Identity Formation among the Belarusian Tatars in the Context of Belarus’s Transition to Independence, 1991-1992

Par Rashed Chowdhury
Publication en ligne le 06 juin 2013


The Belarusian Tatar minority, representing about 0.1 percent of the population of Belarus, experienced a cultural revival led by its intelligentsia in the early 1990s. This article examines the ways in which two Tatar intellectuals helped reconstruct a Belarusian Tatar identity through their quarterly journal, Bajram. It argues that this identity had four distinct pillars : Islam ; loyalty to Belarus ; attachment to the Belarusian language ; and Tatar ethnicity. It also examines the use of history in Bajram in support of its editors’ views on Belarusian Tatar identity. The article places this identity construction project in the context of the Belarusian Renaissance (a nationalist movement led by the members of the intelligentsia) and Belarusian politics of the late Soviet and early post-independence eras.

У пачатку 1990-х гадоў беларуска-татарская меншасць, якая складае прыблізна 0,1% ад насельніцтва Беларусі, прайшла праз культурнае адраджэнне, на чале якога стаяла ейная інтэлігенцыя. Гэты артыкул разглядае ўклад, які ўнеслі два татарскія інтэлектуалы ў рэканструкцыю беларуска-татарскай ідэнтычнасці праз свой штоквартальны часопіс, « Байрам ». Артыкул сцвярджае, што гэтая ідэнтычнасць мела чатыры асобныя слупы : іслам, вернасць Беларусі, прыхільнасць да беларускай мовы ды татарская этнічнасць. Ён таксама разглядае выкарыстанне гісторыі ў « Байраме » ў падтрымку поглядаў ягоных рэдактараў наконт беларуска-татарскай ідэнтычнасці. Артыкул ставіць гэты праект па канструіраванні ідэнтычнасці ў кантэкст беларускага Адраджэння (нацыяналістычнага руха, узначаленага членамі інтэлігенцыі) і беларускай палітыкі канца савецкай эпохі ды пачатку эры незалежнасці.

La minorité tatare bélarusse, qui représente environ 0,1% de la population du Belarus, a connu une renaissance culturelle dirigée par son intelligentsia au début des années 1990. Cet article examine les façons dont deux intellectuels tatars ont contribué à reconstruire une identité tatare bélarusse à travers leur revue trimestrielle, Bajram. Il fait valoir que cette identité reposait sur quatre piliers distincts : l'islam, la loyauté au Bélarus, l'attachement à la langue bélarusse, et l'ethnicité tatare. Il examine également l'utilisation de l'histoire, dans Bajram, pour appuyer l'opinion des éditeurs sur l’identité tatare bélarusse. L'article place ce projet de construction d'identité dans le contexte de la Renaissance bélarusse (un mouvement nationaliste dirigé par des membres de l'intelligentsia) et de la politique bélarusse de la fin de l’ère soviétique et du début de l’époque postindépendance.


Texte intégral


1In November 1997, the small Belarusian Tatar community marked the 600th anniversary of the settlement of the first Tatars in what is now Belarus by laying the foundation stone for a new mosque in Minsk1. Starting from the late 1980s and continuing to the present day, there has been a great deal of interest in the Belarusian Tatar community not only among the Tatars themselves, but also among the Belarusian intelligentsia, mirroring similar processes in Poland and (to a lesser extent) Lithuania, parts of which, along with north-western Belarus, form the historical homeland of what was once the Lithuanian Tatar community2.

2To respond to (and feed) this growing interest from within the community and from the ethnic majority, several Belarusian Tatar intellectuals, foremost among whom were Ibrahim Kanapacki (1949-2005) and Jakub Jakuboŭski (1932-1998), produced a number of scholarly works and other intellectual initiatives that were to form one of the key elements of a newly (re-)constructed Belarusian Tatar identity. These initiatives included the publication of a Belarusian-language journal for and about the Belarusian Tatars ; the holding of annual scholarly conferences on Belarusian Tatar history and identity ; the writing of books and articles on Belarusian Tatar history ; and regular commentary on Belarusian Tatar history in the mainstream Belarusian media, which kept up an active interest in the history and present condition of this minority.

3These efforts formed part and parcel of a concerted effort to rebuild a Belarusian Tatar community whose religious identity had been attenuated by decades of Communist rule, during which the community was able to maintain a reified ethnic identity (confirmed by the state through the use of the word « Tatar » in one’s internal passport) but had been cut off from the sources of its erstwhile religious identity. The intellectual endeavours went along with other religious and ethnic community-building projects, such as the establishment of Tatar cultural associations, particularly Al-Kitab, from which most other Belarusian Tatar initiatives would spring ; the construction or reconstruction of mosques in the Belarusian towns and cities where mosques existed before being shut down during the Soviet era ; the renewal of prayer ceremonies at Tatar cemeteries ; and the establishment of the office of mufti (a scholarly authority able to issue religious rulings or fatwas). However, these religio-cultural institution-building measures were in many respects underpinned by the body of scholarly output produced by the Belarusian Tatar intelligentsia. This intellectual corpus was crucial in the construction of a late-twentieth-century Belarusian Tatar identity.

4As Yos Santasombat notes, « the ethnic identity of a minority group is… constructed in a continuous process, not only by external forces and labeling by the state and other outsiders with whom they interact, but also through their own socio-cultural process of creating a self-definition ». Yos calls for minority ethnic identities to be examined « in their historical context », paying particular attention to the « imagined construction » of the identities both from within and without the group in question. This « imagined construction », according to Yos, occurs « within the context of changing power relations and socio-economic conditions where the past is reconstructed to give meaning to the present and hope for the future3 ». In this paper, I examine the way in which the leadership of the cultural and religious organisation Al-Kitab shaped Belarusian Tatar identity through its organ, Bajram, in the context of the political upheaval and reconstruction that took place in Belarus as the republic transitioned from decades of Soviet rule to independent statehood. I look not only at the way the Belarusian Tatar activist intellectuals reconstructed the past, but also at the way they represented the present to their community, and the kind of future they aspired to.

5My argument is that the interventions in the scholarly domain and various public fora by Jakuboŭski, Kanapacki and others helped formulate a new Belarusian Tatar ethno-religious identity by responding to four urgent questions that faced the community starting in the late perestroika era. First and foremost, what was the Tatars’ ethnic identity ? Were they Tatars who did not speak a Turkic language, unlike other peoples who shared the same ethnic designation, namely the Crimean Tatars and the Volga Tatars ? Were they Belarusians who happened to be Muslims ? Or were they something in between ? Secondly, the Tatars had to consider the issue of religious identity : after decades of being identified primarily through ethnicity, were they to transition to a religious mode of identification ? What role would Islam play in their community-building efforts ? Thirdly, in a Belarus where the culture wars revolved largely around the issue of one’s choice of language, which side of the Belarusian-Russian linguistic divide would the Tatars place themselves on ? Or would they abstain from the debate entirely, claiming some kind of affinity to the Tatar language of their distant ancestors, or the Arabic language of their liturgy ? Lastly, after decades of life in the Soviet Union, how should the Tatars relate to the emergence of a distinct, autonomous and eventually independent Belarus, which placed their supposed ethnic kin, the Crimean and Volga Tatars, beyond international frontiers ?

6The paper further argues that the answers arrived at by the Tatar leadership were skewed towards a cultural and quasi-Belarusian self-definition of Tatarness because of the background of Kanapacki and Jakuboŭski in the Belarusian intelligentsia and their affinity to the simultaneously occurring Belarusian Renaissance. With the death of the first generation of post-independence Belarusian Tatar leaders and the diminution of the percentage of Tatars among the Belarusian Muslim minority, the Belarusian Tatar community’s self-definition has shifted to some extent to step away from the ongoing wider debate over Belarusian identity and emphasise its membership in the global Muslim umma.

1. The Historical Context

7According to the 1989 Soviet Census, there were 12,436 Tatars in Belarus that year, not including 116 Crimean Tatars4. The Tatars thus comprised about 0.1% of the population of the republic. The word « Tatar » in this context carries an ambiguous meaning, as it included both Belarusian Tatars and Volga Tatars, who were culturally and linguistically distinct ethnic groups. Of the approximately 12,500 Tatars in Belarus, a small number were originally from Tatarstan in Russia, the remainder being indigenous to Belarus.

