TARTU - In Estonian lore, they are characterized by dry anecdotes about ambitious farm owners in long black robes who watch their neighbor's property from afar, waiting for the right moment to acquire it.
Nowadays the big farms may be mostly gone, but the stereotype of the go-getting residents of a belt of southern Estonia that stretches through the Parnu, Viljandi, and Valga counties on the Latvian border remains.
They are called "Mulks," defined both by a unique southern Estonian dialect and a proud past. Many of the Estonian republic's founding fathers were from this region, called "Mulgimaa," and today some of the country's most well-known figures, including President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, call the area home.
Those who travel to Mulgimaa today will see signs and activities connected to the regional culture. Most recently, the Institute of Mulgi Culture (MKI), a 12-year-old organization founded to revive and support awareness of Mulgi identity, in October procured a 7-hectare property in the village of Taagepera in Valga County that it plans to turn into a visitor's center and museum over the next five years.
While the Mulgi culture and dialect was part of daily life in southern Estonia into the middle of the 20th century, the culture atrophied during 50 years of Soviet rule and has only begun to rebound during the past two decades. For organizations like MKI, the opportunity to build a larger cultural complex is part of an effort to revive a culture and dialect that some experts fear may soon be lost.
According to MKI Director Kristel Habakukk, the institute received the property 's called "Sooglemae" 's as a donation from the owners of adjacent Taagepera Castle, a restaurant, conference center, and hotel. The location, which includes seven buildings, is a place where MKI can "better coordinate our work and activities," Habakukk told The Baltic Times.
"We want to build a tourism center where we can display a large, Mulgi farm, as well as a museum that can serve different functions by having rooms for students and resources for those who wish to study Mulgi culture," she said.
MKI, based in Karksi-Nuia, has benefited in recent years from increased state funding for southern Estonian cultural activities, including financing from the Estonian Ministry of Culture's Southern Estonian Language and Culture program. The current four-year track of the program, which terminates next year, has an annual budget of 150,000 euros. The program also supports activities related to other southern Estonian dialects and traditions, including Voru and Seto in the southeastern part of the country.
Due to this increased support, MKI's activities have intensified. Mulgi-language radio and TV programs have been produced, and in June, MKI began producing a quarterly newspaper called Uitsainus Mulgimaa 's "the one and only Mulgimaa."
The Mulgi President
Last year, MKI helped place signs delineating the ancient boundaries of Mulgimaa. Present for the ceremony was Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who resides near the Viljandi County town of Abja-Paluoja, and who often wears the traditional black robe of the Mulgi folk costume to official events.
Ilves' family story in many ways exemplifies the origins of Mulgi culture. As global demand for flax increased during the blockade of the southern U.S. during the American Civil War, flax-growing farmers in present-day Mulgimaa profited and were wealthy enough to send their children to university.
"The role of Mulks in the establishment of the Republic was especially strong, precisely because the educated elite of 1918 consisted of those who came out of Tartu at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, who were from this small area where fathers had made it big from flax," Ilves told The Baltic Times.
Ilves today lives on the farm of his great-grandfather, one of the wealthy flax farmers of Mulgimaa. The president's great uncle, Hans Rebane, for example, was educated at Tartu and later became an editor of the daily Postimees, then editor-in-chief of the daily Eesti Paevaleht, then foreign minister of Estonia, and later served as ambassador to Finland and then to Latvia.
"Mulks were richer, better-educated, and formed a disproportionate percentage of the elite that founded the republic," Ilves said. "They had money, so in addition to educating their children, they spent money on clothes, dispensing with the folk costumes in other parishes, and went for boyar-like long coats, black and made from expensive, thick wool," he said.
Ilves has often worn the long, black kuub of Mulgi traditional dress to official events, part of an intentional effort to support the culture. "Dress is a part of identity and I think identity is important for people's self-esteem," Ilves explained.
"I want people to feel good about where they are from; for too long people around here in Abja and Mulgimaa had an especially low sense of self-esteem," he said. "After all, this was an area especially hard hit by Soviet rule."
From Decline to Revival
According to Karl Pajusalu, a professor of Estonian language history and dialects at the University of Tartu, the economic success that earned Mulgimaa its reputation for producing the Estonian elite also made it a prime target for Soviet repression. Deportations in 1941, 1945, and 1949 decimated the area to the point that the local dialect barely survived the Soviet era.
"The Mulgi region suffered from World War II and the following Soviet repressions very badly, and now only a quarter of the population of the region are people whose grandparents are originally from the area," Pajusalu told The Baltic Times. "Therefore the heritage, language, and culture are endangered."
Pajusalu said that today there are several thousand speakers of the Mulgi dialect, which shares around 30 percent of its features with standard Estonian, making it similar to the southeastern Voru dialect but more distant from the west coast and northern Estonian dialects.
The term "mulk," interestingly, is thought to be of Latvian origin, supposedly derived from the Latvian "mulkis" 's 'fool.' "The Latvians probably quite rightly applied the term to the first nouveau riche peasants in the Baltic provinces," joked Ilves.
Despite its decline during the Soviet era, Asta Jaaksoo, the head of the August Kitzberg Society in Karksi-Nuia, said she now feels positively about the culture's future. Kitzberg, who lived from 1855 to 1927, is one of the most famous Estonian writers to publish works in the Mulgi dialect.
"Now, we have the opportunity to reawaken this culture and I believe that it will become stronger and educated people will push it forward," Jaaksoo told 0. She added that the recently acquired Sooglemae center would be a "good place for families to come and enjoy the Mulgi spirit."
Pajusalu agreed that efforts to revive Mulgi culture and dialect are important for developing regional culture and strengthening local identity. "It contributes to the re-establishment of the historical dignity and prosperity of the region," he said.
In terms of state support, President Ilves said that more is being done today to support southern Estonian culture than has ever been done before. Still, it "takes time to repair the damage of half a century of Soviet awfulness and some things are probably lost forever," Ilves said. "But if state support helps people feel better about where they live, then any amount of support is worth it."