We, 31.05.2023
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.

Border tweak steals tourism magnet

Nils Niitra
Facebook Twitter
Photo: Jassu Hertsmann

Should the South-Eastern land swap with Russia materialise, a rarity will be history – Estonian local road no longer passing through Russian territory.

In a couple of decades, the «Saatse Boot» of Värska Commune, Põlva County – a kilometre of road remaining on Russia’s soil – has turned into a tourism magnet. The upcoming border treaty threatens to rob us of the opportunity to sneak via Russia, visa free.

In relations with Russia, nothing can be taken for granted – only in June, Eesti Päevaleht wrote that the border treaty will be signed in July, latest. Now, Postimees has been curtly informed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the treaties will be signed when the timing is agreed. So far, it is not agreed.

In reality, the Värska-Saatse road includes yet another section, a couple of dozen metres long, located in Russia. The Boot, however, being better known – if for the reason that from there, many a man has been dragged to be jailed at the nearby Krupa cordon – or all the way to Pskov. Andres Oimar has been guarding the border, in Värska area, since the beginning of 1990ies.

«The roadside features Russian border signs; tourists love to take pictures at them – even though this equals violation of border,» said he. «Only in June it was that a Brit went over to shoot a picture of the post; we managed to catch him just before he was about to cross the line.»

The start of the famed kilometre is marked by «no stopping» signs, as well as the rare sign forbidding walking. Both the boot and the other section near Lutepää village are only allowed to be passed by some means of transportation, be it a car, bike or even a donkey.

Basically, the Russians seem resigned to give up the boot – a fence being erected at the road. To get unto the boot, Russians will first have to open a gate, now. According to Mr Oimar, people were mostly caught some ten years back, while the road lacked the traffic signs.

Mushrooms calling

Liide Lusti, a babushka from Sesniki village, was dragged to Krupa cordon herself. For border infringement, years ago.

«Sat there for 24 hours. Finally they brought me to Värska and delivered to locals. No fine, however,» related Ms Lusti. «There’s lots of mushrooms on the boot; but if they catch you, it is straight to Krupa.»

Indeed, locals tend to end up on the Russian side as all Estonian mushrooms are harvested.

Once jailed at Krupa, usually financial fines are the order of the day. According to Mr Oimar, the money is not too big, however. The main penalty being the lost time.

Krupa cordon has been visited, not quite voluntarily, by Värska mayor Raul Kudre himself.

«The border was freshly shut and everything quite unclear; I was jogging from Värska to Saatse,» said the mayor. «Managed to spend a night at Krupa. I believe that those who would walk the boot, right now, the likelihood is high.»

Mr Oimar says that Russian border guards were somewhat tougher with violators, as the border was freshly closed, hauling all the elderly pedestrians off to jail. «Now, those just happening to cross the line are likely to just be handed over to our border guards,» said he.

The more provocative ones i.e. smugglers will have a harder time. Those using the boot to deliver goods brought from Russia.

Pursuant to border treaty, the 115.5 hectares boot coming over to Estonia is the biggest plot of land changing hands. In the new situation, the border will be running along the Saatse road edge. Truth be told, all land released to Russia is sacrificed to get the boot back – the swap having to be equal and fair, hectare-wise.

In addition to the woods, the future piece of Estonia features a farmhouse with some grassland. The one-time farm borders being the reason why the curious boot-shaped came into being, in Soviet times, as the Petseri region was liquidated, say the locals. For some reason, the farmlands belonged to the Russian village of  Gorodichche, not the Estonian ones named Sesniki or Lutepää.

For a dozen of years, the farmhouse has stood empty; its last owner is said to live in Estonia. Sadly, according to Mr Oimar, he was unable to drive to Russia, down the Saatse road, and then turn off to the farmhouse standing a hundred metres away.

Instead, he had to take the official route to Russia, via Saatse border point, then heat to Krupa cordon to obtain permission to get into the farm located in the border zone. After that, he had to take the forest paths to his house.

Murphy laws

At least three wooden shelters are to be seen near the road, on the boot. There, Russian border guards tend to sit, viewing the area. Fully aware where to hit loads of EU tourists eager to shoot pictures with Russian border signs.

According to border guards and locals, the boot seems to adhere to Murphy laws – should a car break down, it tends to be there.

«It often happens that cars run out of fuel, or break down,» said Mr Oimar. «And there have been accidents.»

The latter might have a special reason. Those with need for speed knowing that the 1 km straight lies outside Estonian law – and Russian border guards are not paid to measure km/h.

When cars stop for technical reasons, Russian border guards start by searching the vehicle. Should it be verified that the car indeed stopped for technical reasons or lack of fuel, our border-guards – with permission by Russian colleagues – take fuel to the car. Or tow it over into Estonia.

Russia unilaterally marked the border in 1994. According to Mr Oimar, that was the only time the neighbours decided to close the road. «Overnight, barbed wire appeared at both ends of it,» he recalls. «But then there were negotiations, and by night the wire was removed.»

Two technical problems also plague the boot: first, it is passed by a high voltage power line; secondly the road requires maintenance.  

«Did you see: it’s quite decent gravel road, right now?» asks Mr Oimar. «Eesti Teed do the maintenance; but as you will notice, there are no roadside ditches within the boot. The Russians let us repair the road; however, ditches were too much for them, this was not allowed.»

If storms rough up the power lines, permission is to be asked to fix them. While electricians do their job, representatives of Estonian and Russian cordons stand by.

To Sesniki villagers, at the other side of the boot – from Värska – its coming over to Estonia surely is relief. For Vello Kikamägi, daily driving the boot road, it «makes me feel better» at least.

«As it is, I am driving through foreign territory, another country... For such a long while,» said he. «I’m also hoping for asphalt. Be it to compensate us for enduring this, years on end.»

Facebook Twitter