8The origins of today’s Belarusian Tatar minority lie in the Lithuanian Tatar community, whose descendants also include the Polish Tatar minority, and the Tatars of the modern-day Republic of Lithuania. As Stanisław Kryczyński notes, the name « Lithuanian Tatars » is « old [and] established through an age-old historiographical tradition, attested to many times » in the primary sources, including private papers, diaries, heraldic lists, chronicles and so on5. Similarly, Dumin and Kanapacki point out that it was only in the twentieth century that the Lithuanian Tatar community came to be compartmentalised into Belarusian, Polish and (modern-day) Lithuanian Tatar minorities. In Dumin and Kanapacki’s view, this division is « artificial », although, given the undeniable role of national borders in delimiting territories and populations today (especially the borders between a rather isolated Belarus on the one hand and European Union members Poland and Lithuania on the other), the extent of this artificiality is itself debatable6.

9Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that the Belarusian Tatar community is only one branch of what may in some senses be considered a single, transnational minority. The Lithuanian Tatar community arose in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where Tatar mercenary units served from the early fourteenth century in the Grand Duchy’s wars with Poland and the Teutonic Order. The large-scale permanent settlement of Tatars in Lithuania began, however, in the late fourteenth century, under Grand Duke Vitaŭt (r. 1392-1430)7, during whose reign the territory of the Grand Duchy expanded to encompass all of today’s Lithuania and Belarus, along with parts of modern-day Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Vitaŭt was an ally of Tokhtamysh Khan (d. 1406) of the Tatar Blue Horde ; after an invasion of the Blue Horde by Timur (1336-1405) in 1391, Vitaŭt granted Tokhtamysh and thousands of his troops asylum in Lida (in the Hrodna Region of modern-day Belarus) the following year. In 1397, Tokhtamysh and his forces joined Vitaŭt for an attack on the Crimean Tatars. They took large numbers of Tatar prisoners, possibly numbering in their thousands, and brought them back to the Grand Duchy, settling them in and around Vilna, as well as Navahrudak (in today’s Hrodna Region) and other parts of modern-day north-western Belarus and north-eastern Poland8.

10These prisoners, once settled in the Grand Duchy, became the nucleus of the community which survives to this day. While most other European states contemporary to Vitaŭt restricted the rights of Muslims, Vitaŭt granted the settlers land tax-free in exchange for military service, while allowing them to maintain their Muslim religion9. The Tatar settlers, being mostly male, were allowed to marry local Christian women (bringing up their children as Tatars and Muslims ; they were also allowed to build mosques. As the Orientalist Anton Muchlinski (Mukhlinsky) (1808-1877) points out (citing a Tatar letter to King Sigismund I, written in 1519), Vitaŭt and his subjects treated the Tatars « not as captive prisoners, but as brothers. » This acceptance of the Tatars with their religion laid the foundation for continued loyalty towards the Grand Duchy on the part of the Tatars10.

11A detailed examination of the history of the Lithuanian Tatars, involving a transition from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (in the sixteenth century), to the Russian Empire (in the eighteenth century), followed by interwar Poland and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (in the twentieth century), is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, necessary to note three key elements of this history because of their role in the self-perception of Belarusian Tatars in the late twentieth century, which is the period we are concerned with. These elements include the Tatar community’s continued adherence to Islam (although degrees of practice varied and there was some amount of conversion to Christianity), the Tatars’ collective switch to the Belarusian (and, to a lesser extent, Polish) language, and the Tatars’ tradition of military service.

12By the sixteenth century, partly as a result of marrying Belarusian-speaking women, the Lithuanian Tatars had undergone a linguistic shift to Belarusian. As a result, their religious literature was written in Belarusian (and to a lesser extent Polish), at a time when the written Old Belarusian language had fallen out of use under Polish influence, and modern Belarusian had not yet appeared. The Tatars were thus the only community at the time using Belarusian as a written language, albeit in Arabic (rather than Cyrillic or Latin) letters. This religious literature consisted of folios called Al-Kitab (Arabic for « the book »), containing prayers and Sufi morality tales, pocket-sized prayer books called chamail, and translations of the Qur’an called tefsir (Arabic for « exegesis »). The Lithuanian Tatars remained a largely Belarusian-speaking community into the twentieth century11. This fact would later become one of the pillars of the Tatar identity promoted by a Tatar association not coincidentally named Al-Kitab. While undergoing a linguistic shift, the Tatars remained Muslim ; those of them who did not were assimilated into the surrounding majority. This created a continuing historical connection between Tatar ethnicity and Islam12. Lastly, numerous Tatar officers and men served with distinction in the armies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and participated in uprisings against Russian rule in 1795 and 1830-31. Many Lithuanian Tatars also served in the Russian imperial army and some achieved high ranks. This military history, although it ended during Soviet rule, nevertheless inspired a sense of pride in Belarusian Tatar (as well as Polish Tatar) intellectuals in the late twentieth century13.

2. The Immediate Political Context

13As the era of perestroika began under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the freedom of assembly and association began to appear in the Soviet Union to some extent, creating the possibility of the formation of various civic groups actively pursuing previously latent interests, including republic-level nationalisms14. In Belarus, two events provided an impetus for the creation and consolidation of a nationalist opposition to Communist (and eventually Soviet) rule. The first was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, which disproportionately affected Belarus and contaminated a considerable swathe of land in the south-east of the republic15, and the second was the discovery near Minsk in 1988 of mass graves of Belarusian prisoners presumably shot dead by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) during the Stalin era16.

14The discovery by the Belarusian public that the Communist government may not have always had its best interests caused significant political developments in 1989. Zianon Paźniak, a historian who had played a leading role in the uncovering of the graves, became the leader of the newly formed Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) in June 1989 ; like its Baltic counterparts, the BNF demanded independence from the USSR, while also promoting the use of the Belarusian language and calling for a Belarusian cultural revival. Around the same time, the Belarusian Language Society (TBM) was formed to champion the cause of the Belarusian language. By the end of 1989, the BNF had around 50,000 members ; 70 percent of the membership in the early days came from the intelligentsia. The BNF thus attracted people who were educated, Belarusian-speaking, and often with connections (as in the case of Paźniak himself) to the north-west of the republic, where memories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were perhaps the strongest. It is thus no wonder that, for a while, Paźniak supported the idea of creating a « Baltic-Black Sea Union », which would, in effect, recreate the Grand Duchy of Lithuania17. This set of ideas, which posited that the Belarusians are a nation whose legitimacy derives from the preservation of the Belarusian language and ethnic-Belarusian culture, as well as their history as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, came into conflict with Soviet Belarusian identity, promoted by the Communists, which was ambivalent about the Belarusian language if not hostile to it, indifferent to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and promoted the view that the Belarusians were a heroic nation because of their participation in the defeat of Nazi Germany18.

15Both the BNF and the Communist versions of Belarusian identity deployed heroic interpretations of Belarusian history : while the Communists postulated that Belarusians were heroes because of their resistance to the German occupation in the 1940s through the partisan movement, the BNF harked back to the history of the multiethnic, religiously tolerant and officially Old-Belarusian-speaking Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and particularly its defeat of the crusading Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grünwald in 1410. In many ways, the BNF and associated Belarusian cultural-revivalist movements located the Golden Age of Belarus in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania19. Consequently, what they were aiming for was an Adradžeńnie – a « rebirth » or « renaissance » of Belarusian culture which, in their view, was on the verge of destruction through Russification20.

16The Belarusian Renaissance, as it came to be called (partly replacing the earlier use of the term, which referred to the Belarusian cultural revival of the 1920s), was in some ways temporarily successful, creating an intellectual and artistic ferment which brought a new generation of activists into the ranks of a new Belarusian opposition. It was arguably under pressure from intellectuals associated with the movement – the adradžency (revivalists) – that the Communist and ex-Communist authorities of the BSSR declared Belarusian to be the only official language in 1990 and returned to the nationalist state symbols of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic in 1991, and played a crucial role in the break-up of the USSR later that year21.

