Between St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Neva, stands St Petersburg’s most famous statue – “The Bronze Horseman”. It is a statue of Peter the Great on his horse trampling on a snake (representing Sweden, I am told). The horse rears up onto its hind legs and Peter’s right arm stretches out over the city. The horse and rider stand atop a massive irregularly cut block of granite that alone weighs 1,625 tonnes. On this pedestal you read that the monument is a tribute to Peter the Great from his successor Catherine the Great.

I stood by the statue and watched people, mostly foreign tourists, come to take a photograph; perhaps a selfie with St Petersburg’s founder as a backdrop. None lingered. None, as far as I could tell, cursed the statue. And not in a single case did the horseman jump down from his granite pedestal and chase the unsuspecting tourist through the streets of his city.

The statue derives its popular name – The Bronze Horseman – from what is possibly Alexander Pushkin’s best-known narrative poem. The poem’s protagonist, Yevgeni – an ordinary, hard-working inhabitant of St Petersburg – is driven mad when he finds that a flood that has destroyed much of St Petersburg has also taken the life of the woman he loves. In his rage, he curses the statue and thus Peter the Great for building the city in such a vulnerable spot. The statue comes to life and pursues Yevgeni through the streets and ultimately to his death. Here, in verse, we have two of the great themes of Russian history: man versus nature and the individual versus the state.

When Peter the Great founded St Petersburg in 1703, or so the story goes, there was nobody living there. What was to become the new capital of Russia – of a Russia that looked West rather than East, outward rather than inward – was built among desolate northern marshlands at the mouth of the great Neva River. Pushkin’s poem picks up the legend and begins with Peter the Great gazing out onto the empty space where he would build St Petersburg.

Where desolate breakers rolled, stood he,
immersed in thought and prophecy;
and looked afar. A spacious river
flowed before him; hurriedly
a poor boat strove in lone endeavour.
Upon the mossy, swampy shore
huts showed up blackly here and there,
the shelters of the wretched Finn;
and forest that no light came near,
where, through mist and gloom, a din

(as translated by Stanley Mitchell)

It is estimated that somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 serfs died in the making of Peter’s dream – slaves, forced to work here in these inhospitable swamps, that nobody really counted when they died. It is a city built on their bones.

Glory, city of Peter, stay
unyielding like the Russian land,
and let the elements at bay
submit to our pacific hand.
Let Finnish waves no more remember
their enmity and their arrest,
not vain vindictiveness encumber
Peter the Great’s eternal rest!

(as translated by Stanley Mitchell)

Before the St Petersburg Dam was completed in 2011, floods were a constant and regular threat to the city as the waters rose to reclaim the city built on their marshlands. On the house at the corner of Stolyarny Lane and Grazhdanskaya Street – where Dostoyevsky had Raskolnikov, his haunted protagonist in Crime and Punishment, live – there are plaques set in the wall remembering, in German and in Russian, the level the floods reached on 7 November 1824. This was the worst of the many floods recorded since St Petersburg was founded and it was on this catastrophic flood of 1824 – with water levels of 4.2 metres above normal – that Pushkin drew for The Bronze Horseman.

The sea-winds blowing up the gulf
had checked the Neva’s flow; it reared,
forced backwards, in a mighty huff,
and all the islands disappeared…
Soon the weather grew still worse,
the angry Neva roared and swelled
and like a cauldron seethed and swirled;
as if a captive beast let loose
fell on the city…

(as translated by Antony Wood)

But how accurate is the myth that the lands around the estuary of the Neva were uninhabited before 1703? Pushkin, in The Bronze Horseman, mentions in passing the “wretched Finn” whose “huts showed up blackly here and there”; and Anna Akhmatova, looking out of her window onto the wooded courtyard behind what had once been the Sheremetev Palace, discerned in the great age of the trees she saw there the memory of a Swedish farmstead.

At the mouth of the Neva, which had long been a strategic point in the centuries-long struggle between Russia and Sweden for control of the eastern Baltic, Sweden built and maintained a star-shaped fort that went by the name of Nyenskans. The town – Nyen – that grew up around the fort became an important trading emporium, controlling the flow of Russian trade with the west that passed along the Neva and out to sea. Its site now has all but disappeared under an industrial district of St Petersburg; but from 1642 to 1656, Nyen was the administrative centre of the Swedish province of Ingria.

