The Seto region, also called Setomaa, is the historical area of settlement of the Seto people in the south-eastern corner of the Republic of Estonia and the Pechory region of the Russian Federation. Setomaa is located on the border of Eastern and Western civilization, an area that remained quite isolated for centuries. Setos are separated from Estonians by religion and administrative border, while the Setos’ language, outlook and customs keep them distinct from Russians. The Setos have been influenced by both neighbours.
Archaeological finds show that human settlement in Setomaa goes back over 8,400 years. The oldest Stone Age settlement site was found in Meremäe village. Since 862, the majority of the Seto settlement areas have been controlled by Russia. In 1918, after World War I, historical Setomaa was incorporated into the Republic of Estonia and Petseri County was formed. After World War II, Petseri County became divided between Soviet Russia and Soviet Estonia. Today, about a quarter of historical Seto territory is controlled by Estonia; and three-quarters by the Russian Federation. In Estonia Setomaa is located in Võru county. The city of Petseri is the historical centre of Setomaa, but today Seto settlement has come to revolve around Värska. Estonia is home to 10,000 to 13,000 Setos, about 3,000 Setos in their native region. There are maybe around a hundred in the Russian Federation.
The Setos are Orthodox. Christianity reached Setomaa in the 10th century and continued through the 13th century. Numerous grave crosses survive from this era. After the Holy Dormition Pskovo-Pechersky monastery was founded in the 15th century, Christianity gained in influence. Yet Seto traditions still bear many pre-Christian traits. Church holidays are celebrated according to the old, Julian calendar. Such feast days are many and their significance varies from one region to another.
Many traditional features survive in traditions and culture. Setos have always had an oral culture – a vivid example of which is the traditional singing culture. The Setos have their own language that is part of the Southern Estonian family of dialects and is clearly distinct from their neighbours’ language. Top examples of material culture include the rich tradition of beautiful handicrafts. The Seto cuisine is also of interest, being influenced by both the Russian and Estonian culinary culture. Lenten foods also play an important role.
Setomaa is quite varied when it comes to terrain: relief ranges from the sandy and marshy plains lining Lake Pskov to the hilly outlying areas of the Haanja uplands. In between there are pine forests rich in berries and mushrooms, extensive cultivated flatlands and numerous rivers etching their way into the ancient underlying sandstone. In the south is the Irboska Plateau, with the most imposing natural sight in Setomaa: Irboska-Mole primeval valley. Chief natural resources are the mineral water in the Värska area and the lake mud in the bottom of the Värska Bay, used therapeutically at Värska sanatorium. Local clay and limestone have seen widespread use in construction in many regions.