The village of Luzhitsy is located about 100 miles west of St. Petersburg. When we arrived there were several cars parked outside the only store in town. About twenty small wooden houses line the main street, one of which stands out for its large terrace and stone wall. This is the Museum of Votive Culture – the only one in Russia.
A blonde woman exits a car, walks towards the wooden door of the museum and opens it. Dressed in a winter coat, she leads us into a cool room and takes out a basket of pies and a pot of porridge.
Here is Marina Ilyina, the museum curator and a Vod herself. She was educated in St. Petersburg, but then returned to Luzhitsy, where she says she made it her mission to save Vods from extinction.
âThere are only eight native Votic speakers left. Each of them is worth its weight in gold, âshe explains, showing us around the museum, which was actually only built a few years ago (designed according to Votic building traditions).
According to the most recent census data, there are 64 Vods left in Russia, with a handful more in Estonia. The problem with these numbers is that they only show the number of people who self-identified as Vods, when asked about their nationality. It is not known how many Vods (including pureblood Vods) registered as âRussiansâ or completely missed the census.
The population of Luzhitsy peaked in the early 1940s, when its number increased to around 550 people. Today, the village has only 35 to 40 permanent residents, with a few additional visitors staying during the summer.
Nina Vittong was born in Loujitsy after World War II, in 1947. She spent her childhood there. âIt was a big village at the time. Everyone had a house with a garden and cattle. There were also a lot of young people. We had dances and there was a movie screening twice a month, âVittong tells us.
Like other local ethnic groups (such as the Vespians, Izhorians, and Finnish Ingrians), the Vods struggled under communism. In the 1930s, the Soviet state banned Finnish languages ââfrom these groups. Although older generations continued to speak Votic to each other, most parents began to raise their children exclusively in Russian, to avoid repression by the police.
Nonetheless, children grew up hearing Votic, and many gained a passive understanding. Today, Vods who remember their childhood language can easily understand it, but they hesitate to speak Votic out loud. âI hear words, but sometimes it is difficult to reproduce them. When I pronounce them, it sounds different, âVittong tells us.
Votive has always been a predominantly spoken language, and it wasn’t until the last 100 years that it got a writing system, when votic linguist Dmitry Tsvetkov used a modified Cyrillic alphabet. The current Votic alphabet, which uses Latin characters, is only 13 years old.
Today, elderly women from the surrounding votic villages come to Luzhitsy to study the language. These classes usually take place at the museum.
Nikita Dyachkov, the man who teaches the class, is much younger than his students. He has Izhorian roots and it was for personal interest that he learned Votic. Today he has mastered and mastered the grammar of the language, which most Vods in the region have never studied.
âYou forget some words and you don’t even have anyone to ask,â says Taisia ââMikhaylova, another woman who has lived in Luzhitsy for most of her life.
Unfortunately speaking a forbidden language was not the biggest adversity of Vods in the USSR. In 1943, the inhabitants of all the villages Votic and Izhorian were deported to Finland and subjected to forced labor. A year later, they were allowed to return to the Soviet Union, but not to their home villages. Instead, they settled in other parts of Russia.
Zina Savelieva was around four years old when her family was evicted. She and her relatives did not return home until 1954. Even after all this, her family and several others were later forced to leave the village again, having been labeled “unreliable citizens” for speaking votic. As a result, Savelieva’s family moved to Estonia for the next eight years.
“They welcomed us like friends [in Estonia] – maybe because our languages ââare similar, or maybe for some other reason, âsaid Savelieva softly. She is now an old woman, but her eyes are still sharp. When she talks about the past, she likes to stay positive: âI’m thankful, anyway. At least I learned Estonian, âshe adds with a smile.
Marina Ilyina tells us that Vods have always been a fairly closed group, living near the Russian border and in relatively small communities. The Vods living in these regions are also committed to maintaining their local customs.
âWe had our own traditions which are so old. For example, when I was a child, we would go to these old women who cured illnesses with spells. They chased away bruises, skin disease, eye disease, and I thought everything was normal – everyone was doing it, âIlyina tells us.
Today, Vod culture is no longer illegal and they are free to revive and save any traditions they can. Every summer Luzhitsy is celebrated now, and locals come to hear old Votic women singing folk songs in their mother tongue.