Sweden controlled Ingria, what is now still the Leningradskaya Oblast, the region around St Petersburg, from 1583 to 1595 and again from 1617 until 1721 when it was formally ceded to Russia – though parts of Ingria, including Nyen and the land where St Petersburg was founded, had been under de facto Russian control since 1703. In Swedish times another name for the province of Ingria was Ingermanland.1 “Ingermanland” means “no-man’s land”. The country was only sparsely inhabited when it became part of the Swedish Empire, at least in part because much of the Orthodox population had moved out, south and east to lands still controlled by Russia.

During the years of Swedish control, Lutheran immigrants from Finland, then the eastern half of the Swedish Kingdom, settled in considerable numbers in Ingria. The Ingrian Finns, as they came to be known, rapidly became the majority population of Ingria – 73.8 per cent by 1695. The whole province, from the River Narva in the west to Lake Ladoga and the confines of Karelia in the east, was divided into settled Lutheran parishes. Even as late as 1917, and despite two centuries of Ingrian Finns under Russian pressure emigrating back to Finland, more than 140,000 people in the now long-Russian-dominated region still considered themselves to be Ingrian Finns.

The people who lived in Ingria before the in-coming Finns spoke Russian, Izhorian, Vote and Veps. The latter three languages are all from the same branch of the Uralic group of languages as are Finnish and Estonian and place names derived from the aboriginal Finnic languages stretch deep into Russia to this day. For example, the River Msta that flows into Lake Ilmen from the east owes its name to the Finnish word – “musta” – for “black”. Yet, despite the close linguistic similarities, the Finnish newcomers and the natives kept their distance and their separate identities. Christianity had come to the Finns via Rome and Wittenberg; it had reached the native Votes, Izhorians and Veps – as it had their Orthodox Russians neighbours – through Byzantium and Kiev. Attempts by the Swedish overlords to convert the native population to the now-majority Lutheran way of worship were by and large resisted.

The southern and eastern shores of the Gulf of Finland had long been a meeting point of, and an area of conflict between, East and West. The Novgorod Republic had expanded into this by from the 12th century. As early as 1069 we read of the Votes siding with the Principality of Polotsk against Novgorod’s encroachments, though not long afterwards the Votes appear to be an integral part of the Novgorod Republic. There was a “Votic Road” in Novgorod and the northwest part of the Novgorod Republic was known as Watland, even pagani Watlandiae. Pagans resisting conversion to Christianity are recorded here as late as the 16th century. Sweden began to take an interest in the area in the early 13th century. Alexander Nevsky, Russia’s greatest hero, won his famous battle against Sweden (and the honorific surname by which he is universally known today) on the Neva in 1240.

The Neva was strategically important then as the northern end of the river route between the Baltic and Byzantium. The route, pioneered by Viking longboats from Sweden a few centuries earlier, went up the broad Neva, past where St Petersburg now stands, to Lake Ladoga. From there it continued up the Volkhov River, past the walls of Novgorod, into Lake Ilmen, thence to headwaters of the Dnieper and down past the gates of Kiev to the Black Sea and Byzantium. Indeed, it was the traffic along this great trading route that gave birth to the Russian state.

According to the Primary Chronicle the people of the area around Novgorod and Lake Ilmen – Votes, Veps, Ilmen Slavs and others (different versions mention different names) – in 862, invited Rurik to come and rule over them. Facts about Rurik are lost in legend. Some say that Rurik came from Sweden, possibly from the area to the northeast of present-day Stockholm known as Roslagen. The name “Russia” derives from “Rus” and it is possible that “Rus” itself derives from “Roslagen”. “Rus” and “Roslagen” may derive from the Old Norse Rods – “the people who row”, tying the origins of “Russia” directly to the river traffic. Others – possibly corroborated by modern genetic research on descendants of the Rurikid dynasty – suggest that Rurik is more likely to have originated among the Finnic tribes that lived along the shores of the Gulf of Finland. When Muscovy conquered the Republic of Novgorod in 1478, the lands of the former Republic were administratively divided into pyatinas, literally “fifths”. The farthest west of those fifths was the “Votskaya”, the Vote Fifth. The Finnic Votes were still then, apparently, a significant people group in the area.

The Ilmen (or Novgorod) Slavs – who had arrived in the area not long before 862 – went on to become part of the great ethnic East Slavic/Russian people group. But what of the original Finno-Ugric tribes, the Votes and the Veps? Many, certainly, became absorbed over time in the Russian identity as it became dominant in the region. Yet to this day there are still distinct communities of Veps and Votes in Russia. Veps is an official minority language of the Russian Republic of Karelia. In the 2002 census, there were 8,240 Veps in Russia. Today the Votes, however, live only in two villages – Krakolye and Luzhitsy (Joenperä and Luutsa in the Votic language) – near the Gulf of Finland at the mouth of the Luga River, some 150 km west of St Petersburg and 35 km from the Estonian border. They number sixty-four people, of whom only eight have a fluent native command of the language. This makes the Votes of today the smallest and most endangered people group in Europe.


