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01.05.23 - 24.04.24

100 years of Seto surnames

Setomaa (Seto Land) is an ethnographic region in Southeast Estonia that had been part of the Pskov Governorate of the Russian Empire and was ceded to the Republic of Estonia with the peace treaty signed between Russia and Estonia in 1920. This resulted in the formation of Petseri County populated by Orthodox Setos and Russians. Soon after Estonia gained independence, reforms started to modernize the outdated land management, education system and religious life organization in the county. One of the most massive reforms in Setomaa was assigning names to its residents as well as marking the land plots of village communities. People in other parts of rural Estonia had got surnames as early as 1822–1835, but most village folk in Petseri County had no surnames. There had been only a few Setos who had surnames before serfdom was abolished in the Russian Empire in 1861.

Under the Tsar’s rule, Seto peasants assumed a surname when they needed to execute notarial deeds or leave their home village, for instance, for employment or military service. The passport in such cases had to be purchased from the volost government or Kreis government, and this was the document in which the person’s surname was registered for the first time. In that period, the most common type of surname among Setos was a patronymic, a name formed on the basis of the father’s Russian baptismal name (For example, Yakov Petrov, Irina Dailova). Sometimes the surname would be formed by translating the person’s former byname into Russian. The byname could constitute a nickname used before surnames were introduced. A nickname could function as the unofficial surname or even as the common name for the entire clan. There were some surnames in the Seto language, mostly short ones, but very few are known.

In 1921, the assigning of surnames to the population of Petseri County and the villages beyond Narva had started. For this purpose, five surname assigning committees were formed in Petseri County for a relatively short term, from September to late December. The members of the committees attempted to refrain from using simple nature-related names widespread in Estonia, which Setos themselves would have liked to get. The committees mostly assigned compound surnames and those formed with suffixes. The work of the committees resulted in Setos being assigned a total of approximately 2500 different surnames. The popular folk nicknames for the members of the surname committees were “Apostles” or “Baptists” of Setomaa. But for a few exceptions, the surnames of present-day Setos date back to 1921.

The tradition of the first names that Setos have in common with the rest of Estonians is quite recent. It only became predominant in the decades after World War II. Setos’ first names during the Tsar’s rule showed no differences between generations. Modern Setos’ first names do not differ from Estonians’ first names. Setos’ older baptismal names come from the Church Slavic and Russian Orthodox names of saints. As a rule, Seto children would be given the baptismal name after the saint whose day was celebrated in the church calendar on the day of the baptism. Consequently, any first name was a saint’s name. Sometimes there could be two children with the same first name in one family if the church calendar allowed. Even in the 19th century, twins of the same gender would often be given the same baptismal name.

A greater incidence of a certain baptismal name does not necessarily mean the name was more popular in Setomaa; it primarily means there were more saints of this name and, consequently, more days associated with the specific name in the church calendar. This naming tradition was common in Setomaa for centuries. The number of baptismal names used by Setos was substantial: according to church records, around 250 Christian names were in use.

As a rule, Seto first names were based on vernacular forms of Russian names. These were short, mostly consisting of two syllables (Ivvo, Tepo, Luke, Varu), because one’s name had to be catchy and imposing in the first place. One baptismal name would usually have a number of Seto counterparts, and different forms would be considered suitable for different people. Calling people after their father’s name was rather widespread while married women were referred to after their husband’s or father-in-law’s name. In certain cases, the nickname or the name of one’s village could be used as a byname.

Sometimes a person would only be aware of his or her Seto first name, which created confusion during the Tsar’s rule and even later because only the baptismal names recorded in church metric books were used in documents. Mass literacy and the rapid growth of the influence of Estonian culture in the period of Estonia’s independence between the two world wars (1918-1940) as well as the decline of the church’s influence during the Soviet rule resulted in the waning of the old Seto naming tradition. 

Nowadays, compound surnames associated with romanticizing nature are primarily regarded as surnames ‘of the Seto origin’. The combination of a Russian baptismal name and an Estonian nature-related surname is nowadays mostly typical of the Setos of the older generation.

The exhibition has been curated by employees of Setomaa Museums: Ode Oras, Ivo Posti, Tiiu Kunst, and Merily Marienhagen. The author of the texts is Vahur Aabrams.
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