17A rising tide lifts all boats, and the rising national consciousness brought about by the Belarusian Renaissance engendered a similar process, according to Leanid Lyč, a historian and himself an intellectual-activist of the Adradžeńnie. In Lyč’s view, the ethnic minorities of Belarus, including the Tatars, experienced an « awakening » and realised the danger of Russification which they were facing together with the « titular nationality », i.e., ethnic-Belarusians22. It was in this context that Jakub Jakuboŭski, an editor at the Belarusian Soviet Encyclopaedia, and Ibrahim Kanapacki, a historian at the Minsk State Pedagogical University, helped launch a Tatar revival project. After the formation of the first two ethnic-minority associations in 1988, Jakuboŭski and Kanapacki launched a Belarusian Tatar association named Al-Kitab in Minsk, consciously evoking the linguistic and religious history of the community through this name. Jakuboŭski and Kanapacki, who became the joint vice-presidents of Al-Kitab, founded a quarterly journal named Bajram, in 199123. Through this journal, whose early issues are the subject matter of this article, the founder-editors sought to bring their vision of Belarusian Tatar identity to both a Tatar and an ethnic-Belarusian readership. The launch of the journal took place in a year that saw an anti-Gorbachev putsch in Moscow in August, followed by a declaration of independence by Belarus several days later, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December. As sections of the ethnic-Belarusian majority experienced significant changes in their identity, as did the BSSR as a whole (being renamed the Republic of Belarus in September 1991 and becoming an independent country in December), what sort of identity did the leaders of the Tatar movement propose for their community ?

3. Tatar Identity through the Prism of Bajram

18As Communist-ruled Belarus moved precipitously towards independent statehood and Communist rule in Belarus was challenged by the nationalist BNF, Belarusian Tatar intellectuals led by Ibrahim Kanapacki and Jakub Jakuboŭski developed an interest in publicly exploring the history, culture and religious beliefs of their community. As with the Belarusian Renaissance, this was not simply a romantic effort aimed at uncovering and restoring a history and an identity that had been obscured by decades of Communist rule which, while reifying ethnic identities, had also promoted the idea of the merger of all the dozens of ethnic groups in the Soviet Union into one « Soviet people24 ». Rather, it was also an effort at constructing (or, perhaps, reconstructing) anew a Belarusian Tatar identity suitable for the circumstances of the late twentieth century. In this sense, while the Tatar intellectuals’ efforts inevitably sought inspiration and legitimation in the past, their primary concern lay with the present and the future : how best to reflect, preserve and enhance Tatar identity and, by doing so, revive a flagging Tatar community in the context of a Belarus where the ethnic majority (Belarusians by ethnicity) was becoming increasingly self-aware and the level of religious practice was rising among both Orthodox Christians and Catholics.

19This section traces these efforts through writings published in the Belarusian Tatar community’s journal, Bajram : Tatary na ziamli Biełarusi, which first appeared in the spring of 1991, and continued being published until 2002.As the title of the journal shows right from the outset, the intellectuals behind Bajram adopted a fourfold strategy in dealing with the challenges outlined above. The main title, Bajram, is a Turkic word meaning « feast », primarily used to refer to the two annual Islamic feasts, known in Arabic as ‘Īd al-Fiṭr (the Feast of Fast-Breaking) and ‘Īd al-Aḍḥá (the Feast of the Sacrifice). Thus, by choosing this Turkic word primarily used in a religious context, the journal immediately asserts a simultaneously Tatar and Muslim identity on the part of its editors and publishers as well as, presumably, its readers.

20The fact that the subtitle was in Belarusian signaled that the journal was to be published in Belarusian (or at least primarily in Belarusian), which for centuries had been the language of the Tatar community of modern-day Belarus, and was the subject of a politically significant revival movement both on the part of the opposition and (at the last stages of the existence of the BSSR) the government as well. The word « Tatary » in the subtitle makes it clear whom the journal was to be about. The rest of the subtitle, « na ziamli Biełarusi » (« on Belarusian soil », or « in the land of Belarus ») expresses loyalty to Belarus as a political entity and a polity at the crucial point where loyalty to the Soviet Union was being quickly replaced by a host of republic-level loyalties. This statement of loyalty would become even more important once Belarus acquired declared sovereignty in July 1991, declared outright independence later the same year, and finally acquired independence in December 1991.

21Thus, what the title was signalling to the readership of the journal was that the new Tatar identity was to be constructed, as mentioned above, on four pillars. The most important one was Islam : nothing made the Tatars a distinctive minority so much as their religion. Where their language, appearance, architecture, customs and so on became largely indistinguishable from those of their ethnic-Belarusian neighbours, it is their adherence to the Muslim faith which had long served as the primary marker of the Tatars’ distinctiveness, as observed above. Hence, the Al-Kitab Tatar Sociocultural Union of the Minsk Region, which published the first issue of Bajram, asserted the Muslim identity of the community not only through the title of the journal, but also through the name of the organisation itself, with « Al-Kitab » referring to Belarusian Tatar religious texts, as mentioned above. The other pillars the new Belarusian Tatar identity would rest upon were Tatar ethnicity ; the Belarusian language (to emphasise the brotherly relations between the tiny Tatar minority and the ethnic-Belarusian majority) ; and loyalty to the Belarusian state. At a time when the assertion of sub-republican identities across the Soviet Union was often seen by the political class of the titular nationalities as divisive at best and a grave threat at worst, the Belarusian Tatar leadership took special care to emphasise the non-threatening nature of their cultural revival ; as presented by them, the Tatars were a minority that wanted to maintain its identity, but they certainly had no wish to express this identity in opposition to that of the Belarusians (which was, for its part, being shaped and constructed by the activists of the Belarusian Renaissance).

22In the context of a Belarus that was to some degree in a state of flux, the first issue of the journal emphasises the Belarusian Tatars’ religious and ethnic identity in a number of different ways. The first article in the journal, containing an expression of thanks to donors who made its publication possible, begins with the Islamic greeting « Salam alejkum ! » (peace be upon you)25. It then notes that the journal was being launched on the occasion of « the great Muslim holiday of Ramazan-Bajram » (known in Arabic as ‘Īd al-Fiṭr). In the spring of 1991, it was still not clear that the Communist Party would soon cede its place as the foundational institution of the ruling regime in the Soviet Union. Thus, the first entity to receive thanks from the Al-Kitab Sociocultural Union was « the sociocultural centre of the Minsk Regional Committee of the KPB [i.e., the Communist Party of Belarus] ». At the same time, a few words down, the editors list individual donors under the designation « highborn ladies and gentlemen » (vysakarodnyja spadaryni i spadary), in a marked departure from the usual Soviet practice of referring to individuals as « comrades ». At the end of the article, the donors are thanked with a « Tatar rahmat (thanks) » (tatarski rachmat /dziakuj/)26.

23The decision to use this word is rather curious, as the Belarusian Tatars had not been Tatar speakers for centuries. In fact, as the next article in the same issue states, Volga Tatars and Crimean Tatars sometimes find the Belarusian Tatars’ lack of knowledge of a Tatar language blameworthy. To that Jakub Jakuboŭski’s reply is that the Belarusian Tatars are a Slavic-speaking people : « We use the Belarusian language, which has long been our native tongue ; we speak Russian ; we understand Polish and Ukrainian ». Nevertheless, they look forward to the day when the Belarusian Tatar community can establish its « own Tatar schools ». The talk of Tatar schools, and the use of a Volga Tatar word for « thanks », can be understood as attempts to emphasise the Tatar ethnic identity of the journal and, by extension, the community. Nevertheless, the journal is clear about the linguistic identity of the Belarusian Tatars, which it sees as distinct from their ethnic identity. In linguistic terms, « using Belarusian », « speaking Russian », and « understanding Polish and Ukrainian » marks the Tatars as no different from ethnic Belarusians, most of whom by this stage were Russian-speaking, used Belarusian in certain situations, and understood Polish and Ukrainian27. The article also underscores the fact that the Tatars of Belarus had spoken Belarusian for a long time, mentioning the al-kitabs « written in the Belarusian language of the time », some of them dating back to the sixteenth century28.

