History Files


Northern Europe

Onion Russians

by Aljona Kozlova, 1 November 2009

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 themselves had 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.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when times were harder, some people would make ends meet by taking on other work. Young girls would tend cows for the local manorial landlord.

Even by the end of the twentieth century, visitors to the area would see large fields full of onions, along with cucumber green houses. The people loved their fish and their religion and their land, and enjoyed a very tightly-knit social life, unlike Estonians, who built their houses as far as possible from each other. The Russians were (and are) so close they could practically look into each others' windows, and would make it their duty to know everything that was happening in the neighbourhood. Some Russian families who migrated to Canada in the nineteenth century found themselves owning vast pieces of land but still built their homes close to each other.

Today, Lake Peipsi Old Believers reside mainly in four centres: the town of Mustvee and Raja village which borders it; the town of Kallaste; Kolkja-Kasepдд-Varnja street villages; and the villages on Piirissaare Island. There are less onion fields now. They are no longer grown for production and the younger generations spend more of their times in the cities, returning home for weekends and visits.

Lake Peipsi
Lake Peipsi now forms the largest stretch of border territory between Estonia and Russia



Text copyright Aljona Kozlova. An original feature for the History Files.