Prichudie (the Lake Peipsi area) Old Believers... Who are they? Religious dissidents, dissenters, a separate subethnos or indigenous population? An enclave of the old Russian culture or a settlement of fugitive peasants and persecuted Old Belief adepts? Each opinion has its own "convinicing evidence" and "incontestable arguments", its own adepts and opponents. Yet, as it seems, there is no definite answer to the question of the formation of this part of the population of Estonia up to now. One may turn to the well-known works of A. Moora and E. Rihter; G. Esipov's mention of strigolniks who settled here should not be ignored, too... There are a lot of sources indeed.
The Old Believers' language comprises archaic elements of Russian and includes borrowings from the Estonian language. The study of toponymics of the Lake Chudskoe region would raise many questions and would probably shift a hypothetical date of its settlement even farther. And should the date be established, the issue of continuity of cultural, religious and ritual traditions of the first settlers and modern inhabitants would arise.
Indigenous population or strangers, unique or ordinary? Had they appeared in Estonia 250, 300 or 500 years ago and how to call them now? Yet are the exact dates and terminology important for Old Believers themselves? The feeling of one's own dignity and other people's respect do not depend on the number of years lived at the same place. One may suppose that recognition and interest in the Old Believers were and will be preserved only on condition that they maintain and develop their original culture. Descendants of strange or indigenous people, the first or the fifths generation - each of them maintained the tradition and made his (her) own contribution to it, thus forming the notion of the "Old Believers of Estonia". Yet, unfortunately, witnesses of the past age and the last bearers of language and culture are dying, their heritage disappears. To fill in the "blank pages of history", to collect objects of the material culture as well as memories of the elder generation, to fix disappearing language peculiarities of the Prichudie inhabitants - such ideas emerge again and again. They were discussed and put into practice by the Old Believers themselves, which led to the rise of personal archives, collections of photographs, letters or material objects of everyday life and church culture. To be sure, careless grandchildren sometimes destroyed the objects carefully preserved by their grandmother. And the danger of Old Belief's extinction is real today. It is perceptible in the decrease of community members, lack of nastavniks and other disturbing symptoms.
Is the fear of the worst outcome, i.e. Old Belief's final extinction, justified then? Russian diaspora's anxiety about assimilation tendencies in politics finds a lively response among the Old Believers as well. It is quite possible that fear of the "denationalization" will force us to recall our origin and to turn to our own roots. What will be more important, the quantity or the "quality" of the Old Believers, then? What inheritance are the new members of the community going to use? We do not know much of our own history and culture even now. Some things turned out to be fatally forgotten, some things were not called for or appreciated. Long closeness of the Old Belief, lack of its own scholars and hard times have had an impact on its destiny. Nobody and nothing is in our way now - would there be a desire only. And, apparently, it is. There are Old Believers ready to work for preservation of their inheritance. There are scholars interested in studying our language and culture. In my opinion, co-operation and partnership of these two forces could solve the problem of Old Belief's extinction, at least to some extent. In this connection the work of the project "The study of Russian Old Believers' culture" in 2003 should be mentioned. The aim of the project may be summarized in three words: to collect, to process, to hand over. The scholars' interests applied to both historical and linguistic material, i.e. the peculiarities of modern language of Old Believers. The present publication of the "Essays on history and culture of Old Believers" is based only on the small part of the collected material. While knowing the amount of the material collected and the scholars' desire to continue the work, we hope that the publication may become serial.
Our rich cultural past, known and as if discovered anew, evokes the feeling of pride. Is it necessary to deprive of this feeling our descendants, inheritors and followers - Russian Old Believers of Estonia?
A number of dialectological expeditions to western Prichudie Old Believers' settlements were organized in April - November of 2003 within the framework of the project "The study of Russian Old Believers' culture". Varnja (Voronja), Kolkja (Kol'ki), Uus-Kasepa (Novaia Kazepel') villages, Kallaste and Mustvee towns were investigated. The observations have shown that the original north-western dialect (the Pskov dialect, whose distinctive feature is "akanie", i.e. pronunciation of unstressed Russian u as a) is almost lost in Kallaste: its inhabitants use the literary Russian language with scarce dialect embeddings. The dialect is much better preserved in Mustvee, but its purest form persists in speech of the elder generation of village inhabitants. Any significant dialect distinctions between the dialects of the localities investigated have not been noticed at the present research stage.
The strong "jakanie" (pronounciation of a instead of the other vowels in the first pretonic), especially steady in elder generation's speech, persists in the phonetic system of Prichudie Old Believers' dialect. The secondary pleophony (верёх, столоб, смерётушка, черев, четверег) and the prothetic vowel in verbal past tense forms ([и]шла, [и]шли) are the most noticeable dialect traits. In the consonant system, pronunciation of long n instead of the combination dn (холо[нн]о), the hard labial consonant in the end of the word (кро[ф], восе[м]), the long hard sibilant ss instead of the soft one (ово[шш]и) and hard c are typical. The Old Believers' dialect's phonetic system preserves a lot of archaic traits. The accentological characteristic of many words, grammatical forms and whole grammatical paradigms is rather specific.
The dialect vocabulary is rather steady in the local dialects: вести 'to lead' and 'to carry', гуньба 'caraway', еслив 'if', мститься 'to seem, to fancy', мурник 'stone-mason', найтись 'to born', пястка 'handful', ранний 'former, past', etc. The words, which are outwardly identical to the words of the literary language and whose meaning and valence are different, are the most interesting. The preparation of the "Dictionary of the western Prichudie Old Believers' dialect" has to be the task of the nearest future.
There are specific word-formative models in the sphere of word-formation: побережь 'побережье' ('shore'), промежь 'промежуток' ('gap', 'distance'), выпивага 'любитель выпить' ('drunkard'), жихарь 'житель' ('dweller'); ленной 'ленивый' ('lazy'), большунный 'очень большой' ('very big').
The morphological system of the dialect is rather stable. Archaic phenomena may be observed in noun, adjective and verb grammatical paradigms. The system of pronoun declension is dialect-specific. The adverbial participles are widely used in predicative function (народ был другой пришёдцы; поля все заросши). It is important to note that this dialect feature is steady even in speech of those inhabitants who have already adopted the literary Russian language.
Dialect syntax is very diverse. The usage of prepositions is dialect-specific; there are some distinctions in verb government (ехать в озеро; три года в господах работала; был в войны; ехать помимо дома; около меня стали смяяться); the prepositionless government is used instead of the prepositional one in the literary language (я тогда его заорала и кричу; матери было четверо детей). The construction of the type у нас много поработано 'мы много поработали' is widely used. Disagreement of the subject and the predicate gender forms, when the predicate is the short participle (старый домик было обделано так красиво), as well as semantic agreement of the subject and predicate, when the subject is the noun of the quantitative semantics (начальство пошли в волость), may be observed. Such ancient syntactic phenomena as the repetition of prepositions within the "noun+(pronoun) adjective" combinations (в моленну в нашу; со стараньем со своим) and the use of the conjunction что in subordinate clauses of cause and purpose (лампочку ищу, что включить свет; уводили свои продукты, что здесь линия фронта идёт) are typical.
Many dialect speakers are bilingual and the influence of the Estonian language may be observed in their speech.
These observations evidence that the western Prichudie Old Believers' dialect is of great cultural value and the p its lingustic study is much promising.