24The article which includes the above discussion on languages itself begins with an expression in yet another language, namely « Bismi Ałłahi ar-rahmmani ar-rahim » (Arabic for « In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful »), an Islamic formula used when embarking upon a good deed29. This formula once again clarifies the journal’s Islamic orientation. The article, which constitutes a « foreword » to the entire journal, explains who the Belarusian Tatars are (for readers who may not be familiar with the community), explains the editors’ view of what the community is and ought to be, and sets out the goals for the journal. As we have seen, in its first few pages, the journal has already managed to define the Belarusian Tatars as a Slavophone Tatar Muslim group. The foreword makes it clear that they are not the same as ethnic Belarusians. In its words, « In the land of a highborn, hospitable and hard-working people – the Belarusians – lives a small group of Tatars. » As this choice of words makes clear, the Belarusian Tatar identity was not intended to exist in opposition to the Belarusian national movement ; instead, the article pays homage to it by declaring the land of Belarus a possession of ethnic Belarusians. At the same time, the article expresses pride in the fact that the Tatars have maintained « our faith – Islam – and our name » over the course of six centuries.

25Despite the expression of thanks to the Communist Party at the outset, the editors of Bajram did not hesitate to condemn that same Communist Party in no uncertain terms, demonstrating the degree to which glasnost affected the public discourse in the last days of Soviet Belarus. As Jakuboŭski puts it,

« In 70 years [of Communist rule] in eastern Belarus [i.e., the part of Belarus that joined the USSR in 1922], and in 50 years in western Belarus [the part of Belarus which was under Polish rule until 1939 and was then annexed to the USSR], the authorities did everything they could to make the Muslim Tatars abandon their faith. »

26Jakuboŭski acknowledges that these efforts were partially successful. Despite this situation, however, there were still a few people left who « want to give new life to the faith of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and to raise their children in the old and respected Tatar traditions30. »

27Once again, then, authentic Tatar culture is, to the editors, inseparable from Islam ; a renewal of the faith is a precondition to the ability of the Tatars to pass their culture on to future generations. This discussion makes it clear not only what sort of future Bajram wishes the Belarusian Tatar community to enjoy, but also what sort of Belarus they want to be part of. Unlike the Communist-dominated Belarus of old, this new Belarus would be one where religion could be freely practised, and where minorities would be free to transmit their culture to their children. We also catch a glimpse of how the editors of the journal see themselves : as representatives of that small group among the Tatar minority which wanted to return Islam to its pride of place in the life of the community.

28Bajram set a fairly wide agenda for itself in terms of the material it would cover. It was explicit in its intention to not just reflect the community, but also to shape it. To that end, it was to include articles on « history…, the fundamentals of Islam, about researchers on Tatar history and culture, about occupations and crafts…. » Thus, the journal would highlight what it considered important moments in the history of the Tatar community, but would also take upon itself a missionary role and introduce its readership to basic facts about Islam, which the young generation of Tatars had not had a chance to learn under Communist rule. To emphasise its ethnic Tatar character, the journal would also publish articles on « the life of Tatars in Tatarstan [and] about Crimean, Siberian and Astrakhan Tatars. » At the same time, Bajram acknowledges its orientation towards the Tatars of the lands of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by pledging to publish materials on « the Lithuanian and Polish Tatars, who are our relatives and are close to us. » Apart from the above topics, the journal also promises to publish ethnographic material on the Belarusian Tatars, such as information on their cuisine, or their « national song and dance31 ».

29Additionally, in an article on the history and present condition of the Belarusian Tatars, Ibrahim Kanapacki asks the readers of Bajram to become amateur ethnographers as well as « active researchers of your past ». The journal recommends several specific ways of doing so : « collect and write down your legends and other forms of folklore, make descriptions of customs which are to be found in everyday life and in religious rituals ». Kanapackialso encourages the readership to « collect exhibits for a future museum…, including the designs of family coats-of-arms, seals and other heraldic symbols ». In his view, « each such document and object will become a valuable contribution to the treasury of our national culture32 ». Thus, apart from all the other elements of a new Belarusian Tatar identity being constructed by the journal (religious, ethnic, linguistic, political), this article introduces another element : that of nobility in the feudal sense. Since most Belarusian Tatars can trace their roots to families that were granted noble status in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and only saw this status abolished under Soviet rule, collecting coats-of-arms and « heraldic symbols » (which only the šlachta possessed) becomes another way to reject the Communist era and seek the bases of one’s identity in the pre-Communist past as symbolised by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

30But how does one distinguish between the Slavophone Tatars of Belarus on the one hand, and Tatars from elsewhere in the USSR on the other ? Similarly, what label can one attach to the Tatars of Belarus, Poland and Lithuania, who share a common heritage despite being divided by intra-Soviet and international borders ? The solution that Bajram adopts is to refer to the Tatars of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania as « Belarusian Tatars », largely for linguistic reasons : according to Bajram, « they all speak Belarusian », whether they live in modern-day Belarus, Poland or Lithuania33. Following this principle, in a footnote to excerpts from an 1881 brochure on the Lithuanian Tatars published in Bajram, the editors note that when the author (the Crimean Tatar intellectual İsmail Gasprinskiy) talks about « Lithuanian Tatars », one should understand him as saying « Belarusian Tatars34 ».

31The first issue of Bajram also includes the beginning of a translation of the Qur’an into Belarusian, containing Chapters 1 and 2 :1-58, which were translated by K. Skurat to Belarusian from a Russian translation, indicating a lack of ability to find qualified translators of the Qur’an into Belarusian directly from Arabic35. Following the Qur’an translation, there is a discussion on the Islamic concept of ṣadaqa (charity)36. These articles, more than any other in the journal, signal the role of Islam as a unifying factor for Belarusian Tatars in the eyes of the editors.

32In contrast, the article coming right after the one on charity once again demonstrates the importance of the Soviet context the journal was operating in (and that its readership lived in). As the article makes clear, the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) had directly touched the Belarusian Tatar community. Out of the 700 « Soviet warriors born in peacetime in Belarus » who were killed in Afghanistan, two were « our Belarusian Tatars ». The article takes an ambivalent approach to the war, on the one hand calling for the memory of the Tatar soldiers killed in Afghanistan to be honoured, and on the other spurning the official Soviet line about the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan being « internationalist warriors » who were there in fulfillment of an « international duty ». Rather, the article merely says, in rather bland terms, that the soldiers « went off to war from here [i.e., from Belarus] and were killed there37 ».

33The article gives some details of the lives of the two Tatar soldiers, taken from an advance copy of a forthcoming book on the 700 Belarusians killed in Afghanistan. Of the two soldiers, one (Private Alaksandr Muchla) is listed in the book as a « Tatar », while the ethnicity of the other (Private Jaŭhien Miadźviedzieŭ) is not specified. Instead, the book mentions that his father is « Belarusian », while his mother is « Tatar ». Muchla, who was killed in 1984, was buried in the Tatar cemetery in Iŭje (Hrodna Region). The burial place of Miadźviedzieŭ is not specified38.

34Coming after a translation from the Qur’an and an article on the role of charity in Islam, this call to honour the memory of two « Soviet warriors » killed while fighting against Muslims in Afghanistan looks rather curious. One has to remember, however, that the Belarusian Tatars were Soviet citizens who were, for the most part, born and brought up in Belarus and, as such, were likely to identify with the common concerns of Belarusians, such as the recently concluded Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Indeed, this common experience was one of the major ways in which Tatar intellectuals could claim a unity of purpose with the ethnic-Belarusian majority. Thus, religion did not trump ethnicity in the Belarusian Tatar identity which was under construction during this period ; rather, religion and ethnicity had fused into one. There was a great deal of attachment to the notion of being Tatar (that is, specifically Belarusian Tatar, with some sense of kinship to the Crimean and Volga Tatars), but hardly any loyalty expressed to the global Muslim umma (community). Rather, the editors and other writers of Bajram go out of their way to express their loyalty to a Belarus that had a visible potential to become an independent nation-state at some point in the future.

35Indeed, U. Prychač, while lamenting the ruined state of the mosque in the village of Daŭbučki (Hrodna Region), « the oldest wooden mosque in Central Europe », argues that the key to avoiding such « destruction and decline » of Tatar heritage is to move « on the path to Belarusian independence ! » together with « all the nationalities which have lived, live and will live in our own Belarus39 ». While one wonders what the Communist Party, thanked in the very first article of Bajram, would make of such a separatist call, it is evident that the Tatar intelligentsia had, by early 1991, come to the conclusion that the future of Belarus would largely be determined within Belarus, rather than in Moscow.

