The Russian villages along the lower western shore
of Lake Peipsi are unique, even when compared to other Russian
settlements within Estonia.
The Russians on the Estonian side of the lake
settled there from 1650,
when the Russian Orthodox Church was reformed. The great schism saw
the Old Believers secede from the main Church in protest against
ecclesiastical reforms introduced in Russia by Patriarch Nikon. Those who wanted to keep the old faith moved,
and some settled on the Estonian side of Peipsi, at a time when
Russian influence in Swedish-controlled Estonia and Livonia was growing.
Generally known as raskolniks, or Russian
Old Believers, they
formed chains of villages along the shoreline, and the
German and Swedish landowners allowed them to continue as they
found no real use for the land in a countryside that had always been
sparsely populated. The new arrivals knew how to fish the lake,
providing a new resource for the region. The Peipsi fishermen were so skilled
that they were able to sail all the way
to Lake Ladoga (to the north-east of St Petersburg) to fish, then
stop off in St
Petersburg to sell their catch before returning back home.
Those Peipsi Russians who did not fish tried to make the best of their tiny strips
of land, so they grew onions that they sold mostly in St Petersburg, along
with cucumbers. The whole idea or existence of the Peipsi Russians and their settlements was based on
a love for the land and hard work.
The huge onion fields were tended in the autumn,
the onion cutting season. Large groups of people would sit around a huge pile of onions
cutting the roots and other parts and sorting them into boxes.
During Easter there was a special tradition which involved an egg rolling game.
A special field would be made of a type of orange sand which is
specific to the region. The field would be round and extremely even,
so that competitors could roll their eggs and try to hit someone
else's egg. If they succeeded, they won the extra egg.
Estonians were not sure how to deal with these
Russian immigrants, but they proved to be good neighbours, and most
were able to learn the Estonian language. Estonians called the Peipsi Russians by
their own name - Onion Russians. Peipsi onions were (and still are)
held in the highest regard in Estonian markets, backed as they are
by centuries of tradition. The 'Onion Russians' themselves are also held
in high regard, more so when compared to the period of Soviet
occupation following the Second World War and the wave of Russian
settlers who were introduced into the country to help 'Russify' it
and supplement the Estonian workforce.