Heading north from Tartu, our furthest point east was Lake Peipsi, which forms a stretch of Estonia’s border with Russia.
It’s the fifth-largest lake in Europe but is surprisingly undeveloped, with small rural settlements remaining in situ from when they were founded by the Old Believers in the 1700s. It was as close to Russia as we were going to get on this trip.
The lake stretches across 3,555 square meters and boasts sandy beaches along its shores. Its also home to more than 30 types of fish which are its mainstay, small fishing communities that once survived on sustainable catches to feed themselves are now busy marinas of leisure fishing, and fish processing.
We stayed along the northern shore and explored the villages on our bikes. Forming one long continuous settlement they stretch for a few streets back from the waters and are mainly colourful wooden houses and churches.
A couple of small shops sell a mix of food and housewares, but otherwise grocery produce is sold from ‘pood’ stalls in people’s gardens, or by the roadside.
Formerly famous as the ‘Onion Road’ the region produces the golden onions highly prized in Russian cuisine. St Petersburg was a major consumer until the Chinese saturated the market place in the late 20th century. Now the mainstay is once again, fish and the ‘Onion Road’ is a Tallinn daytrip for the more adventurous cruise liner tourists, who get bussed in, down narrow single-lane roads.
All along the main road and throughout the fishing villages, small smoked fish stalls serve up tasty catches of lake fish, pike, perch, trout and salmon.
We bought a pair of perch for two euros each and tucked into the moist, smoky meat with rolls, salad and hot coffee. Delicious!
The churches of the Old Believers are numerous, and their cemeteries are contemporary. The villagers are mainly Russian descendants of the original settlers, driven out of their homes during a period of religious suppression.
It was confusing to understand, but the Old Believers were persecuted for sticking to Russian Orthodox beliefs at a time when the doctrine was being revised to sit more squarely with original Greek Orthodox beliefs.
Examples of the liturgical changes baffled us, as they seemed so inconsequential, but Old Believers were imprisoned, and some were executed for their non-conformism.
We wondered what it must have been like to be forced out of your homeland, only to spend the rest of your life remembering it across the waters of the lake.
Like much of Estonia, the villages suffered during the Second World War. Initially absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1939 (with the immediate execution of any who resisted) the village lost their men into the Red Army at the start of the Second Wold War. By 1941 the Germans had overrun the area and as the Red Army retreated, so did many villagers, ironically back to Russia.
In 1944 the Red Army hit back, bombing German army bases and in doing so badly destroying the lakeside villages. Eventually the Soviets declared occupation of Estonia and some of those who had fled to Russia, returned from it.
A ‘grieving girl’ stands over the site of a mass grave of Red Army soldiers. We couldn’t understand why this would be commemorated, but hazarded it was either down pragmatism on the part of the surviving locals, or an understanding that some of the buried soldiers may indeed have been their own.
Later research led us to think that the grave is of Red Army soldiers killed by German forces who were in effect, reluctant local conscripts. The likelihood is that they had to forcibly kill Red Army soldiers who, in turn, were previously conscripted from their own community. War is horribly contrived and brutally executed.
We read a travel article dating back to 2014 in the Financial Times (other newspapers are available, of course). It described a decrepit, lost and isolated community plagued both by a nostalgia for Russia and modern-day drunken Latvians setting fire to its wooden properties.
This was not our experience. Many lakeside plots had newly built modern homes on them, others were being built. Young families were prevalent and packs of happy children on bicycles enjoyed the long summer day.
Fishermen waved at us and locals watched, sometimes suspiciously, but then smilingly as we waved and cycled by.
The several hostels and campsites along the lakeside were busy with touring Estonian, German and Finnish vehicles. So, there was the odd Latvian around, and us two Brits…the lake had a relaxed, comfortable air and money was being made.
It was a fascinating insight into a life we hadn’t known anything about before coming away.
In the winter, we were told, the border to Russia is marked by forest fir trees drilled into the ice, by the Russians. This Estonian side of the lake seemed warmer, and friendlier.