On September 15, the City of Vilnius celebrated over 600 years of friendship with its ethnic Tatar community by unveiling a piece of Tatar language street art on Tatar Street (“Totorių g.”) in the centre of the Lithuanian capital, according to the Vilnius city municipality administration web site.
Also known as Lipka or Lithuanian Tatars, the Tatars are a Sunni Muslim community who have resided in Lithuania since the 14th century during the times of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth.
Following the Soviet Union’s occupation of Lithuania between 1940-1990, the majority of the Tatars’ culture, and their places of worship were destroyed by the Soviet authorities. In the mid-1960s, Vilnius’ only mosque – located by Lukiškės Square – was bulldozed.
At present, it is estimated that Tatars make up around 0.1 percent of the Lithuanian population, with only a few thousand Tatars remaining in the country.
Following the unveiling of the decoration, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius commented: “This is the opening of the fifth piece of foreign language street art in Vilnius, which in fact, is not even foreign – it is in one of our own local languages.
“The Tatar community has been in Lithuania for around 620 years, and they have always been part of our city’s life.”
Šimašius then urged against making distinctions between “Lithuanian” and “Tatar”.
“We should not differentiate between what is “Lithuanian” and what is “Tatar”. If you read a book about the history of Vilnius, it is very clear that the Tatars played, and still play, an influential role in the development of our city.
“Moreover, they have always been great defenders of Lithuania, and at this current time of increasing international tensions, we are very proud to say that we have had Tatars here for over six centuries, and see their culture still alive and flourishing.”
During the ceremony, Šimašius was joined by Adas Jakubauskas, the chairman of the Lithuanian Tatar’s Union.
“The decision from Vilnius Municipality to mark this street in the Tatar Language is highly symbolic, because we have been here for centuries, and our ancestors lived on this street,” said Jakubauskas.
“Many non-Lithuanian communties have always lived in Vilnius – Tatars, Poles, Jews, Russians, Karaims, Belarusians, to name a few – so it is very healthy to see the city embracing its rich history of multiculturalism, and we are fully supportive of this initiative.”
The artwork on Tatar Street is the latest in a series of pieces that celebrate nations and ethnic and other groups that have played a significant role in the history of Vilnius.
Icelandic Street was the first to be marked in a foreign language with a sign in Icelandic appearing under the standard Lithuanian street sign in early 2016. (Iceland was the first country to recognise the reestablishment of Lithuanian independence in 1990.) This was followed by placement of a piece of street art in English marking Washington Square this summer.
In early September, artworks in Russian and Polish were unveiled to mark Russian and Warsaw Streets (“Русская Улица” and “ulica Warszawska” respectively), and the roles both communities have played in the history of Vilnius.
Vilnius Municipality aims to continue its policy of celebrating openness and the city’s multicultural heritage with Jewish, Karaite, German, and other street signs appearing soon.
PHOTO: Saulius Žiūros