The Vepsa – history, culture and ethnic features

All nations, both major and minor, have made their contribution to the treasury of the universal culture. Still for any small nation familiarising with the "fruits of civilisation" has its back negative face – losing the national specificity and forgetting its own culture. Only talented, proud and independent peoples can preserve all this, and it proves to be absolutely true for the Vepsa.

The Vepsa, or the "Ves'", pertain to the Baltic branch of the Finnish-Ugric family of languages. It was the Gothic chronicler Iordan who mentioned them first in the sixth century A.D. as a people known under the name of Vasina.

By the end of the first millennium A.D. the ancestors of the Vepsa begin to migrate from the eastern Baltic region in the south-eastern direction following the rivers Oyat', Svir' and Pasha. By that time the tribe grows to be one of the mightiest on that territory.

Rather important was also the part the "Ves'" played in the military policy of the Ancient Russian State. It was then that the specific complex of the Vepsa material and spiritual culture begins to take Its shape. In Russian chronicles the "Ves'" are also mentioned In connection with the events which took place in 859 and 862, i. e. when the Vikings were invited to rule In Russia. Later on, In 882, the ethnonym "Ves"' was last mentioned in the "Chronicles of the Time Past".

The "Ves'", together with the Vikings, Chud', Slovens, Mer' and Kriviches, participated In the campaign of Prince Oleg who conquered Smolensk and Uubech and ascended the throne In Kiev.

Much-later, the Ves' are mentioned under the collective name of "Chud'", maybe because the Russian chroniclers tried to prevent the Slavonic word "ves'" ("settlement") from its confusing with this people denomination.

In the 11th century the Ves' are reported to by Adam of Bremen in his "Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg", and in 1220 Saxon the Grammarian mentioned them in "The Danish History".

Since the 12th century the Vepsa history Is intimately connected first with Novgorod and then with the centralised Russian State, thus playing the decisive part in the ethnic and cultural development of this nation.

In the regions named "western Obonezhye" and "Zavolochye" the Vepsa were assimilated by the Slavs, whereas the Inhabitants of "Mezhozerye" and of the south-western Prionezhye (the territory adjacent to Onego Lake) managed to preserve their language as well as the material and spiritual culture.

By late 15th century the Vepsa begin pioneering the south-western shores of Lake Onego. The Vepsa settlements Shoksha and Sheltozero are first mentioned In the "Book of the Scribe" by the Archbishop Feodosiy (1453).

Since late 18th century the life of the Onego Vepsa in Karelia is significantly influenced by the development of the State metallurgy. The post highway Petrozavodsk-Petersburg and the Vepsa's living on the shores of Onego Lake, forming part of Mariinskaya Water System, promoted the further developments of cultural relations with the country's centre.

In the 19th century the Onego Vepsa begin to largely resort to seasonal occupations away from their villages. Men travel to Estland, Lithland and Finland to earn money where they contract themselves to make agricultural works, to do carpentry and to make stoves. Especially famous were the Vepsa stone-cutters.

The Annals of Sheltozersko-Berezhniy Parish of 1876 indicated that Its inhabitants are "mainly busy with stone-cutting, thus providing themselves with food; they travel to Petersburg, Kronstadt and Swedish Islands where they cut and polish stones as well as work in fortresses, at docks, plants and factories."

Since mid-19th century the deposit of the famous "Shoksha porphyry" begins to be worked out. At the same time, in the domain of Brusnenskiy Monastery so-called "blue stone" starts to be extracted (a sand-stone used to make mill-stones, whetstones and paving-stones). For a long time Brusnenskoye Deposit was being called "golden hill". Simultaneously, a special shop was opened in St. Petersburg to sell items made of Shoksha crimson quartzite.

Vepsa language is subdivided into three dialectic-territorial groups, namely the northern Vepsa in Karelia (Onego Lake), as well as the middle and southern Vepsa inhabiting different territories in Leningrad and Vologda Regions. By now the number of this nation has drastically dropped, and the Vepsa do not number but only eight thousand people. All of them are living between Ladoga, Onego and Beloye Lakes. Having no united administrative and compact ethnic territory, the Vepsa form "stripes" in the massive of the Russian population.

About 25 years ago the enthusiastic regional ethnographer R.P.Lonin brought up the Idea of organising a Vepsa historical-and-ethnographic museum in the settlement of Sheltozero. Thanks to his attempts, first collections of unique Items of the Vepsa history, culture and everyday life began to be formed. The museum had no rooms to keep its funds in; the exhibits were not systematised from the scientific point of view; they were not either analysed or restored. The museum experts were eager instead to show the treasure collected. It ultimately led to the creation of the first Vepsa exposition in Sheltozero that came to be a notable event in the museum practice of Karelia. Nevertheless, such an exposition could not satisfy exacting visitors.

By late 1970s the question arose on the foundation of a modern Vepsa ethnographic museum, and in summer of 1991 its exhibits were ready to be exposed. This exhibition is located In a two-storeyed building with an attic that is a monument to the Vepsa wooden architecture of the early 19th century. Formerly it belonged to a prominent contractor named Melkin. The experts of Karelian Specialised Scientific Restoration Workshop have completely reconstructed the exterior of this building and the inside of its auxiliary rooms. At the same time, the dwelling part of the house was replanned so that it could house the museum exhibits. It was the painter D.F.Uchuvatkin who elaborated the architectural-artistic design of this museum.

