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Restoring the Beautiful South

European Commission 'Phare Highlights' newsletter, June 2003

By Simon Coss

RAJA, Estonia - An eerie wailing fills the chilly air of the tiny wooden monastery as a small group of black- clad old ladies begin a traditional memorial chant
to commemorate the dead. The women are ‘Old Believers’, members of a rapidly dwindling sect of the Christian religion that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century.
The monastery is in Raja, a tiny fishing village in the far south-east of Estonia on the shores of Lake Peipsi, 3555 square kilometres of water that is frozen for much of the year and separates the tiny Baltic State from its mighty Russian neighbour.
The Old Believers came to Raja having been hounded out of Russia, and this small Estonian vil- lage is one of the few places where their religion is still practised. “The religion is slowly dying out,” explains Ellen Aunin of Enterprise Estonia, an organ- isation that is trying to help develop the country’s economic potential. “Old Believers have their own language based on old Belarussian and fewer and fewer people are learning it now. That’s why most of the worshippers here are old,” she adds. Enterprise Estonia is interested in the Raja monas- tery because Ms Aunin and her colleagues believe it is a truly unique tourist destination that could help develop the village’s ailing economy.
Developing cultural tourism
“Obviously, because of this site’s religious sig- nificance, we are not talking about mass tourism, but we think there is the possibility to develop a system of properly controlled cultural visits,” Ms Aunin says.
Last year, around 2 000 tourists came to the monastery and Ms Aunin believes that figure could be increased to 5 000 if certain vital renovation work is carried out at the monastery. And that is where Phare comes in.
Thanks to a €53 000 Phare grant, the authorities in Raja will soon be able to start refurbishing the old wooden building. “Getting the money from Phare enabled us to start working on this project. This municipality only has a very small budget and we could not have done the work on our own. Without Phare’s help, I’m afraid the building may well have started to decay,” explains Jűri Vooder, the head of Raja municipality.
Ivan Lunin, who works as a caretaker at the monastery, agrees. “We have practically no income for this place so the biggest problem I have is simply keeping the building in good shape. It is really very hard,” he says.
Major renovation
A walk around the creaking wooden monastery quickly reveals the scale of the problem. The building is so cold that visitors’ breath forms steamy clouds when they speak to each other in its cramped rooms and claustrophobic corridors.
Chilly damp cupboards contain priceless 400-year-old hand-bound books, and Mr Vooder points out areas where the wooden floor is in imminent danger of collaps- ing. “The biggest mistake that was made here was to cover the outside of the building with a waterproof cement ren- dering. The wood can’t breathe properly anymore and is starting to rot,” explains the head of the municipality.
He says that the first task that will be carried out at the monastery will be to completely re-clad the structure in wood as its original builders intended. “After that we want to do something about the heating,” he says, rubbing his hands together to keep warm. “At the moment we can’t afford to keep the building heated all the time, so prob- lems with damp just get worse,” he adds.
There are also plans to turn one of the monastery’s larger rooms into a fully equipped exhibition centre where arte- facts such as the valuable collection of books could be properly stored and preserved.
Like many of the villages that border Lake Peipsi, Raja has a decidedly Russian feel. It is a long thin strip of a place made up of small brightly painted wooden fishermen’s houses, strung out along the shore of the lake like a multicoloured ribbon.
Traditional Estonians do not build like this. Apparently, they prefer to have more space around their houses. In addition, the main language spoken here is not Estonian but Russian.
But despite the fact that Raja seems so closely linked to a country that, because of recent history, is still viewed with suspicion by many people in the Baltic States, Ms Aunin insists she is happy to try to promote the village. “This place may have some of its roots in Russian culture but its also very much part of Estonian culture, too. That is the reality of our country,” she says simply.