Monday, January 23, 2012

Ancient Izhorian Tribes


The ancient Izhorian tribes of northwest Russia were dispersed across the country after the end of the Second World War. 

However, over the past 15 years an increasing number of Izhorians have returned to their native villages on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. 

They're now reviving their heritage and culture, including their native language and folk music.

Hundred and fifty kilometers south west of St. Petersburg lies the Soikinsky Peninsula, home to one of the most ancient tribes in the region – the Izhorians. Today, there are just 450 of them left, around half still live here, in and around the Vistino settlement. 

This bus is the only transport link between the regional centers. 

Nina Matveyeva has been a bus conductor for nearly twenty years. 

SOUNDBITE: Nina Matveyeva, bus conductor (speaking Russian): “It rarely happens today but back then many took the bus from here – no other language was heard, only Izhorian. They used to speak the language all of the time. My mother and aunt would get together and spoke only their mother tongue. We were never taught the Izhorian language.” 

Today, only the older generation speaks native Izhorian fluently. 

The Izhorians are an ancient tribe, which settled on the Gulf of Finland coast, on the Baltic Sea, centuries ago. The Novgorod Army conquered them in the thirteenth century. They adopted Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The Izhorians still wear traditional clothing, speak the language and sing traditional songs. 

The Izhorians were traditionally fishermen. During the Soviet regime in the 20th century, all of the small fish farms were combined into one large collective. Three years ago, work started on a new port in the area, which disrupted the natural habitat causing fish stocks to diminish. Most of the fishing boats were sold. A fish processing plant in the area became redundant, leaving people from the surrounding villages without jobs. 

The only remaining boat goes out to sea early in the morning and returns to the harbor late at night. It's a good day for the local fishermen – they have caught 10 tones of fish. They net mainly sprats along with herring and smelt. Today's good catch means that the fish, little by little, are coming back to the harbor waters, their original habitat. Residents see it as a good sign and believe they will soon have jobs again. Cases full of fresh fish are loaded into a freezer - the boat is anchored overnight and then heads back out to sea the next morning. 

SOUNDBITE: Vera Didenko, pensioner (speaking Russian): “I stuffed the pies with fish.” 

The Izhorian traditional cuisine is heavily influenced by fruits of the sea. Vera Didenko is having people around for dinner. Her daughter and granddaughter are helping. 

SOUNDBITE: Vera Didenko, pensioner (speaking Russian): “Now we are baking the fish...” 

They are cooking a traditional fish pie - called kala peerka. Following an old recipe, they bake sprats on logs in the oven. 

SOUNDBITE: Vera Didenko, pensioner (speaking Russian): “That’s how we cook fish – we bake the whole undressed fish and put it in the pie without cutting off the heads and bones. In the old days we ate it like this, but now I don’t want to eat it like this. You won’t eat ungutted fish and I won’t either.”

Then they knead the dough and leave it to rise. 

SOUNDBITE: Lyuba, Vera’s granddaughter (speaking Russian): “Granny, now I know what the flour is for – so that the dough won’t stick.” 

SOUNDBITE: Vera Didenko, pensioner (speaking Russian): “That’s right.” 

The dough has risen. Now it needs to be rolled and stuffed. It's baked for around an hour and is then taken out of the oven. 

SOUNDBITE: Vera Didenko, pensioner (speaking Russian): “Your pies are too small, but… oh well…” 

Singers from the Soikinsky Tunes company are visiting Vera today. They have written an anthem for the Izhorian land and want Vera to listen to it. 

SOUNDBITE: Zoya Konovalova, company soloist (speaking Russian): “Which line sounds better? It seems the same, but anyway, what’s better: “pellon mat vai peldon mat? Kuinu ugu shuyar? (Speaks the Izhora language…) 

Vera Didenko: – Pellon mat. 

Vera is a harsh critic, but she still approves the anthem. It will be performed on important occasions. But they haven’t quite finished composing the music yet, so they are using a well known Russian song about the homeland instead. 

This house was once used as a primary school. Then a decision was made to turn it into the fish farm’s museum. But because the majority of fishermen were Izhorian, it was based on their culture and heritage instead. The museum director, Natalya Cheyevskaya, is Russian. 

She is married to an Izhorian and has lived in the community for a long time. 