The Vepsa Ethnographic Museum has the following three extensive thematic sections: "History, Everyday Life and Household of Onego Vepsa", "Interior of the Peasant Cottage of Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries" and "Household Court". Besides, later on the exhibition called "Culture of Modern Vepsa" was also organised there. It is noteworthy that our exposition involves also articles and documents of Karelian State Regional Ethnographic Museum in Petrozavodsk, including the materials of archaeological collections.

Apart from the development of the ethnocultural tradition itself, in 19th century the further developments of the Vepsa-Russian cultural relations took place. Consolidation of these two nations was also promoted by the highly widespread system of people's schools.

Vepsa people were christianised both in the open struggle against the pagan ways and by adapting to these latter. As a result, Orthodoxy proved to be mixed there with elements of pagan traditions. Some ritual articles evoke a particular interest in the visitors, namely the staff of a "noid" (sorcerer), a heeler's bundle of salt, pike mandibles.

The folk religion of the Vepsa has relics of the ancient workshiping of animals, birds and fishes. Similarly to other peoples, they had the cult of the bear; a complex of believes was connected with the adoring of the pike. Also the wood was admired – staffs were made of alder for the sorcerers to be used on some occasions (weddings and other rites).

In order to prevent themselves from the "evil eye" and from other troubles, the Vepsa heeled diseases resoriting not only to magical rites but also to the verbal power, i. e. to charms. One of the museum's exhibits represents a codex of charms written in Vepsa with the Russian cursive of the 17th century.

In our opinion, successful have been the researches into the interior of the Vepsa cottage of late 19th-early 20th century and the restoration of this latter.

The interior of the cottage is divided into two parts. A double cup-and-sideboard to keep tea-service and other household items was used as the partition. The cupboard would be placed along the same line, the Russian stove was set up on, which served not only to heat the rooms. People slept on it; the stove was used to warm oneselves and to dry clothes. A number of the believes is connected with the stove. Thus, Vepsa believe that the goblin "pertyizhand" lives under the stove solely.

Placed obliquely to the stove, the "holy corner" is located (in Vepsa "yumalchog"). It was generally used to accommodate icons, whereas its lower part contained threads, needles, buttons, flasks with sanctified water and salt bundles. A table of blue colour was placed there as well.

Different household utensiles were kept behind the stove. To keep other small articles, wooden and earthenware pots included, a special cupboard was provided.

A baby cradle made of planks or of birch bark was also part of the belongings of the Vepsa cottage. The women part, where the bed was placed together with a sofa and a chest, a loom would be frequently put near the window. The cottage would be illuminated with a kerosene lamp hanging over the table.

When preparing the dwellings, the Vepsa attributed a special importance to omens. According to their believes no house was to be built on a path, as this surely would lead to the death of its head. When a cottage was to be founded, silver or copper coins would be laid under its corners. Full moon was a good omen to enter a new house.

It was the head of the house who first passed over me threshold of the new dwelling with an icon and hunk of bread, followed by his wife bearing a cock and a cat. The cock was set free immediately after she had passed over the threshold. If it crowed, the life in the new house would be happy; if the cock did not, it meant that the head of the family would soon die.

When entering the new house, the head and his wife would bring with birch logs from the cottage they lived in formerly, "to be in warmth and with wealth".

'Up to now the Vepsa believe that the person to be first in entering a new home also dies first. Therefore it was the cat who first entered the new cottage to stay there overnight, whereas the head of the house and the rest of his family entered it only the next day.

So called "household court" is, perhaps, one of the most interesting sections of our museum. It can be reached by coming up from the ground floor to the first one and by passing a short gallery.

One of the main topics of this section is devoted to agriculture. For a long time the Vepsa practised the three-field system. Mattock-hewing agriculture was also largely widespread being the most ancient form of crop-growing on the Vepsa territory. Among the exhibits one can see hand and ploughing agricultural implements, including a wooden plough with stake-ploughshares as well as grain processing tools. Cattle-breeding was not less important in the Vepsa life. Local brands of the animals were widespread there from antiquity, such as hornless cows yielding up to two litres of milk a day.

Interesting are the belongings of the country herdsman, such as a birch bark horn, a small "guardian" icon, a copper mess-tin and teapot, a birch bark salt-cellar and a horn with ritual signs drawn on.

From most ancient times, birch bark was largely used in Vepsa households. It would be put on the bottom of a pit to keep fish; it covered roofs and cracked pots. Some household articles were also made of birch bark, namely various kinds of purses, baskets, salt-cellars and boxes to keep bulk food-stuffs.

The blacksmith's handicraft is exposed as well on the household court together with that of wood and tusks processing and fishing. The largest exhibits appear in the "Transport Modes" section. One can see there a sledge, a hay toboggan, barouche-tarantas (springless carriage), a gala sleigh.

By now the original Vepsa features are unfortunately lost nearly in full in architecture, lay-out of villages and house interiors. The Vepsa language is almost forgotten together with the national rites. Therefore the organisation of the Vepsa Ethnographic Museum is one of the attempts at preserving the material and spiritual culture of this people.

With our exposition we do not claim to fully reconstruct the complicated social-economical and political-cultural phenomena of the late 19th-early 20th centuries related to the Vepsa nation. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly provides us with a certain knowledge concerning the life standards of this people, their tools, clothes, household implements and housekeeping. The founders and organisers of the museum (A.P.Maksirnov and the author of this article) hope that in the future it would become one of the centres of rebirth of Vepsa national consciousness. The scientific conception and structure of our museum are so that they surely can assume this task.