36In fact, the subsequent issue of Bajram, published in October 1991, soon after the August putsch in which a group of hardliners had attempted to overthrow Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, further clarifies the attitude of Al-Kitab towards Communist – and indeed Soviet – rule. In the words of the editors, « The greatest threat which hung over our people – the Moscow Communist putsch – did not succeed, by the will of Allah, and we were not put in shackles ». By « our people » the editors probably mean the people addressed at the beginning of the editorial : « ladies and gentlemen, fellow Tatars and Muslim brothers40 ». If Gorbachev’s reforms allowed Tatar intellectuals to organise their community and begin intensive cultural and religious work aimed at the reconstitution of a Belarusian Tatar people, the putsch held the possibility of a return to the old order, where minority associations were not even legally allowed.

37It is also, of course, possible that by « our people », the editors meant the inhabitants of Belarus in general. Al-Kitab’s symbol was a Belarusian white-red-white flag with a white crescent and star superimposed on the red stripe. While the first issue of Bajram had this design in black-and-white on the cover, the second issue had a colour cover, thus making the coloration of the flag explicit. While the white-red-white flag had previously been used as a nationalist banner by the opposition, the Communist government of Belarus adopted it as the republic’s official flag following the failure of the August putsch. Thus, by the time the second issue of Bajram was published, the white-red-white flag was the only Belarusian flag in current use, and could thus be safely printed in colour41. The Belarusian Tatar flag clearly signalled Al-Kitab’s view of the Tatars as having deep Belarusian roots, as well as Tatar participation in Belarusian nation-building in the context of a Belarus that had declared itself independent on 25 August 199142.

38 In any case, even apart from the putsch of 19 August 1991, the summer was a busy one for Al-Kitab. At a meeting of Tatar delegates from all around Belarus held on Kurban-Bajram (‘Īd al-Aḍḥá) 1991, Al-Kitab went from being an ethno-cultural association of the Minsk Region to a republic-wide organisation named the Al-Kitab Association of Tatar-Muslims in Belarus. Around the same time, the imam of the Tatar community in Minsk, Ali Varanovič, died. The editors of Bajram present his death as a major loss to the community, focusing on his role in seeing Tatar Muslims through rites of passage : « How many children he recited the azan [Islamic call to prayer] for, how many Muslim families he created by marrying couples, how many people he buried according to our faith, how many Muslim souls… he prayed for43 ». One gets the impression here that, for many Tatars, Islam had, by this stage, indeed been reduced to a tradition which enabled to mark rites of passage in a particular way, paralleling a similar situation among Russian Orthodox Christians in the Soviet Union44. The editors ask their readers to pray for Varanovič as he had prayed for others, by reciting « the holy Ya-Sin for his soul45 ».

39Perhaps as the reflection of a perceived need to deepen the faith of the members of the Belarusian Tatar community, the editors chose the topic of īmān (Arabic for « faith ») for the second issue’s article on religion. After a page-long discussion of what faith is in Islam (to the editors, it boils down to a « combination of knowledge and conviction »), the article proceeds to quote at length from the Kazakh writer Abai Kunabaev (1845-1904)46. At first glance this may seem rather odd ; why would Kunabaev, a nineteenth-century writer from the periphery of the Muslim world, be used to illustrate the Islamic concept of faith to a (non-Kazakh) Muslim audience instead of the two main sources of Islamic knowledge, the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, or, for that matter, a well-known Islamic scholar such al-Ghazali (1058-1111), or a mystic such as Rumi (1207-1273). Although the editors see Islam as one of the key, defining characteristics of the Belarusian Tatar community, they never claim that the Tatars of Belarus were a particularly religious group ; rather the opposite : as we saw above, they refer to the existence of some people among the Tatars who are still interested in the religion. For most others, it seems, Islam was a set of rituals to be referred to at birth, marriage and death. In such a setting, using a quote from a fellow-Turkic writer not known as a religious authority to explain the concept of faith in Islam can be seen as a way to make Islam relevant to the readership of Bajram.

40The second issue also carries a report on the participation of an unnamed Al-Kitab representative in the Chernobyl Walk, a march held on 26 April 1991 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Along with Orthodox Christian and Catholic priests and a Jewish rabbi, this representative took part in prayers for the victims of Chernobyl at the march by reciting the Opening Chapter of the Qur’an in Arabic, with a Belarusian translation. He also gave a speech, in which he addressed the assembled crowd as the « glorious and long-suffering people of Belarus », and defined the task of Al-Kitab as participation in « the rebirth of faith and truth, national traditions [and] a healthy spiritual life in our society ». Doing so, according to the speaker, would be Al-Kitab’s contribution to the regeneration of Belarus after the devastation wrought by the disaster47. The activities of Al-Kitab had thus brought Islam out into the public sphere, and secured for it a place alongside the other major religious traditions of Belarus (including ones with much larger numbers of followers) in the public commemoration of a tragedy that touched all of Belarus, irrespective of ethnicity and religion.

41Apart from discussing community news and news of the country from the perspective of the community, this issue of Bajram also delves into history, offering its readership three different approaches to the subject matter : the heroic narrative ; the narrative about community ; and a modern-day effort to recover lost historical traditions through an antiquarian expedition in search of manuscripts. An examination of these three approaches in turn will demonstrate how each contributed to the formulation of Belarusian Tatar identity in the present.

42The first approach is exemplified by the translation (from Polish) of a brief biography of Maciej Sulkievič (1865-1920), a lieutentant-general in the Russian army and a Tatar born in the modern-day Hrodna Region of Belarus48. After seeing action in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Sulkievič saw his career blossom during the First World War, when he became the commander of 33rd Infantry Division in 1915, followed by the 37th Infantry Corps of the Northern Front in 1917. Later that year, he formed and led the 1st Muslim Corps on Romanian territory. The article on Sulkievič notes after the « October coup in Petrograd » (i.e., the Russian Revolution), the corps was disarmed by the German army, and Sulkievič went to the Crimea, accompanied by a few of his officers49.

43Upon his arrival there, he was quickly able to form a government with German approval, becoming the prime minister, army and navy minister, as well as interior minister of the peninsula ; he also appointed the fellow Lithuanian Tatars Achmatovič, Milkoŭski and Bahuševič to ministerial positions. Sulkievič’s aim was to win independence for the peninsula once the German occupation was over. To this end, he introduced the concept of Crimean citizenship, banned the sale of land to « foreigners », and established diplomatic ties with the Ottoman Empire and Azerbaijan. The German withdrawal from the Crimea and « pressure » from the Volunteer Army (a Russian anti-Communist force) caused the Sulkievič government to fall, and the erstwhile prime minister fled to Azerbaijan. The article notes that « good memories » of Sulkievič would « remain forever among the local Muslims » in the Crimea50.

44Sulkievič had no difficulty in continuing his military and political career in Azerbaijan. The newly independent country had a number of Lithuanian Tatars (including Alhierd Kryčynski and Maciej Sulkievič’s namesake, Kanstancin Sulkievič) in junior ministerial position. In late 1918, Maciej Sulkievič was appointed Chief of Staff of the Azerbaijani army. In this position, he negotiated peace with Georgia and repelled an invasion by the Volunteer Army, which had only recently driven him out of the Crimea. Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani army could not withstand an invasion by the Red Army in 1920. Sulkievič was arrested by the new, Communist authorities for « counterrevolutionary activities », and was eventually executed without trial. The article characterises this victim of the Communist regime as « a great political figure, a man of unbreakable convictions and energy [and] one of the greatest figures of the Lithuanian Tatars51 ».

45Reprinting this article clearly serves a didactic role for Bajram. According to the author, Sulkievič’s accomplishments « will live on forever, as a wonderful example of limitless loyalty to the cause of the Tatar people ». Reading the article in translation gives the readers of Bajram the possibility of conceiving their small community as being part of a larger, transnational Tatar collective, while celebrating the achievements of a man the journal would define as a Belarusian Tatar, and thus a representative of the readership’s more immediate community.

