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
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.