As we looked at our maps, it seemed that the most sensible and pleasant route to get from St Petersburg to Luzhitsy would be along the coast, past the palaces at Peterhof and Oranienbaum. But, still in 2015, in an age when satellite imagery of any part of the globe is no more than a few mouse clicks away, there is a section of that road that is closed to foreigners. The reason? It passes by Sosnovy Bor where there are military facilities and a nuclear power station with two RMBK-1000 units, the same type of plant that melted down at Chernobyl in 1986.

So on a bright August morning (21 August 2015) – two days after the Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, when the custom is to bless the newly harvested apples – Maria, Pauline, Fyodor and I set off for Luzhitsy out the Tallinn Road. None of the four of us had ever been to Luzhitsy before.

The centre of St Petersburg – with its golden domes, its pastel-coloured Baroque palaces, its well-herded groups from the cruise liners (“Shore Excursions – Delivering the Destination”) and Chinese tourists wielding selfie sticks in front of Rembrandt’s marvellous Return of the Prodigal Son – was quickly left behind. Along the broad Moskovsky Prospekt – the road to Moscow, 725 kilometres away – you pass through the part of town designed in Stalin’s time to be the new centre of the city, to replace the imperialist town centre of the Tsars. The solid “Stalin Apartments” – examples of which line the streets here, elegantly built of stone, with high ceilings and spacious rooms – are today the most sought after apartments in Russia.

Then come the “Khrushchev Apartments”, shabbier and ripe for demolition. When they were built in the 1950s and 1960s to meet an immediate need, they were intended to last only twenty or thirty years. At the time, they were much welcomed by the population. The Khrushchev apartments provided private space and freedom from shared kitchens, shared bathrooms and the constant fear of the malicious informers that haunted the Stalinist era. For those who had lived in the city’s communal flats, as much as to those coming in from the countryside as agriculture mechanised and needed less labour, these new apartments were attractive places to live.

Farther out still come the post-Soviet apartment blocks, more modern, taller, shinier – but lost amid abandoned fields and overgrown wasteland and beyond the reach of the urban transport network.

We passed a new triumphal arch in the middle of a large roundabout. It was built earlier this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of – of Soviet victory in – the Second World War. Victory in the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians know it, remains a source of immense national pride even as the generation that fought in it passes away. It was, however, a victory bought at enormous cost: an estimated 24 million Soviet citizens (14.25 per cent of the population within the country’s 1939 borders) died in the war between 1941 and 1945. Some 1,400,000 Russians (an estimated 500,000 soldiers and between 800,000 and 1,000,000 civilians) died in the brutal 900-day blockade of Leningrad2 alone; and that number excludes the high death toll among the estimated additional 1,400,000 who were evacuated during the Nazi’s genocidal siege. Yet, despite the bombing and the shelling from the German front line only 11 kilometres away from the city centre, most of those who perished in Leningrad died of starvation. The city built on the bones of 100,000 serfs became the site of the most lethal siege in human history. By way of comparison, the aggregate Second World War death toll for Britain and the United States combined, military and civilian, was less than 1,000,000.

Beyond the apartments, come the houses built on small fenced plots of land. Some of these are weekend dachas, some permanent residences. There are a few ugly ones, designed to look like communal lavatory blocks and built of grey brick; but most are made of wood, the paint fading, weathered to attractive pastel shades, some standing at slightly odd angles. All the houses are post-war. Here nothing survived the war. The farther you go from St Petersburg, the higher is the percentage of the houses that look in an advanced state of dilapidation. The angles become more precarious. A few of the houses have gone beyond the point of repair and are uninhabited. Most are partly hidden behind a dense growth of vegetation. Nowhere does it appear that lawnmower sales have been doing well of late. Nor, in contrast to what you see elsewhere in Russia, are the grounds around the houses well cultivated with vegetables. “I wonder,” Maria said, “what they eat” – except for the apples hanging on the garden trees, still unpicked and abundant two days after the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord.

We passed vast fields, lying low between the woodlands. They were purple and white with willow herb, yellow with ragwort and golden rod, choked with borshchevik Heracleum Mantegazzianum – the giant hogweed that is poison to the touch, that causes blindness if its juices get near your eye and that is virtually impossible to eradicate once it gets a foothold in the land. In the UK, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is illegal to grow giant hogweed or to cause it to grow. A woman in a faded red headscarf sat passively by the roadside, almost in the shadow of the glowering borshchevik, a bucket of berries and a jar of mushrooms for sale at her feet.

