Finnish Tatars

The Tatars of Finland are a Turkic people who espouse the Muslim faith. They number approximately 1000 and form a well-established and homogeneous religious, cultural and linguistic minority. The Tatars are the oldest Muslim minority in Finland and throughout the Nordic countries and the Finnish Islamic Congregation (Tatar: Finlandiya Islam Cemaati) the oldest state-recognized Muslim congregation in the Western world. They have their historical origins in Eastern Europe and their language belongs to the Turkic language family.

During the early years of Finland's status as an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Tsars, Tatars were already being employed by the Russians on the construction of the Bomarsund fortress in Åland and the Suomenlinna/Sveaborg fortress on an island off Helsinki. Most of them returned to Russia. For the ones who did not, only an Islamic cemetery in Bomarsund bears witness to their presence in Finland.

The ancestors of the present-day Tatars came to Finland from the 1870s to the mid 1920s from a group of some 20 villages in the Sergach region on the Volga River, to the southeast of Nizhni Novgorod, formerly Gorki. Most of them had been farmers but they settled in Finland as merchants trading in furs and textiles and chose initially to reside in Helsinki and its surrounding area. Tatars living in the city of Viipuri in Karelia resettled in Tampere and Helsinki when Karelia was ceded by Finland to the Soviet Union in the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940. Most Finnish Tatars continue to live in Helsinki and its surroundings.

In 1925, the first Islamic congregation (Finlandiya Islam Cemaati = Finnish Islamic Congregation) was founded. Finland was thus the first Western European country to officially recognise an Islamic congregation. An act on the freedom of religion had been adopted in 1922. Today, the congregation has mosques in Helsinki and Järvenpää. A second congregation of Tatars was established in Tampere in 1943. Non-Tatar Muslims cannot become members of the Finnish Islamic Congregation. There are Tatar Islamic cemeteries in Helsinki, Turku and Tampere. The Tatars are fully integrated into Finnish society and they are actively engaged in Finnish economic and cultural life in a wide array of professions. At the same time, they have succeeded in maintaining a distinct identity and in keeping the Tatar language alive by using it in family and private circles and also in their organisations. Since 1935, the Tatar Cultural Society (Finlandiya Türkleri Birligi) has organised cultural events in Tatar principally in the form of plays, folk music, folk dancing and poetry recitals.

The pride of the sports club, Yolduz, established in 1945, is its football team. Both the cultural society and the sports club operate with the support of the Islamic Congregation, which thus contributes to the maintenance of the Tatar culture and language.

From 1948 to 1969 there was a Tatar primary school (Türk Halk Mektebi) in Helsinki, which was partly subsidised by the Islamic Congregation and partly by the City of Helsinki. About half of the teaching was in Finnish and half in Tatar. Reform of the Finnish school system in the 1970s made the school unviable due to the small number of pupils and the conditions governing state subsidies. Instead, during the autumn and spring terms, after school hours, the Islamic Congregation provides regular teaching of Tatar language, culture, religion and history, with Tatar as the language of instruction. A Tatar kindergarten has existed since the 1950s. Summer courses in Tatar are now held at the Tatar Training Centre in Kirkkonummi, near Helsinki.

It is remarkable that the small group of Finnish Tatars has managed to preserve proficiency in the Tatar language for as long as five generations. The publishing activity of the Tatars was once extensive but has now ceased. Past publications include religious texts, poetry, plays, novels as well as periodicals, the earliest from 1925. Tatars from Karelia resettled in Finland when Karelia was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1940.

One notable Finnish Tatar is former soccer player Atik Ismail.

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