A People on the Brink
Russian Life|March/April 2021
Over the past century, the ancient people known as the Votes has been exiled twice, has seen its language banned, and has faced the threat of having its villages razed. Today, although teetering on the verge of extinction, it holds fast to one of the last rights it enjoys – the right to bear and to say its own name.
Anastasiya Platonova

Zinaida Savelyeva is of pure Vote descent on both sides. She is the last fluent speaker of her native language, and knows its songs and poems by heart.

Living alone since her husband’s death, Zinaida often spends her evenings in the dark. The electricity has been turned off and the candle on the windowsill lights up only a portion of the table. Without her, the village of Krakolye in Leningrad Oblast would be a ghost town in winter. There are few true locals left, the seasonal residents have fled the frigid weather, and Krakolye is a wilderness of shuttered houses. The village is slowly dying, and that process was only accelerated when the school was moved to nearby Ust-Luga.

And when Zinaida goes to bed, she might lie awake for hours. Heavy building equipment is operating close by, and the noise is bad. Something – a gas pipeline, a road, a port – is always under construction around here. The thumping and thudding make it hard to fall asleep.

The 1950s: Peski (Liivcyla)

The sixteen-year-old Zinaida and her mother came home to the village of Peski in 1954. They had walked the whole way from the Estonian city of Narva, driving a cow before them. But they were not the only ones; other family members had left Narva earlier.

The trip took several days. The two women spent one night bedded down on sheaves of hay by the roadside and then, when they were almost home, they had stopped in to see relatives in a neighboring village.

A lot had changed in ten years. The village’s wartime military base was gone. Peski’s tall wooden church where Zinaida was baptized had been dismantled and moved to the settlement that had sprung up around the fish processing plant. Once there, it had been retrofitted to house a club and a library.

Leningrad Oblast’s Ust-Luga District, which borders on Estonia, had come under occupation as soon as the war began. And in 1943, the German High Command decided to uproot the Finno-Ugric peoples living in the occupation zone and relocate them to Finland. The Votes were swept up in that mass resettlement.

That name – Vote, Vod, and in their own language Vaddalaizod – is not easy to decode. In more ancient times, the Votes were called the Maavyachi (“the people of [this] land”), and they had lived here since at least the eleventh century, inhabiting territory to the northwest of Novgorod, near Ust-Luga Bay in the Gulf of Finland. The sources tell us that in those early days the Votes were mostly blacksmiths, fishermen, or farmers.

The late Olga Konkova, a historian who worked at St. Petersburg’s Center for the Indigenous Peoples of Leningrad Oblast, wrote that paganism and Christianity long coexisted here. As late as the sixteenth century, Orthodox priests were complaining that the Votes still prayed to idols on riverbanks and in the forests, bringing oxen, sheep, and birds to sacrifice, and that newborns were not taken to church for baptism until they had been seen by a sorcerer.

Census records make it easy to trace the changes in the Vote population. In 1848, 5,148 of them were counted in 36 villages. In 1919, the number had dropped to 1,000 and to 705 in 1926 (although those latter figures are generally considered to be underestimates). In 1943, only some 400 Votes were left. And that 400 included Zinaida, her male and female cousins, and her foster father and mother.

On December 3, 1943, everyone was rounded up and brought to the Ust-Luga railroad station. Zinaida, who was five at the time, vividly remembers that trip, which she made with her parents. Huge bonfires were burning at the station, and a military escort, with dogs, was waiting for them. People were loaded into freight cars and sent to the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia.

The family of Taisiya Mikhailova – mother, father, and three children from the nearby village of Luzhitsy – was better prepared than the Savelyevs for the journey. They had brought homemade lard bread, a tub of sauerkraut, and salted meat.

From Estonia the Votes were ferried to Finland, where Zinaida and Taisiya’s families were lodged with good people. The Vote men worked outside the home, the women helped with household chores, and the younger children soon felt comfortable in Finland and began speaking Finnish. But on September 19, 1944, the USSR and Finland signed an armistice. The Vote families in Finland started preparing for the return to their homeland, while the local Finns tried to disabuse them of the idea. “We’ve been told, we’ve heard on Russian radio, that they’re not taking you back home. You’ll be going to Siberia,” the Votes were warned. Taisiya, who now lives in Luzhitsy, recalls it as if it were yesterday.

The Votes brushed it all off. Late in 1944, they began their return journey. The trains took them as far as Vyborg, on Russia’s border with Finland, but they were allowed no closer to their homes. Taisiya’s final destination was in Tver Oblast and Zinaida’s in Novgorod Oblast.

Exile, wrote historian Olga Konkova, was a routine feature of Bolshevik repression: “The Votes were deported by design to the ravaged oblasts of northwest Russia. Many ran away in an effort to return home, but they were caught and sent back. And for those who did ultimately return, life would never be the same. Their houses had new owners (pursuant to a 1949 order mandating the sale of residential properties to newcomers); they were forbidden to speak Votic; and they were labeled enemies of the people.”

Zinaida’s family also tried to go home – in 1944 she actually attended school in her native village for six months – but then came an “invitation” to leave again, and the family moved to Narva. They put down roots there, as the older children married, bringing Estonian in-laws into their families. After Stalin’s death, though, the Votes still resolved to go back. At that point they had been away from home for a decade.

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