In places you can see the vestige strips of different crops in the different species of successor weeds that now grow in the derelict fields. We passed a pair of storks on a great nest atop an abandoned telegraph pole. “In Russia, they mean babies.” Perhaps. Many more storks will be needed to restore life to these lands. At the last census, in 2010, there were 6,000 abandoned villages – “population points without population” – in Russia. We passed the derelict concrete buildings of an abandoned Soviet farm. Not far away, across unused fields, was a long, low block of Soviet-era flats that seemed to breathe a time-forgotten air. It was surrounded by a green halo of wooden dachas in their miniscule garden plots.

“People were willing to move into these Soviet farm flats, even happy to move into them. They may have had a small kitchen, but they had running water. They may have had much less living space than they were accustomed to, but they had electricity and central heating. And they had the dacha only two hundred metres away.”

Suddenly, we were cruising along a broad dual carriageway that had sprung up from the middle of nowhere, carried swiftly and smoothly to the northwest. There was no other traffic. This road was not on our maps. It was not even on the latest Google satellite view. The countryside sped past. Then the new road ended as abruptly as it had begun. By then, however, we were only a couple of hundred metres short of Luzhitsy – a village first mentioned in the tax books of 1500, now the last refuge of the Votes.

Marina Astafieva met us outside the Vote Museum and greeted us warmly. Visitors to  the  museum are rare. Before the Second World War, the population of Luzhitsy was 550. When the area was under German control, all the Vote inhabitants of Luzhitsy, except one woman with fierce eyes, evacuated to Finland. When the war was over in 1945, the Finns tried to persuade them to stay in Finland and to ignore Stalin’s invitation to return. But “we wanted to go home; we wanted to die on our land.” They got as far as Vyborg and there they were arrested, sent to various parts of the Soviet Union far from Luzhitsy, imprisoned. Marina’s mother was sent to Yaroslavl. There she had to pretend to be ethnic Russian to survive. Food was in short supply. Someone who was not Russian would have starved to death. Marina’s parents, though they spoke Votic between themselves, always spoke Russian to the children. The children were told never to speak in any language other than Russian. In official documents, their ethnicity was always given as Russian.

Over the months after the War, about a hundred people made it back to their ancestral village of Luzhitsy. But then, in 1947, the order went out to remove people from the borders. The Finnic peoples of old Ingria were considered particularly unreliable, particularly targeted. The inhabitants of Luzhitsy were given 24 hours to leave their homes. Marina’s parents came back again in 1948 and married in 1949. “We are few now, but it is a miracle any of us survived.” More Votes were able to return after 1956.

The experience of the Votes in the Soviet Union was not unique. Policy evolved from one of encouraging national minorities, their languages and culture in the early days of the Soviet Union (a reversal of previous Russian Imperial policy) to something between assimilation and ethnic cleansing under Stalin. Non-Russians, particularly in border areas, were considered suspect. In 1937, for example, the entire Korean population (172,000 people) of the Soviet Far East was deported to remote areas of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Many died. But some of those who survived and their descendants did well in exile. In Tashkent in the early 1990s, I met ethnic Korean officials in the newly independent Uzbek Government and dined in Korean restaurants. In 1944, nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars, by way of collective punishment for those of their numbers who had served in the German army, were exiled to Uzbekistan. Between 20 per cent (official estimate) and 45 per cent (Tatar estimate) were dead within eighteen months. Closer to the Vote homeland, 10 per cent of the entire adult population of the Baltic States was sent to the Gulag or otherwise forcibly relocated between 1940 and 1953. The Votes’ close neighbours, the Ingrian Finns who still remained into Soviet times in what had once been Ingria, were deported in waves beginning in 1929. By 1937, all Lutheran churches in Ingria were closed, as were all Finnish-language schools and publications. At the end of the Continuation War between Finland and Russia, many Ingrian Finns who had taken refuge in Finland were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. Once there, they were dispersed across the country or executed.

Marina Astafieva: “We may only be a few people, but now we can speak our own language, wear our national costume, fly our flag and be proud to be Vote.” There are now even plans to rebuild the village church of St Peter and St Paul. In 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, the village priest was arrested and executed and the church knocked down. In 1960, the ruins that remained were demolished. Some 250 stones from the old building have now been found and collected for the project.


