Polina Levkina is universally acclaimed as the best pastry chef in Sheltozero, a village nestled in the lush pine forests of Karelia, a republic in northwestern Russia along the border with Finland. Levkina, 80, a retired nursery school teacher, proudly sets out an impressive spread of pashtates (pastry): rahtpirgat (pot cheese pies), kolobs (oat flour and potato pies) and kalitkas (rye pancakes topped with cottage cheese and sour cream). Delicacies like these are traditional fare for the Veps, an ancient Finnish-Ugric tribe that first settled in the region in the 6th century, and Levkina still prepares the food the way her ancestors did centuries ago. The recipes may be the same, but other things in this tiny Veps community are changing. Crime is rising; Levkina tells how someone stole the neighbors' tomatoes right out of their garden. "Veps never knew such an outrage," she frets. "Veps never even locked their houses."
It's not only the vegetable patches that are under threat. During the reign of the Czars, the Veps were permitted to run their own local affairs. But under Stalin's policy of forced assimilation, Veps scholars, teachers and writers were jailed or shot; the Veps language was banned; and Veps land was carved up among Russia's Karelia, Leningrad and Vologda regions. In the 1930s, the Veps numbered around 35,000; today, just over 8,000 are left. And under President Vladimir Putin, they're pessimistic about their chances of staging a revival. "We expected the 1999 legislation on minorities to give [minority peoples] more attention," says Zinaida Strogalshchikova, chairwoman of the Veps Culture Society. "But unfortunately, that attention has dwindled. The ongoing centralization of power has produced legislation that impedes regional authorities' potential to support minorities."
During his second term, Putin has moved to further consolidate Kremlin control over Russia's far-flung regions. He has centralized budget control in Moscow and replaced elected regional governors with his own appointees, and he's considering merging some smaller regions into larger administrative units. "Many are worried that this merging begins with autonomous districts, established back in the 1930s especially to protect the interests of minorities," says Strogalshchikova. "Now, indigenous ethnicities have no say in the policies drafted by the federal or regional parliaments."
Under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika of the late 1980s, the Veps enjoyed a brief renaissance. The Veps Culture Society, founded in 1988, was crucial in restoring the language and encouraging the publication of primers, textbooks and dictionaries. To revive Veps ethnic dress, society members had to research the collections of the St. Petersburg Museum of Ethnography, as no examples survived anywhere in the Veps lands. Using the only two remaining garments as patterns, Veps seamstresses reconstructed a modern version of traditional Veps attire: a colorful sarafon (long, broad-skirted dress) over a white or red-and-white ratsin (shirt) for women; and for men, a linen paid (tunic-like shirt) complete with a siberkad (long coat).
But times are hard in Veps villages. Most do not have proper water, heating or sanitary facilities. Villagers rely on private vegetable gardens to survive. The region is rich in marble and timber, but locals see little of the money generated by the exploitation of these natural resources. Without economic prospects, younger Veps are heading off to the cities in search of jobs. "Our numbers keep dwindling because life does not have much to offer our young people," says Strogalshchikova. "To get ahead, they have to become Russian."
What's left of Veps culture can be seen in Sheltozero's museum. Located in a simple log house, it looks like a traditional Veps home: the creaky wooden floorboards are spotless; homespun woolen mats adorn the walls; a wooden cradle, ornamented with hand carving, is parked in a corner. The museum's collection consists of over 10,000 household items like pots, chests, coffee mills and spinning wheels, all of which were retrieved from dusty attics and abandoned sheds. In fact, the museum looks a lot like Polina Levkina's kitchen, which is in danger of becoming a museum piece itself. "How can we teach our grandchildren Veps ways if they don't even speak our language?" Levkina gripes. Then she puts more kolobs on the table.