St. Petersburg Oblast: Small peoples in the north at risk
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Vepsy, Ižory and Vožani could lose their lands. Already repressed in the Stalin era. They have affinities with Baltic and Finnish peoples. With war on Ukraine, they are back in the crosshairs of the authorities. Accused of separatism, extremism and of being 'foreign agents'.

St Petersburg (AsiaNews) - Having gone through the period of Stalinist repression, the small peoples of Northern Russia have maintained their language and traditions, but are in danger of losing their lands altogether.

In the Leningradskaya Oblast, the St. Petersburg region, there are officially three communities of small numbers: Vepsy, Ižory and Vožani. For many centuries they have occupied the areas around the shores of the Gulf of Finland, especially the Vožani, the most endangered, now concentrated in the small town of Lužitsy.

The ancient centre is now surrounded on both sides by the port of Ust-Luga and the gas processing and transport buildings of the Ruskhimaljans complex, and the local inhabitants are struggling to avoid its ultimate disappearance.

Lužitsy consists of around 100 buildings, spread along a couple of kilometres of the Narva state road, and has existed for over 500 years as the centre of the 'Vodskaja' (water) land.  Just over a hundred Vožanians live there, who are also present in the neighbouring village of Krakolje. Today, almost all of them are elderly; some are in other settlements in the province, in the city of St Petersburg and in neighbouring Estonia.

Their humble dwellings, for months buried in the snow, often look abandoned, and following the new port constructions in the 2000s, they were all destined to be demolished. The Vožani managed with enormous efforts to defend them, even though they were trapped by the port, living in isolation in their ancient forest, with almost no communication with the outside world. A museum of Vodskaja culture has even been opened in the village, called the 'Centre of Strength' of these ancient heirs of the first encounters between Scandinavians and Slavs.

The Vožani are believed to be the lightest-haired humans in the world, settled in the Gulf of Finland since the first centuries of the Christian era. Slavic chronicles speak of them in 1069, when the armies of Novgorod - a city of Rus' older than Kiev itself - conquered them. It is difficult to distinguish them from the other Balto-Finnic peoples of the region, but they still retain ancestral songs of their 'golden-haired and heavenly-eyed' daughters.

During the Soviet period, the authorities harshly repressed them and deported them, along with the Ižory and Ingermanlandtsy, driven into the territories of Finland and Karelia, without permission to return to their native villages, something that only became possible for some after the end of the Soviet Union. And now many of them dream of reconstituting the ethnicity of former times.

Estonian specialists at the glorious University of Tartu have dedicated themselves to preserving the language and culture of these peoples, such as the linguist and ethnographer Paul Ariste, who published much research on the subject during the Soviet years. Today in Tartu there is also a course in the Vodka language, considered a relative of Estonian, which the locals call Maaväci, the 'language of the land'.

The war in Ukraine has led to new hostile attitudes on the part of the Russian authorities, as noted by a resident of Lužniki, Ekaterina Kuznetsova, for fear of consonance with the Ukrainians: 'The Russians think that all the peoples around them are enemies, especially in these Baltic areas, the scene of so many wars.

At village festivals, Vožane and other local peoples' flags are traditionally displayed, which are now strictly forbidden, with accusations of 'separatism and extremism', and even of being 'foreign agents' paid for by Estonians or other western and northern enemies.

No words can be spoken in the ancient language, nor can folk costumes be worn outside museums. Legally, the Vožana ethnic group, like the similar Vepsy and Ižory ethnic groups, is not recognised as a subject to be protected, but the dramatic events of this year of war are reawakening the memory of the men and peoples of the north, buried by snow and history and now back in search of their own land, far from the horrors and death.