Tribes and Dialects
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THE LITHUANIAN TATARS
Habitat. Today the Lithuanian Tatars live in the western part of the Minsk Region of Byelorussia, in the region northeast of Brest and in the Grodno Region. Small enclaves are found in southeast Lithuania and in Kaunas, as well as in the eastern and western parts of Poland.
Population. 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 Byelorussia and Lithuania is 7,000--8,000 (according to L. Cherenkov 1983). 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.
Language. In the middle of the 16th century the Lithuanian Tatars apparently gave up Turkish and started to speak Byelorussian. 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 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 Byelorussian 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 (prisoners of war, 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 Byelorussian. However, their Islamic faith (Sunnite) 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 Byelorussian texts, adding some diacritical marks to denote the specific Byelorussian sounds. All the ecclesiastical literature, the Koran included, was published in Arabic with parallel Byelorussian 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 (holidays, the observance of Friday, food etc.) but, at least in the 19th century, they were not rigorously followed and concessions were made for local peculiarities. For example, the women were comparatively free, the polygamy characteristic of Muslims did not exist, and the children attended coeducational schools. Although they did not eat pork, vodka and tobacco, otherwise prohibited for Muslims, were quite common. 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 and minarets 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, especially vegetable growing. 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 three countries -- the Soviet Union, Poland or Lithuania. The ethnic and religious undertakings of Tatars in Poland and Lithuania went on as before but in the Byelorussian SSR everything changed. The same 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 Byelorussians (quite easily so, 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.