Lithuanian Tatars

The ethnic group is simply called Tatars and the neighbouring people also refer to them as such. In literature they are more often referred to as the Lithuanian Tatars, Belorussian Tatars, Polish Tatars, Belorussian Muhammadans and Belorussian Muslims. Some Polish authors have used the term lipiki, and Turkish and Crimean Tatar sources of the 19th century have called them lupkalar or lupka tatarlar. The origin of lipki/lupka is not clear. As the habitat of these Tatars is mostly the former Lithuanian Grand Principality, they are primarily known as Lithuanian Tatars.



There has been no ethnic census of the Lithuanian Tatars under the Soviet regime, so their number is unknown. An approximate estimate of their number in Belorussia and Lithuania is 7,000--8,000. It is recorded that the overall number of Tatars on Lithuanian territory at the time of the 1897 census was 4,500 and in 1989, 5,100. Unfortunately it is not clear how many of them were Lithuanian Tatars.

Their Language

In the middle of the 16th century the Lithuanian Tatars apparently gave up Turkish language and started to speak Belorussian. Some intellectuals took up Russian and Polish in the middle of the 19th century.

The origins of the Lithuanian Tatars are particularly interesting. According to their legends they are the descendants of the wanderers far from the Baltic coast - Nogays and Crimean Tatars- who were brought to Lithuania as prisoners of war. Indeed, in 1397 several thousand prisoners of war were taken and they settled in the Wilno(Vilnius) area and on the territory of the present-day Minsk and Grodno Regions. Tokhtamysh, the famous Golden Horde khan and thousands of his warriors, defeated by Tamerlane (Timur), fled to Lithuania a year later. He became the ruler of the present-day Belorussian town, Lida. In 1430 Prince Shvitrigalis of Lithuania summoned the Kypchaks and Nogays from beyond the Volga to his military service and 3,000 remained in his army.

The number of so-called Tatars continued to swell in various ways as prisoners of war or refugees. Their fate has been peculiar. As the newcomers were only men and there were no Muslim women in Lithuania, they had to marry Christians, although their descendants were considered to be Islamic. It was quite common for a husband to adopt the Christian surname of his wife. The elite of the migrants enjoyed equal rights with the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, other Tatars made up a special social entity of the Lithuanian Principality. They had certain obligations such as the 'Tatar Service', which meant that they were obligated to join the army, fully armed and on horseback, at the first call of the State. The Tatar military in return enjoyed certain privileges. Just like the nobility they were exempt from paying tax on the land they owned and they had complete religious freedom. In the 16th--17th centuries the nobility tried to curb their rights but the united Poland and Lithuania had to pay dearly for the folly. In the campaign against the Ukraine the Lithuanian Tatars fought on the side of the enemy. In 1659 the Lithuanian Seimas restored all their rights and privileges.

In 1775 the last discriminative restrictions were abolished and the majority of Tatars became full-fledged Polish-Lithuanian nobility. By that time mixed marriages had taken their toll and the Tatars spoke Belorussian. However, their Islamic faith had helped them to retain an ethnic identity. The Tatars had their own mosques and clergy. It is interesting to note that they resorted to Arabic script when writing Polish or Belorussian texts, adding some diacritical marks to denote the specific Belorussian sounds. All the ecclesiastical literature, the Koran included, was published in Arabic with parallel Belorussian translations. The Arabic script was widely known and it was taught at Tatar village schools. Islam set the rules and regulations for everyday Tatar life but, at least in the 19th century, they were not as rigorously followed and concessions were made for local peculiarities.

For example, the Tatar women were relativley free, the polygamy characteristic of Muslims did not exist, and the children attended co-ed schools. Although they did not eat pork, drink vodka and smoke tobacco which were prohibited for Muslims. They retained some characteristic eating habits and many Tatar dishes have been integrated into traditional Lithuanian cooking. The Tatars did not differ from other people in their dress or in their architecture but certain peculiarities could be observed at home. Mosques added an Eastern flavour to the Tatar settlements.

No noticeable changes in Tatar social status or in their fields of activity took place after the incorporation of their settlements into Russia. The martial arts had lost their importance but many Tatars preferred military service or work in the police to anything else. The rural Tatar population started to pay more attention to farming. They were also good at carpentry. In towns the Tatars were active in all spheres of life. In the second half of the 19th century and especially at the beginning of the 20th many Tatars became intellectuals.

After World War I the Lithuanian Tatars became citizens of one of the folowing three countries

 The ethnic and religious undertakings of Tatars in Poland and Lithuania went on as before but in the Belorussian SSR things changed. The same same change occurred in Lithuania after the Soviet occupation of 1940.

The first mosque was reopened only in 1990.

Naturally the absence of all nationalist activities considerably damaged the ethnic integrity of the Tatars and they were assimilated by the Belorussians which was quite easiy there being no language barrier. The same happened in socialist Poland. The process was further abetted by intermarriages and a lessening of interest in national heritage, especially by the intelligentsia.

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