Skip to main content
  • Share to or

Dispatch from Podlaskie In Poland’s Wild East, Tatar culture is alive and well 

Source: Meduza
James Jackson

Story by James Jackson for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

There’s something ethereal about driving through the vast Polish region of Podlaskie in the summer. Best known for its bison and Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka, this is Poland’s own Wild East, a frontier province along the reinforced border with Belarus. Yellow corn fields and seemingly endless rows of green pine trees punctuate its wide-open blue skies. Locals drink a moonshine called duch puszczy, “the spirit of the forest.”

Podlaskie even boasts its own historic horse-riding warriors, the Tatars, one of Europe’s oldest and one of the world’s most northern Muslim populations. With their wooden houses of worship, the Tatar villages of Bohoniki and Kruszyniany have the air of a little mosque on the prairie. Their cemeteries boast gravestones inscribed with novel-sounding Polish-Muslim names like Aisza Poltorzycka and Mustafa Bogdanowicz, alongside flourishes of Arabic and a smattering of Cyrillic lettering.

James Jackson
Kruszyniany Mosque, August 2022
Grzegorz Gajewski / Alamy / Vida Press
Painted wooden shutters on a wooden house in Kruszyniany. June 2018.
Edwin Remsberg / Alamy / Vida Press

Crimea’s indigenous Tatar population may be larger and better known today, but the Lipka Tatars were Muslim islands in interflowing Catholic and Orthodox seas spread across Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania before modern statehood. There are around 2,000 Tatars still living in Poland today, half in Podlaskie’s Tatar villages and the others scattered to the cities.

‘We don’t feel like outsiders’

In the Western imagination, Central Europe isn’t known for its diversity. Behind the Iron Curtain, everything was communist or Christian, gray with soot, and rife with decaying prefabricated tower blocks. But sitting down over a bright purple chłodnik soup of beetroot, cucumber, and eggs outside a colorful yurt in the Tatar village of Kruszyniany, these preconceptions seem far away. 

As both the nationalist government and catch-all opposition take aim at migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa ahead of the parliamentary election on October 15, the Tatars serve as a reminder of a diverse and tolerant Poland that can sometimes be hard for modern observers to recognize.

Dżenneta Bogdanowicz runs a local restaurant and a visitor’s center with her husband. The Bogdanowicz family received this land hundreds of years ago as a gift from the legendary Polish King Jan III Sobieski for bravery in the Battle of Vienna. This battle looms heavily in nationalist myth-making as a time when the Polish Winged Hussars saved Christian Europe from the Turkic hordes of the Ottoman Empire. Some would perhaps rather forget that they fought victoriously alongside Muslim Tatars, just like they did in the Battle of Grunwald to throw off the yoke of the Teutonic order.

Bogdanowicz is a diminutive, effusive woman with a bowl haircut. As we eat, she chatters away in Polish, her first language. “The Polish Tatar language disappeared in the 16th century. Tatars are military men; they came to the area and married women, but children usually learn language from their mother, so that’s why the language disappeared,” she explains. “Many Tatar tribes didn’t have a common language, so they usually spoke the local language of where they were.”


Twilight borders Cross-cultural ties and historical tensions at a tripoint in Central Europe


Twilight borders Cross-cultural ties and historical tensions at a tripoint in Central Europe

Bogdanowicz’s family once owned 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land in what is now Belarus, but it was lost in the great redrawing of Poland’s borders after World War II. Her grandfather fought for Poland in the war, following a family tradition of sorts. When he returned from exile in Britain on his wife’s orders, the Communist secret police hunted him down as a former Polish officer. He was kept in a prison camp in the center of Warsaw before he was executed in the 1950s.

She tells us this before instructing us on how to eat the traditional beef pie — “you cut the top off and eat it from the inside” — that she’s served alongside a babka ziemniaczana, a peppery potato cake with salty pickled cucumbers from their garden.

The Bogdanowiczs’ hospitality took a bittersweet blow five years ago. “We lost everything in a fire, even historical artifacts and souvenirs,” our host says, pointing to a freshly built wooden house that took the place of their burned home. But well-wishers from across Poland rallied to their aid. “We didn’t realize people even knew who we were, but many came to support us financially and mentally, as well,” she recalls. 

“We don’t feel like outsiders,” Bogdanowicz adds. “Polish people see Tatars as equal citizens.”

