When the Soviet Union collapsed, the borderland of Estonia and Russia was left alone, eventually turning into a periphery. The big Lake Peipus now separates two shores that are politically different worlds: one is part of the European Union, the other belongs to the Russian Federation.
The closing of the borders cut off the strong ties between the people of the two sides, who defined themselves by the lake, not by their nationality. All this deepened the area’s status as borderland.
Now, mostly old people sleep alone in their beds in front of their old icons in the middle of luscious wallpapers, patterns that recall the beautiful past. Largely, the children are leaving.
My aim is to show the silence and dignity of these people, a culturally unique and rich part of the European Union. I want to show their forgotten shores, their vanishing land.
Whenever someone mentions Lake Peipus, I am reminded of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic historical drama ” Alexander Nevsky.” The culmination of the propaganda film, now considered a cinematographic classic, is the Soviet version of the 13th century Battle on Ice in which the army of Novgorod (i.e. Russia) led by Prince Alexander and that of the Teutonic Knights battled on the frozen lake. The invaders are forced to retreat, the ice cracks and the German knights in heavy armour (supposedly, the Estonians who were hired as soldiers had escaped by then) disappear into the dark waters forever. It is a dramatic scene, followed by one depicting the moaning wounded on the ice and the hungry crows circling the bodies as darkness descends.
Even though the significance of the Battle on the Ice has been questioned in the intervening centuries, it is still symbolically considered the definitive event that settled the boarders between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism.
This is the context in which the photographic series “By the Lake” (2009–…) by the Estonian photographer Birgit Püve opens an array of new layers of meaning. Lake Peipus does not only separate two completely different cultures, but the two sides are also politically worlds apart. The shores of the same lake have seen the birth of a powerful civilization, yet are also home to the utmost periphery of Europe. Notions like “beginning” and “end” become relative, time stops.
Maybe this is the reason the descendants of deeply religious Russians (the Old Believers) came here from the other side of Lake Peipus during the 17th and 18th centuries and sought refuge from the reforms initiated by Patriarch Nikon in this very place. It is also true that the Old Believers have never had it easy here, except maybe during the first decades of the Republic of Estonia. During the Soviet period, they were unable to follow their traditions of worship to the full extent. After Estonia regained its independence, the Old Believers’ traditions were revived, but the return of capitalism brought the decay of the fishing collectives. The renewed split (now political) between Russia and Estonia resulted in the closing of the borders, which cut off the already challenged fishermen from the markets of Pskov and St. Petersburg.
Thus, compared to the time before the Second World War, the population of the Old Believers living by the lake has decreased by half, the area of arable land has fallen to an eighth and the fishing is now strictly regulated. As a result, the Peipsiääre parish has become one of the most impoverished in the country, increasingly abandoned by younger people in search of a better life.
As we see in Birgit’s photographs, neither time nor space is necessarily homogenous and continuous. “This attitude in regard to time suffices to distinguish religious from non-religious man; the former refuses to live solely in what, in modern terms, is called the historical present; he attempts to regain a sacred time that, from one point of view, can be homologized to eternity.” (Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane)
Interestingly, Birgit’s images have an extreme air of sacredness, even though they depict ordinary people. These photographs are not sacred because of the icons in the icon corners or the way the photographs are placed—as diptychs with a person in their home on the one side and a characteristic detail from their environment on the other—but due to a certain saturated atmosphere that usually comes through in the various manifestations of the sacred. The people have been photographed respectfully and discreetly without being forced into preconceived compositions. And just like the icons, these photographs allow us to glimpse the secret of what it means to be human.
Of final interest is the way in which the main character—the lake—is not shown even once. That is a good thing. In its invisibility, the lake becomes a secret, the hidden mediator between life and death, past and present, and the two ever-distant shores.
Just as in legends, the lake is a quiet surface, a two-way mirror between the natural and supernatural world. In these photographs, Birgit Püve’s lake can be a border that separates as well as a bridge that connects.