SOUNDBITE: Natalya Cheyevskaya, museum director (speaking Russian): “Well, I came here when you could still see Russians burying their family members in line with Izhorian customs. You call on them and they put on a spread, taking characteristic dishes to the table, which form a part of the traditional Izhorian culture.” 

All of the display pieces have been found in people's pantries and attics. Natalya is the museum’s only staff member. She is the director, book keeper and guide. 

SOUNDBITE: Natalya Cheyevskaya, museum director (speaking Russian): “I want to show you a shepherd’s butter dish. A very small butter dish. A shepherd’s whole lunch could fit in it. They hard-boiled an egg, minced it and mixed it with salted village butter. It was a very substantial meal. So, a hunk of bread, a bottle of milk, and this butter dish, and a shepherd was practically full for the whole day.” 

Just about the entire village goes the bath house on Saturdays. In this mixed Izhorian-Finnish family, the grandmother, Hilda Porfeyeva, is an expert at lighting the wood burning oven. 

SOUNDBITE: Hilda Porfeyeva, old-age pensioner (speaking Russian): “It’s fine, we at least have men. Otherwise old grannies would have a problem.” 

Hilda’s grandson, Nikolay, helps her fetch fresh water. A family of eight uses 14 buckets a day. 

Birch logs are used to heat the stove in the winter. It’s warmer this way. 

SOUNDBITE: Hilda Porfeyeva, old-age pensioner (speaking Russian): “This bath house is a hundred years old. My grandchildren are grown up and I now have great-grandchildren and we all wash here.” 

The stove doesn't have a chimney and the smoke from the burning logs fills the room. The room is aired before they can wash. 

SOUNDBITE: Hilda Porfeyeva, old-age pensioner (speaking Russian): “We’re coming in.” 

The bath house is heated for around 5 hours. It stays warm until the morning. 

During the winter, very few people live in the village of Pakhomovka. It doesn't even have a local grocery store at this time of year. A mobile shop stops at the village for around an hour each day. 

Anatoly Andreyev has traveled around Russia a lot and has lived in many different cities. When he retired, he returned to his place of birth. 

In 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the territory inhabited by the Izhorians was captured almost immediately. In 1943 the Izhorians were evacuated to Finland. At the end of the war they were repatriated in different parts of Russia. 

SOUNDBITE: Anatoly Andreyev, pensioner (speaking Russian): “I remember the concentration camp at Hanku. The huts with roofs shaped like this. The barbed wire, the watch-towers. Our POWs. Their forage caps, their great overcoats with upturned collars. They weren’t allowed to talk to us. But they watched the children…The Russian children. We spoke Russian. So, he would hang up his overcoat and drop a biscuit into the pocket… My mother would send me and I would take the biscuit and munch on it. And he’s standing right there with tears falling from his eyes. He has children somewhere.” 

Girls from the children’s folklore choir, called “Fisherwoman”, study the Izhorian language and learn folk songs and dances. But the classes mostly focus on traditional Izhorian handcraft. The head of the choir, Elena Kostrova, weaves Izhorian rugs from rags and also makes dolls. 

SOUNDBITE: Eena Kostrova, head of the children’s folk company (speaking Russian): “Here we have the embroidery. It’s from an old Izhorian costume. This is grass; this is a path; these are birds, cockerels, all from there.” 

The dolls don’t have faces because the Izhorians believe that evil spirits could enter them. 

Vistino is marking a significant day. The first Izhorian community meeting is being held at the cultural centre. They hope to successfully tackle environmental issues, to revive their culture and also simply to meet more often. 

A lot of people who went to the first Izhorian community meeting hadn’t seen each other for several years. 

SOUNDBITE: Vladimir Maksimov, mechanic from the tug-boat (speaking Russian): “After all, as they said, there were two hundred and forty of us, maybe more. But how many were here today? Thirty or forty at most. There’s likely to be more next time and even more later.” 
[Q]: “Are you pleased?” 
Vladimir Maksimov: “I certainly am.” 

After the end of the Second World War, this small community was scattered across Russia. During the last 15 years, increasing numbers of Izhorians have returned to their native villages on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. They have gone back to their heritage and culture, reviving it in memory of their native language and traditional Izhorian songs.

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