Votians have referred to themselves as vad’d’alaizõd, vai rahvaz, maavätshi, and they are also associated with ethnonyms chud and vod’ mentioned in Russian chronicles and documents since the 9th century.
Votians are, similarly to Izhorians, the indigenous inhabitants of Ingria, the current Kingissep region of the Leningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation, whose ancestors separated from other Baltic-Finnic tribes probably in the 1st millennium B.C.
According to historical records, linguistic and archeological data, the territory inhabited by Votians has in the more distant past extended further to the West, East and South: in the 13th century Votians’ territories spanned from eastern and northeastern Estonia in the west to the Inkere (Izhorian) river in the east and from the Gulf of Finland in the north to the city of Gdov in the south.
Today, Votian language is spoken only near the mouth of the Lauga (Luga) river: in Jõgõpera (Krakolye), Liivtšülä (Peski) and Luutsa / Luuditsa (Lužitsõ) villages.
According to the data from the 2010 census, 64 Votians lived in Russia while in 2002 their number was 73 – this means a 12.3% decline. In 2010 there were 68 speakers of the Votian language.
We know that in 2002 only 12 Votians lived on traditional Votian lands in the Leningrad Oblast while 12 more lived in St. Petersburg. The latter probably included people who have recently began to appreciate their Votian roots and who have self-identified as Votians.
The Votian language belongs with Estonian and Livonian languages to the southern group of Baltic-Finnic languages. It is the closest kindred language to (Northern) Estonian.
Four dialects of the Votian language have been recognized: Eastern, Western, Kukkusi and Kreevini dialects. The latter was spoken by Votians (Kreevins) who had been deported to Latvia in the 15th century and who became extinct in the middle of the 19th century. The dialect from Kukkusi (Kurovitsy) village is actually a mixed dialect of Votian and Izhorian languages. The Eastern dialect was spoken during World War II in just one village, Itšapäivä (Itsepino) while these days the last speakers of only the Western dialect have survived. Votian lacked a written language until the beginning of the 2000s when the linguist Mehmet Muslimov created a Votian written language on the basis of the Western dialect. Votian language uses the Latin alphabet.
In the summer of 1998, 30-40 persons spoke Votian as a mother tongue. The usage of spoken Votian language has been encouraged as a result of annual summer expeditions by Estonian linguists and students. This has improved the reputation of the mother tongue among Votians and postponed their linguistic assimilation. Unfortunately the year of birth of the youngest speaker of Votian is 1930.
The traditional territory of Votians in Western Ingria has never been a particularly secure place due to the military activities of Russians, Swedes and Germans, as a result of which these lands went under foreign rule already in the 9th century. After the fragmentation of the Kievan Rus’ in the 12th century Votians’ lands ended up in the feudal Novgorod Republic. The northeastern section of this state was called the Votian One-Fifth, the City of Novgorod had a Votian (Chud) street and Votian military groups took part in Novgorod’s military excursions.
Starting from the 13th century, Votian lands were often the battlefield between Old Livonia and Novgorod. In 1440s, knights of the Livonian Order deported a group of Votians into the vicinity of today’s Bauska in Latvia. Local population started calling them Kreevins (from Latvian word krievs ‘Russians’) since they were brought in from Russia.
In 1480s, after the unification of Novgorod with the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Votians were deported into the Russian interior. When Ingria came under the Swedish rule with the Peace of Stolbovo of 1617, many Orthodox Votians fled from the Lutheran church to Russia. Their emptied lands were resettled by Lutheran Finnish and Karelian peasants who became Ingrian Finns. During the Great Northern War Russia regained Ingria and in 1703 the new imperial capital was established in the mouth of the Neva river which significantly changed the geopolitics of the entire region.
The founding of St. Petersburg in 1703 resulted in a massive influx of Russians to the Eastern part of Ingria. All of this led to the dissipation of Votians as an ethnic group. They were assimilated with Russians, Finns, Izhorians and Estonians. In 1848, Peter von Köppen counted 37 villages in Ingria with a total Votian population of 5148. A further impetus for the dissipation of Votians was the abolition of serfdom in 1861 which accelerated the mobility of the population. Also, St. Petersburg needed Votians as a source of labor.
In the middle of the 19th century when Estonians experienced a national awakening, Votians fell finally into the Russian sphere of influence. Their only distinguishing feature was their language, but in the 1920s this barrier was removed, too. Votians did not receive any kind of autonomy and no written language was developed for them.
According to the data from 1926 there were 705 Votians and their assimilation was already obvious. Those few Votians were in the following years (1929-1931) subjected to deportations due to the collectivization of agriculture. During World War II the Votian lands were for several years battlefields and a German home front. In the final phase of the war some Votians were evacuated along with Ingrian Finns to Finland, to be later repatriated to the Soviet Union.
In the period 1926-1959 the number of Votians decreased by 90%. When in 1942 there were 300-400 Votian speakers according to the data of Academic Paul Ariste, then in 1959 there were only 35 good Votian speakers in Kingissep region. In 1989 there were 62 Votians according to Heinike Heinsoo, of whom approximately half spoke the language.
Since the second half of the 1990s a kind of Votian revival has taken place. In 1997, Tatiana Yefimova, whose husband is Votian, opened a private museum in Luutsa where she displayed ethnographic items and old photos. In 2001 and 2006 the museum suffered from fires. In 2013 a new museum building was erected with the funding of private capital.
Since 2000 an annual summer village festival is held in Luuditsa which has become the meeting place for Votians and those interested in Votians, their language and culture.
In 2003, the Votian flag, coat-of-arms and anthem were developed, with December 15 as the date for celebrating these symbols.
The Votian language is taught as an optional subject in the Jõgõpera high school, also the folklore ensemble Linnud is operating. In 2003, the Votian-language book “Vadda kaazgõt. Vodskije skazki” (Votian fairy tales) was published in the Votian written language developed by Memet Muslimov. In 2015, the Votian Cultural Society was registered, with Tatiana Yefimova as its Chair.