The Vote Museum is built of logs and planks of rough wood in the form of a traditional Vote house. You can see houses of similar design elsewhere in the village. These Vote houses are made up of two halves – the summer half and the winter half. When the eldest son of the house marries and moves away, the summer half of the house goes with him to his new land. A new summer half is then built which will be given to the second son when he marries and moves away to start his household. “Among all the Finno-Ugric peoples,” Marina said, “only the Votes have this tradition.” Another marriage tradition among the Votes was the “training marriage”. In this arrangement, young couples would live together and, if things did not work out and if there were no children, they could separate without any taint or disgrace. “In fact,” Marina said, “with each training marriage a woman became more valuable.”

The contents of the museum are everyday village artefacts and photographs donated by the surviving families of the area. There are eel traps made of birch and pine roots, each with the symbol of the owner carved into it. There is a pocket-sized carved wooden travelling icon. Photographs on the walls include one from Finnish archives of women in traditional Vote costume standing outside their log cabins. According to an 18th century Russian ethnographic text on the Votes, the Vote women are blonde, blue-eyed, well-dressed and wear so many rings and beads that you hear them before you see them. The photographs seem to corroborate the earlier report. Another photograph is of the fierce-eyed woman who stayed in Luzhitsy during the Nazi occupation. A wooden dowry barrel made to be rolled rather than carried was saved from the fire that destroyed a previous museum by rolling it out of harm’s way. A pair of shoes with turned-up toes (“turned-up noses”) stand near the entrance. The toes are turned up so as not to damage the earth. “Our people did not wish to wound the earth.” There was a great attachment to the land.

In a corner is a tiled stove similar to the type you see in old Russian houses elsewhere in the country. In a cold country this is a necessity. Old people slept on a platform on the stove that was painted with the blood of a white sheep. “Why the blood of a white sheep?” I ask. “I don’t know. It was tradition. And it is easy to clean.”

It comes as no surprise to learn that philologists and ethnographers come to Luzhitsy to study the Votes. They come mainly from the University of Tartu in Estonia. They listen to the language and collect folksongs and unusual words and have a work area in the museum. On a table in the “summer half” of the museum is a collection of books. One is MĀ JA PŪD LĒVÄD, MEID EB LĒ: The Subject and the Predicate in Votic: Linguistica Uralica: Supplementary Series/Volume 4, by Heinike Heinsoo. Possibly not a best-seller candidate.

How long will it all last? Unlike many Russian villages, Lutzhitsy has until now survived the post-Soviet slump into rural depopulation. Here, however, the threat may come from elsewhere. A few kilometres to the west of Luzhitsy, on the road to Krakolye and Ust-Luga, a new church3 is being built. Although the floor of the main body of the church is still of rough concrete, the onion domes already sparkle gold in the summer sunshine and services have been held in a side chapel since June. On Sundays, there can be a congregation of five hundred. Monk Nil, with bright blue eyes and long white hair swept back from his balding head, is in charge of the building works and showed us round. “The church,” he said, “may become part of a monastery. But, if not, it will still serve the needs of the local population.”

Today, as you stand outside the church, you see no sign of a local population. That may, however, be about to change. The population of Ust-Luga is projected to rise from less than 2,000 today to 34,000 by 2025. The reason – and the reason for the splendid new road that brought us here – is the new Port of Ust-Luga, just to the east of Luzhitsy. With the independence of the Baltic States in 1990, Russia found itself in need of a deep water port on the Baltic that it controlled. It is for that function, to avoid cargo transit through Estonia, that the Port of Ust-Luga is being developed. There is already a container port and a coal terminal. Immediately to the east of Luzhitsy, Sibur, Russia’s biggest petrochemical company, has built a plant to export liquid petroleum gas.

For now, Sibur is a good neighbour to the Votes of Luzhitsy. The Vote Museum is the third on the site. The first was destroyed in an arson attack in 2001. The second, too, burnt down – in 2006, though the cause is uncertain. In each fire, many of the museum’s artefacts were lost and with them a irrecoverable part of the history of the Votes. The third museum was funded and built by Sibur. Although it is not yet, despite the community’s valiant attempts, an official state museum, with all the benefits that such recognition would bring, the Vote Museum of Luzhitsy provides a focus for a proud and ancient ethnic identity.

As, however, more port facilities are needed to the east and the planned population centre to the west grows, the villages of Krakolye and Luzhitsy will be caught as if in a vice between them. And there are only eight fluent native Vote speakers left.


1 The modern Swedish for no-man’s land is “ingenmansland”.

2 St Petersburg was called Petrograd between 1914 and 1923, Leningrad between 1924 and 1991, when it was renamed St Petersburg. (The Editors.)

3 Now the Holy Trinity (Naval) Cathedral with St Nicholas Chapel and the Chapel in Honour of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God. See

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