46The second issue of Bajram also included the reprint of a 1927 article on the Tatars of Minsk, originally published in the Belarusian geographical journal Naš kraj (Our Land). Although the article was reprinted without any editorial comment to place it in the context of the 1990s, the meaning this article had for the largely Tatar readership of Bajram in 1991 would certainly be different from the meaning it held for its original readership in the 1920s. In some ways, the mosque-centred Tatar community life of Minsk described in the article was a lived reality in 1927 but had, by 1991, become a vanished world. Thus, what was originally an effort to educate ethnic-Belarusians about the history and lives of their Tatar neighbours could now be used by the editors of Bajram to educate the Tatars about the past of their own community.

47Moreover, the article’s comments about the long history of the Tatar community of Minsk (whose presence in the city can be confirmed through documentary evidence from 1606), their use of a « correct Belarusian » language in speech, the equality between Tatar men and women, the Tatars’ lack of « fanaticism », the presence of the same « songs and sayings » in Belarusian Tatar folklore as in Belarusian folklore, and the partly Slavic descent of the Belarusian Tatars, all lend legitimacy to Al-Kitab’s efforts in the 1990s to emphasise the deep Belarusian roots of the Tatar community. Indeed, the article asks whether the Tatars would one day merge into the ethnic-Belarusian majority to such an extent that « alongside Orthodox and Catholic Belarusians a third group would appear—[ethnic-] Belarusian Muslims52. » One doubts that the intellectual leaders of Al-Kitab would go as far as to advocate the dissolution of the Belarusian Tatar ethnicity in the Belarusian nation, but such words on the part of Naš kraj do confirm their position about the Tatars’ being part and parcel of Belarusian society.

48Lastly, the autumn 1991 issue of Bajram also includes an article on an « archaeographical expedition » organised by the Minsk city branch of Al-Kitab (and financed by the Minsk branch of the Soviet Culture Fund), which visited several localities in the Minsk, Hrodna and Brest Regions of Belarus in order to « search for Muslim manuscripts ». Among the Tatars of Uzda (Minsk Region), the expedition found only one woman who had a Qur’an and a chamail, and was able to read them. In Kapyl, they also heard that only one « very old » woman could read the Qur’an. In Kleck (Minsk Region) which, as the author notes, was part of Poland until 1939, the expedition found a tefsir, and also met a man who knew a prayer in the Crimean Tatar language, promptly recording the prayer on tape. The author points out that Tatar children in Kleck had learned the Arabic script in school until 1939, and expresses the wish that their descendants may do so again. In Lachavičy (Brest Region), the expedition found « many Tatars » who could read Islamic books, and recorded a recitation of two chapters from the Qur’an. In Łoŭčycy (Hrodna Region), the expedition visited the grave of the Sufi saint Kuntuś. In general, visiting Tatar cemeteries and checking on their condition seemed to take up much of the expedition’s time, pointing to the role of the cemeteries, no less than that of manuscripts, as lieux de mémoire. Finally, in Iŭje (Hrodna Region), where Islam was « studied in secret » even during the Stalin and Khrushchev regimes, the members of the expedition were happy to find many old Tatar manuscripts, and Kanapacki expresses the hope that the major libraries of Belarus would help Al-Kitab in the task of preserving or at least photocopying these books53.

49The past, in Kanapacki’s article, takes on yet another role – not as a heroic source of inspiration as in the case of Sulkievič, or as a source of legitimation as with the history of the Tatars of Minsk, but rather as a rather sad, forlorn living past that still exists in the present, but will soon disappear if nothing is done. According to Kanapacki, this history needs to be preserved while it is still possible to do so (hence the technological interventions through sound recording and the photocopying), and the achievements of the past may yet be replicated if Tatar children are taught Islam and the Arabic alphabet. Thus, Belarusian Tatar identity, for Kanapacki, comes with the responsibility of preserving the past and committing oneself to a future informed by the ideals of this past. The present, however, with all its abandoned cemeteries, lost manuscripts and Tatars no longer able to read what few manuscripts they do possess is clearly disturbing to Kanapacki.

50The last issue of Bajram in 1991 was published a few days after the break-up of the USSR. The journal openly expresses its delight at this event ; Jakuboŭski observes in an editorial that « it is now easier for all to breathe, including Muslims ». He characterises the Soviet Union as a mere continuation of Russia which, as he reminds his readers, Vladimir Lenin had called « the prison of peoples54 ». Al-Kitab had cast its lots with an independent Belarus.

51To confirm this stance, the journal published a poem by Jakuboŭski (although his authorship is not mentioned in the text), entitled « We Live with Īmān [Arabic for « faith »] in the Land of Belarus ». Recalling the distant origins of the Belarusian community, the poem says « We came from the Volga and the Crimea with faith / To the hospitable lands of Lithuania and Belarus ». After recalling Tatar military service on the Lithuanian side at the Battle of Grünwald and other battles, the poem concludes by saying « Years passed, and the descendants of the Tatar Muslims / Respectfully took up the Belarusian language. / But our faith in Allah – holy īmān / We Preserved for ever and ever55 ». This poem is, essentially, a summary of the contents of the early issues of Bajram. As if in response to this poem, the following issue of Bajram contained a poem by Ryhor Baradulin, a leading Belarusian poet and member of the BNF. Baradulin’s poem, written from his perspective as a member of the ethnic majority and entitled « Belarusian Tatars », plays with the image of violent Tatars present in East Slavic cultures : « Your invasion of Belarus / I welcome, / Peaceful Tatars ! » The Tatars’ most praiseworthy accomplishment, according to the poem, is that « You preserved the Kryvian [i.e., Belarusian] language / In your hearts, / And in your kitabs ». Alluding to a shared belief in the story of Noah, Baradulin concludes with the hope that the Tatar community will grow : « Tatars ! / Be fruitful and multiply / You are our own. / Salam alejkum !56 ».

4. Conclusion

52As this article has demonstrated, Jakub Jakuboŭski and Ibrahim Kanapacki, both Belarusian intellectuals of Tatar ethnicity, refashioned a Belarusian Tatar identity that met a perceived need for self-definition at a time when Belarus was transitioning to independent statehood and the Belarusian intelligentsia had developed a new image of itself. This image was quite similar to that promoted by the Al-Kitab Belarusian Tatar Association : heroic, Belarusian-speaking, and rooted in the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Where Al-Kitab differed from the BNF was in the former’s emphasis on Tatar ethnicity and Islam as defining characteristics of the community. The parallels, however, were more significant than the differences, as Ryhor Baradulin’s endorsement of the Belarusian Tatar revival shows.

53Andrew Wilson’s depiction of the Belarusian Tatars as some sort of ethnographic curiosity is not borne out by the facts57. Neither, of course, is Piotr Borawski’s contention that the Tatars of Poland represent « the only traces of Tatar settlement… on Polish-Lithuanian lands58 ». Instead, four or five years after the publication of Borawski’s work, the Belarusian Tatars, through the activities of their intellectuals, became full-fledged participants in the Belarusian Renaissance that coincided with and led to Belarus’s movement towards independence. Bajram continued to be published until 2002. The Tatar cultural revival gradually became more religious in content, especially after the establishment of a Belarusian muftiate in 1994, and even more so after the deaths of Kanapacki and Jakuboŭski, who may have been personally religious, and who did help establish mosques, but who were also intellectuals in the Soviet Belarusian secular tradition, rather than religious leaders. This religious revival, however, would hardly have been possible without the cultural one which preceded it. Today the Tatars of Belarus continue to face the same issues as those confronted by the Belarusian majority, including life under a dictatorship and a steadily falling population. Yet, the Belarusian Tatars are also faced with unique challenges, including the fact that, as a result of recent immigration from Arab countries and Muslim-majority republics of the former USSR, the Tatars, for the first time in six centuries, are no longer the majority of the Muslim community of Belarus.



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Rocznik Tatarski, 1932.

Government Publications:

« Kanstytucyja (asnoŭny zakon) Biełaruskaj Savieckaj Sacyjalistyčnaj Respubliki : Pryniata na niečarhovaj dzieviataj siesii Viarkhoŭnaha Savieta BSSR dzieviataha sklikańnia, 14 krasavika 1978 hoda » [The Constitution (organic law) of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, adopted at the extraordinary ninth session of the tenth Supreme Soviet of the BSSR, 14 April 1978].

« Vsesoiuznaia perepis’ naseleniia 1989 goda. Natsional’nyi sostav naseleniia po respublikam SSSR » [The All-Union Census of 1989 : The Ethnic Distribution of the Population by SovietRepublic].



