© Text and Photographs (2000-2002) by Anu Korb, Design Andres Kuperjanov. Estonian Literary Museum 2008

Estonians in the Simbirsk Province

Migration is an old phenomenon in our lives, as well as in the lives of other peoples, and there are specific reasons for its progress. As long as the reasons that bring about migration persist, not even the greatest and fieriest love of the Fatherland can make it disappear. /Tallinna Teataja nr 4, 1910/

The harsh economic conditions peasants faced in Estonia and Livonia, their troubled relationships with the Baltic German gentry, and the overpopulation of the villages forced country folk to seek new homes in the vast expanses of Russia. Although the first attempts to migrate in 1830-1840 failed, the migration movement gathered momentum as the first settlers from Väimela in Võrumaa and Sangaste in Southern Tartumaa were granted migration passes and started out for Samara in 1855.

Founding Settlements, Estonian villages, villages names

Vinni Peeter, Kert Blumer, Aamer, and Jürgenson were the first Estonian settlers from Virumaa to reach the Simbirsk Province in 1870, establishing the Smorodino (Смородино) settlement there. With pictoresque landscapes and clear spring water, the location was favourable for starting anew. Reportedly, the name of the village comes from currant bushes abundant in the area.

In the last decades of the 19th century, Estonians founded Svetloye Ozero (Светлое озеро) and Chistopolye. The population of Smorodino kept growing, and smaller villages clustered around the core settlement: Ogibnaya (Огибная), Lapshanka (Лапшанка), Lommy (Ломы), and Shirokodolnyi, a.k.a. Shiroky (Широкий). They say that Juhan Laasberg, who was the first to arrive at the location of the present-day Shiroky village, lost sight of his wife and her horse when he got there and spent quite a while looking for them in the tall grass.

In official documentation, the villages in the Simbirsk Province went by Russian names, but the Estonian dwellers adapted them to suit their own language: Smorodino became Samarodina or Rodina, with the stress on the first syllable, Ogibnaya was abridged to Gipnoy. Things are slightly more confusing with Shiroky, as Estonians keep referring to it as Tuprova - for the name of the village was once Dobrovo.

By now, only three remain of the Simbirsk Province villages: Smorodino, Shiroky, and Lommy. Even there, people fluent in Estonian can be counted on the fingers of two hands, as all everyday communication has switched to Russian.

Economy Life

The hardworking Estonians prospered quickly upon the fertile soil. The collective farm "Koit", comprised of the inhabitants of Smorodino, was the wealthiest in the region until the merger of collective farms. The Estonians living in small communities were later forced to relocate - the state policy was set on bigger villages.

In addition to farming and cattle, the Volga River and later the silicate stone and chalk industries have also provided a source of income for the local Estonians.

Religion Life

In Russia, Estonians are mainly known as Lutherans. Their bigger settlements always maintained a school-church or a house of prayer. In additon to Lutherans, there was also a group of Saturday believers that moved out to the Simbirsk Province. They were led by Karl Reits, a schoolteacher from Lagedi in Harjumaa, who preached the approaching Apocalypse like Prophet Maltsvet and led his congregation to the "promised land". As a chasm developed within the Reits sect, its members went on to join other free congregations.

The religious differences between the villages survive, however: Smorodino is still known as a Lutheran community, while the majority of Estonians in Shiroky and Lommy belong to free congregations. Locally, they are known as subbotniks (Subbota is Russian for Saturday), laupäevalised (laupäev is Estonian for Saturday), or Sabbath-keepers. The celebration of the Sabbath day has been more rigid in the past: all urgent work was completed by sundown on Friday, food for the next day was prepared beforehand and stored in a heated oven. On Saturdays, there were prayer meetings held at someone's house - or during summer, in the nearby woods.

Despite the religious differences, communication between the nearby Estonian villages has always been relatively active, and finding a spouse from a neighbouring community has been common. Often, the adoption of local religious practices accompanied the move to another village.

© cps'08