candidates on the ballot. The elections had to be repeated, and Safonova won on the second ballot.

Cool Veps

Stubbornness, together with an awareness of their ethnic identity, gives hope that the legendary Ves will not get lost and disappear, but be preserved.

Maria Kosheleva. Source: gov.karelia.ru

Maria Kosheleva. Source: gov.karelia.ru

"In Soviet times, many Veps were too shy to admit their ethnicity," Maria Kosheleva, a teacher of the Vepsian language, told RIR. "It was considered to be unfashionable, not prestigious. If you were a Veps, it meant that you were from some remote village, not a modern person.

"Now, in the context of globalization, people are beginning to increasingly search for their identity, return to their roots, and I see a growing interest in Vepsian language and culture. Young people are actively involved in all national events, and clearly position themselves as the Veps. It is becoming fashionable."

Renowned Vepsian poet Nikolai Abramov; whose books have been published across Europe, from Estonia to France; said in an interview, "A hundred years ago, a Finnish researcher wrote that the Veps would disappear within two or three decades. However, a century has passed, and we still raise this issue."

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