Biełaruski kalehijum,


Natsional’nyĭ pravovoĭ internet-portal Respubliki Belarus’,


1  Ibrahim Kanapacki, « Biełaruskija tatary : histaryčny los narodu i kultury » [Belarusian Tatars : The Historical Fate of a People and their Culture], lecture delivered at the Belarusian Collegium, n.d. (no later than 2005), http :// (accessed 2 April 2011). Please note that all Belarusian words, including names, are transliterated in this article using the Belarusian Latin (łacinka) alphabet, following the practice of the erstwhile Journal of Byelorussian Studies. The alphabet is explained in Jan Zaprudnik, Belarus : At a Crossroads in History, Boulder, Colo.,  Westview Press, 1993, p. xviii. A very similar system has been used for transliteration by the Belarusian government since 2007.

2  In Belarus, a major role in the formulation of a new Belarusian identity in the immediate post-independence period was played by the book 100 pytańniaŭ pa historyji Biełarusi [100 Questions on the History of Belarus], which featured contributions from leading historians whose express aim was to « present a truthful history, from the point of view of Belarusian interests. » It is telling that this nation-building project included an article by the Belarusian Tatar historian Ibrahim Kanapacki entitled « Where Did the Tatars on Our Land Appear from ? » See Ivan Savierčanka and Źmicier Sańko, 100 pytańniaŭ pa historyji Biełarusi, Minsk, Źviazda, 1993. A number of monographs have been published in Belarus on the Belarusian Tatars ; see S.U. Dumin and I.B. Kanapacki, Biełaruskija tatary : Minułaje i sučasnaść [Belarusian Tatars : Past and Present], Minsk, Połymia, 1993 ; A.I. Łakotka, Bierah vandravańniaŭ, albo adkul na Biełarusi miačeci [The Coast of Travels, or Where Did Mosques Come to Belarus from), Minsk, Navuka i technika, 1994 ; I.B. Kanapacki and A.I. Smolik, Historyja i kultura biełaruskich tatar (The History and Culture of Belarusian Tatars), Minsk, Biełaruski Univiersitet Kultury, 2000. Similarly, for recent accounts of Polish Tatars (the Polish portion of the same historical community], see, for instance, Piotr Borawski, Tatarzy w dawnej Rzeczypospolitej [Tatars in the Old Commonwealth], Warsaw, Ludowa współdzielnia wydawnicza, 1986 ; Jan Tyszkiewicz, Tatarzy na Litwie i w Polsce : Studia z djiejów XIII-XVIII w. [Tatars in Lithuania and Poland : Studies in the History of the 13th-18th Centuries], Warsaw, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1989 ;Ali Miśkiewicz, Tatarzy Polscy, 1918-1939 : Życie społeczno-kulturalnie i religijne[Polish Tatars, 1918-1939 : Sociocultural and Religious Life], Warsaw, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1990 ; Leon Bohdanowicz, Selim Chazbijewicz and Jan Tyszkiewicz, Tatarzy Muzułmanie w Polsce [Tatar Muslims in Poland], Gdańsk, Rocznik Tatarów Polskich, 1997. In Lithuania, while the Tatar minority embarked on various cultural projects starting in 1990, interest in Tatar affairs has tended to be quite low outside the community. See Egdūnas Račius, « Lithuania », in Göran Larsson (ed.), Islami in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Abingdon, Routledge, 2009, p. 120. This may be a result of the Tatars’ status as speakers of minority languages (Belarusian and Polish) ; Račius’s statement that the Tatars « unfortunately » shifted to those languages in the seventeenth century is quite telling (Račius, p. 118.).

3  Yos Santasombat, « Peasants, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Location in Thailand », in Lola Romanucci-Ross, George A. De Vos and Takeyuki Tsuda (eds.), Ethnic Identity, Lanham, Md., AltaMira Press, 2006, p. 240.

4  « Vsesoiuznaia perepis’ naseleniia 1989 goda. Natsional’nyi sostav naseleniia po respublikam SSSR » [The All-Union Census of 1989 : The Ethnic Distribution of the Population by Soviet Republic »], available at http :// (accessed on 12 April 2012).

5  Stanisław Kryczyński, Tatarzy Litewscy : Próba monografii historyczno-etnograficznej [Lithuanian Tatars : An Attempt at a Historico-Ethnographic Monograph], Warsaw, Drukprasa, 1938, pp. 1-2.

6  Dumin and Kanapacki, Biełaruskija tatary, p. 4.

7  The question of what spelling to use for the names of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania is an especially fraught one, as English possesses no generally accepted neutral versions ; one is thus forced to choose between one or other of the modern, national versions used in the successor states of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Since this article deals primarily with modern-day Belarus, I use the Belarusian spelling of Vitaŭt’s name, while noting that his name in Ruthenian (Old Belarusian), the official language of the Grand Duchy during Vitaŭt’s reign, was Vitovt.

8  A. Mukhlinskiĭ, Izsliedovanie o proiskhozhdenii i sostoianii litovskikh tatar [A Treatise on the Origins and Condition of the Lithuanian Tatars], St. Petersburg, Tipografiia Eduarda Veĭmara, 1857, pp. 9-11.

9 Ibidem, p. 11-14.; Harry Norris, Islam in the Baltic : Europe’s Early Muslim Community, London, Tauris Academic Studies, 2009, p. 83-84 ; Jan Tyszkiewicz, Tatarzy, p. 285.

10  Mukhlinskiĭ, Ibidem, Izsliedovanie,pp. 4-5.

11  G.M. Meredith-Owens and Alexander Nadson, « The Byelorussian Tartars and the Writings », Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 2, N 2, 1970, p. 141-175 ; Shirin Akiner, Religious Language of a Belarusian Tatar Kitab : A Cultural Monument of Islam in Europe, Wiesbaden, Harassowitz Verlag, 2009, pp. 69-74 ; Juljan Talko-Hryncewicz, Muślimowe, czyli tak zwani Tatarzy Litewscy [The Muslims, or the So-Called Lithuanian Tatars], Kraków, Orbis, 1924, pp. 57, 78.

12  I. Kanapatskiĭ, « Tatary Belorusi, Litvy i Pol’shi : Istoricheskaia sud’ba naroda i kul’tury » [The Tatars of Belarus, Lithuania and Poland : The Historical Fate of a People and a Culture], in Ismail Aleksandrovič et al. (eds.), Islamskaja kultura tataraŭ-musulman Biełarusi, Litvy i Polščy i jaje ŭzajemadzijańnie z biełaruskaj i inšymi kulturami [The Islamic Culture of the Tatar Muslims of Belarus, Lithuania and Poland and Its Interaction with Belarusian and Other Cultures], Minsk, 1995, p. 34.

13  See Dumin and Kanapacki, Biełaruskija tatary, p. 114-126 ; I. Kanapacki, « Naradziŭsia ŭ Klecku, u tatarskaj siamji » [He was born in Kleck, to a Tatar family], Barjarm, N 1, 1992, p. 54 ; Leon Bohdanowicz, « The Polish Tatars », in Bohdanowicz et al., Tatarzy Muzułmanie, p. 96.

14  Leanid Lyč, « Pierabudova jak faktar biełaruskaha Adradžeńnia » [The perestroika as a factor in the Belarusian Renaissance], Novy čas, 19 Aug. 2011 and 26 Aug. 2011.

15  See Alexey V. Yablokov and Vassily B. Nesterenko, « Chernobyl Contamination through Time and Space », Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, N  1181, 2009, pp. 5-31.

16  Andrew Wilson, Belarus : The Last Dictatorship in Europe, New Haven, Conn. / London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 144.

17 Ibidem, pp. 144-146 ; Andrew Savchenko, Belarus – A Perpetual Borderland, Leiden, Brill, 2009, p. 156 ; Iuriĭ Shevtsov, Ob’edinënnaia natsiia : Fenomen Belarusi [United Nation : The Phenomenon of Belarus], Moscow, Evropa, 2005, p. 151 ; Zianon Paźniak, « Al’ternativa vsegda sushchestvuet… » [There is always an alternative), Narodnaia gazeta, 23-30 Oct. 1990, reprinted in Paźniak, Sapraŭdnaje abličča (His True Face], Minsk, Palifakt, 1992, pp. 190-193.

