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Letters from Estonians in Siberia: Contacts with homeland and continuation of fieldwork

Keywords: communication, fieldwork, letters, Siberian Estonians

 

The majority of Estonian settlements in Siberia were founded in the last decade of the 19th century and in the early 20th century by Estonian emigrants in search of their own land. Settlements that were established yet earlier were made up of people deported to Siberia by the Russian Tsar.

In the article I analyse the letters sent to me from Estonian villages in Siberia following my folkloristic fieldwork in the region in 1991–2010. In the late 20th century and the early 21st century, exhanging letters with Estonians in Siberia had an important function both for me and my correspondents. For the correspondents in Siberian villagers, who had attended Estonian-language schools for only a few years, or sometimes not at all, writing letters was difficult and laborious, but despite that many still chose to do that. Through letters, Estonians in Siberia upheld their contacts with homeland, and felt that they and their knowledge was valued. My fieldwork, in some ways, continued in the form of exchanging letters, as some informants remembered some songs, etc. and sent them to me in their letters. The correspondence sheds light on a couple of decades in the life of Estonians in Siberia; the letters tell about people coping in troublesome times, their sources of joy and sad moments in life. The frequent mentioning of cultural events and folk calendar holidays in the letters may have been the result of my being a museum worker: my correspondents assumed that this it what would mostly interest me. As their acquaintance, Siberia’s Estonians often turned to me to solve some life problems. The letters reflect emotions and evaluations and, among other things, criticism of my collecting and research work. The correspondence with Estonians in Siberia was not only about specific correspondents, but discussed the Estonian community as a whole – the letters mediated major events of the community and shared information about other villagers. A large amount of letters written over a longer period allow us to observe changes in the tradition and mentality of Estonians in Siberia.

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