The Hitler-Stalin Pact Still Divides Setuland

You won’t find it on any map, but Setuland really does exist. The place is inhabited by the Setus, an agrarian people who have distinguished themselves as singers of marathon epics about their legendary king and fertility god, Peko. The Setus aren’t what you’d call a news-making minority, like the Kurds or Basques. They’re not striving for independence, and they number less than 8,000. Nevertheless, the fate of the Setus – whose historic homeland straddles the Russian-Estonian border – is at the heart of the botched relations between Moscow and its former Baltic vassals.

The Setus speak a dialect of Estonian but observe a unique blend of Russian Orthodox and pagan traditions. Pechory has long been their cultural center – in part because Peko is believed to be buried in the town’s stunning Russian Orthodox monastery. A 1920 border treaty included Pechory within interwar Estonia’s borders. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town found itself just inside Russia.

Officially there is still no border agreement between Russia and Estonia. Moscow has held up the treaty to win concessions for Estonia’s other ethnic minority: the Russians. Linking the border issue to the Russian community has only fed Estonian suspicions about its giant neighbor.

When Estonian President Arnold Ruutel visited the Kremlin last month, he raised hopes by saying the treaty could be signed during Moscow’s World War II anniversary commemorations in May. Ruutel also said that President Vladimir Putin had told him he would renounce the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which secretly apportioned large swaths of Eastern Europe to Stalin’s empire. In a matter of days, the Kremlin was backpedaling, explaining the infamous treaty could only be re-evaluated “historically.”

By renouncing the Hitler-Stalin pact, Putin could remove one of the greatest sources of mistrust among Russia’s Baltic neighbors. It seems incomprehensible that the Kremlin would forego such an easy opportunity to keep the moral high ground. This spring, all of Europe will pay its respects to the self-sacrifice of the Soviet people in fighting fascism. The tragedy is that just as the Red Army victory liberated millions of Eastern Europeans from Nazism, it also condemned them to four decades under the communist yoke.

All sides – especially the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia – could breathe easier if Putin acknowledged this paradox. Symbolic gestures often carry the most weight. With the exception of a few Setus, nobody is saying that old boundaries should be re-established. In fact, the demarcated border demanded by the European Union is already there, cutting right through Setuland.

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