18  Shevtsvov, Ob’edinënnaia natsiia, p. 78.

19  Paźniak, « Al’ternativa vsegda sushchestvuet… », reprinted in Paźniak, Sapraŭdnaje abličča, p. 191.

20  Zaprudnik, Belarus,pp. 125-131.

21 Ibidem, pp. 148-155, 162-164.

22  Leanid Lyč, « Dziejnaść Jakuba Jakuboŭskaha u lusterku nacyjanalna-kulturnaha adradžeńnia tataraŭ Biełarusi » (The activities of Jakub Jakuboŭski in the mirror of the national-cultural rebirth of the Tatars of Belarus », Bajram, N  42, 2002, p. 10. On Lyč, see Alaksiej Karol, « Leanid Lyč : Najjarčejšy adradženiec sučascaści » [Leanid Lyč : The most prominent contemporary revivalist], Novy čas, 15 Feb. 2009.

23  Ibrahim Kanapacki, « My nie ličym siabie pryšłym narodam » (We do not consider ourselves to be a people who came from abroad), interviewed by Viktar Kavaloŭ, Litaratura i mastactva, 9 Nov. 2004 ; Jakub Jakuboŭski, « Ličać nas bratami svajimi » [They consider us their brothers], Naša słova, N  4, 1997, p. 1 & 3 ; Tatiana Iakubovskaia, « Zhiznennyi put’ Iakuba Adamovicha Iakubovskogo » (The life journey of Jakub Adamavič Jakuboŭski), n.d., Bajram website, http :// (accessed 17 April 2012) ; Zorina Kanapatskaia, « Ibragim Kanapatskii » (Ibrahim Kanapacki), n.d., Bajram website, http :// (accessed 17 April 2012). Note that the Minsk State Pedagogical University is now known as the Belarusian State Pedagogical University.

24  Leonore A. Grenoble, Language Policy in the Soviet Union, New York, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003, p. 41-42. The 1978 Constitution of the BSSR commits the republic to pursuing « a policy of comprehensive development and coming together of all the nations and ethnicities of the USSR » (Article 34). What is not explained is how the tension between the « comprehensive development » of a national identity could be reconciled with its merger with other national identities. The text of the constitution is available at http :// ?guid=2071 (accessed on 12 April 2012).

25  The greeting is a local rendition of the Arabic « al-salāmu ‘alaykum ».

26  « Salam alejkum ! » Bajram : Tatary na ziamli Biełarusi, N  1, 1991, p. 2.

27  When asked about the linguistic situation in Belarus at a lecture in Canada, the Belarusian politician Aleś Michalevič described it in remarkably similar terms to those used by Bajram (public lecture, McGill University, Montreal, Que., Canada, 21 Nov. 2011).

28  « Pradmova » (Foreword),  in Bajram, N  1, 1991, p. 3.

29  See Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi, « Whether Bismillarh Is to Be Regarded as a Verse », in Rafiabadi (ed.), World Religions and Islam : A Critical Study, Part I, New Delhi, Sarup & Sons, 2003, pp. 220-221.

30  « Pradmova, » in Bajram, N  1, 1991, pp. 3-4.

31  « Pradmova », in Bajram, N° 1, 1991, pp. 3-4.

32  I. Kanapacki, « Biełaruskija tatary : Minułaje i sučasnaść » [Belarusian Tatars : Past and Present], Binajram, N  1, 1991, pp. 9-10.

33 Ibidem, pp. 5-6.

34 İsmail Gasprinskiy, « Movu tatarskuju zabyli, ale hodnaść musulmanskuju nie stracili » [They have forgotten the Tatar language, but have not lost their Muslim dignity], in Bajram, N  1, 1991, p. 14.

35  « Kur’an » (tr. K. Skurat), Bajram, N 1, 1991, pp. 17-24.

36  « Što takoje sadaha ? » [What is ṣadaqa ?].

37  « Jany zahinuli ŭ Afhanistanie » [They were killed in Afghanistan], in Bajram, N 1, 1991, p. 26.

38 Ibidem

39  U.U. Prychač, « Na nalščanskaj ziamli » [In the land of Nalščany], in Bajram, N  1, 1991, p. 38.

40 Bajram, N° 2-3, 1991, p. 4.

41  Another explanation is that the publishers of Bajram had simply raised sufficient funds to print a colour cover, which demonstrates their success at attracting donors.

42  For the date and the circumstances surrounding the declaration of independence, see Zaprudnik, Belarus, p. 162.

43  The Islamic call to prayer (adhān in Arabic) is traditionally recited into a newborn infant’s ear, so that the first words he hears have to do with the principles of the religion. See Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, « The Importance and Meaning of Prayer in Islam », in Vincent J. Cornell (ed.), Voices of Islam, Vol. Two : Voices of the Spirit, Westport, Conn., Praeger Publishers, 2007, p. 35.

44  Christel Lane, Christian Religion in the Soviet Union : A Sociological Study, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1978, p. 60. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Michael Argyle argue that « rites of passage are where most individuals encounter religion most directly ». See Beit Hallahmi and Argyle, The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief & Experience, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 51. Nevertheless, Xinzhong Yao points out in the context of China that one consequence of « secularity » is the transformation of religious rites of passage into family customs. See Yao, « Chinese Religions », in Jean Holm and John Bowker (eds.), Rites of Passage, London, Pinter Passage, 1994, p. 158.

45 Bajram, N° 2-3, 1991, p. 4. « Ya-Sin » is the name of Chapter 36 of the Qur’an.

46  Abu Kasym, « Iman », Bajram, no. 2-3, 1991, p. 12-13.

47  I. Miemietaŭ, « U dzień pamiaci achviar Čarnobylskaj katastrofy » [On the Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Chernobyl Disaster], in Bajram, no. 2-3, 1991, p. 13-14.

48  Although the contents of the second issue of Bajram mention that this article was translated from Polish by Ju. Krynicki, the original source is not mentioned. I have discovered that the Polish-language original is Arsłan-Bej, « General Maciej Sulkiewicz (1865-1920) », in Rocznik Tatarski N° 1, 1932, pp. 247-255.

49  « Hienieral Maciej Sulkievič » [General Maciej Sulkievič] (tr. Ju. Krynicki), in Bajram, N° 2-3, 1991, pp. 21-23.

50 Ibidem, pp. 23-27.

51 Ibidem, pp. 27-29.

52  « Niekalki słoŭ ab mienskich tatarach » [A Few Words about the Tatars of Minsk], in Naš kraj, N° 6-7, 1927, reprinted in Bajram, N° 2-3, 1991, pp. 34-45.

53  I. Kanapacki, « Ci zachavali tatary svaje śviatyja knihi i svaju vieru ? » [Have the Tatars Preserved Their Holy Books and Their Faith ?], in Bajram, N° 2-3, 1991, pp. 46-51.

54 Bajram, N° 4, 1991, p. 3.

55  « My z imanam žyviom na ziamli Biełarusi » [We live with īmān in the land of Belarus], in Bajram, no. 4, 1991, p. 55.

56  Ryhor Baradulin, « Biełaruskija tatary » [Belarusian Tatars], in Bajram, N° 1, 1992, p. 57. The word « Kryvian » refers to the Kryvičy, one of the Slavic tribes modern-day Belarusians are said to be descended from.

57  See Wilson, Belarus, p. 122.

58  Borawski, Tatarzy, p. 5.

Pour citer ce document

Par Rashed Chowdhury, «Identity Formation among the Belarusian Tatars in the Context of Belarus’s Transition to Independence, 1991-1992», Revue du Centre Européen d'Etudes Slaves [En ligne], Numéro 2, La revue, Imaginaire collectif slave et construction identitaire, mis à jour le : 12/06/2013, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Rashed Chowdhury

Rashed Chowdhury est né à Minsk, au Belarus. Il est titulaire d’un Ph.D. en histoire ottomane de l’université McGill et est actuellement chercheur postdoctoral au Indian Ocean World Centre dans cette même université. Intérêts de recherche : l’islam, l’État et la société au Moyen-Orient, en Asie du Sud et en Europe.Publications (sélection) : « Muslim Opposition to the War in Afghanistan : The Case(s) of Bangladesh and Turkey », in Gary Badcock and Darren Marks (eds.), War, Human Dignity and Natio ...