James Jackson

The frontier of the Islamic world

The Tatars are a remnant of an extremely multicultural world,” historian and Goodbye, Eastern Europe author Jacob Mikanowski tells The Beet. With nomadic origins as part of the Mongol Golden Horde, the Tatars were invited to settle in the region by a Lithuanian duke who granted asylum to Khan Tokhtamysh’s clan after they lost a war with the conqueror Timur in 1395.

At that time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — which later became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — was home to a wide range of ethnic and religious groups, including Orthodox Ukrainians and Belarusians, alongside Ashkenazi Jewish minorities, who would experience the Jewish Golden Age. Then, at the end of the 18th century, Poland-Lithuania’s more centralized and militaristic neighbors in Prussia, Russia, and the Habsburg Empire teamed up to extinguish this diversity and partition the commonwealth, spelling the end for what was once the largest state in Europe.

Nomadic fighters were an invaluable asset on this western edge of the flat Eurasian Steppe, and the Lipka Tatars often crossed sabers with Cossacks, Crimean Tatars, and Ottomans in service of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In a prime position in the Bogdanowiczs’ kitchen, there stands a crescent-shaped standard bearer their ancestors carried centuries ago to fight for this flawed, unstable, yet precocious European republic.

“Eastern Europe is one of the frontier regions of the Muslim world,” Mikanowski explains. “We shouldn’t see it from just the West; you can change your perspective and equally well view it as one of the northernmost extensions of Islam.” Indeed, some Balkan countries have been Muslim longer than Latin America has been Christian, and Tatars have played a crucial role in Eastern European and Russian history.

The Muslim cemetery in Kruszyniany. October 2018.
touch of nature / Alamy / Vida Press

This consistent exposure to Islam led to one of the strangest trends in Polish history. From the 16th until the 18th century, members of the aristocratic Szlachta elite (who made up around 15 percent of the commonwealth, which by then they viewed as the bulwark of Christendom) started dressing in the Ottoman style and calling themselves Sarmatians, an ancient term for eastern European nomadic tribes taken from Ptolemy’s Geography.

Even when riding into battle against the Ottoman Empire, these nobles wore curved sabers, Turkic kalpak hats, and colorful Persian sashes. “When [Jan III] Sobieski was defeating the Turks during the 1683 Battle of Vienna, his Polish troops were dressed almost exactly the same way as their opponents,” writes journalist Marek Kępa

As the only people able to vote under Poland-Lithuania’s Golden Liberty system (also known as the Nobles’ Democracy), the Szlachta relied on an imagined, ancient-Iranian warrior ancestry. “That was to differentiate the gentry from the peasantry. It was about being better than your serfs,” Mikanowski explains. Some nobles even saw the Tatars as their brethren — with the caveat that, as non-Christians, they were unsaved.


‘Invisible’ migrants Ukrainian refugees in Poland brace themselves for a long war


‘Invisible’ migrants Ukrainian refugees in Poland brace themselves for a long war

Doing something good

Though the Renaissance-era daydream of Sarmatism eventually died out, the Lipka Tatars did not, and they preserved their own traditions despite the disappearance of their language. 

In the village of Bohoniki, half an hour’s drive from Kruszyniany, a wedding party gathers outside the community center while we wait for Maciej Szczęsnowicz, the chairman of the local Muslim community. As we sit down for tea across from the square brown house of prayer with its subtle minaret and red fence spiked with a crescent moon, the sounds of clapping and accordion music waft over to us, along with the scent of cardamom. The celebrants are dancing in a circle; among them is an older man who looks uncannily like a Tatar Lech Wałęsa.

Maciej Szczęsnowicz
James Jackson

Szczęsnowicz and his community attracted international attention in 2021 after Alexander Lukashenko’s regime tried to send tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers over the Belarusian border and into neighboring Poland. A humanitarian crisis ensued, with Polish border guards carrying out unlawful and sometimes violent pushbacks. The Polish government accused Minsk of waging a “hybrid war” and declared a state of emergency along the country’s eastern frontier, barring access to journalists and activists. 

Szczęsnowicz, however, got permission from the Polish authorities to help the migrants, and he was one of the very few allowed to enter the tightly controlled border zone. Together with his community members, he began handing out 300 meals a day. 

Some migrants didn’t survive the journey, succumbing to hunger, thirst, exposure, or injuries from beatings at the hands of border guards. That November, the Bohoniki Tatars conducted an Islamic funeral for 19-year-old Syrian Ahmed al-Hassan, who reportedly drowned in the river that runs along the Polish-Belarusian border. As the Imam read the rites, al-Hassan’s family watched via video link. “We wanted to spread the news that we were doing something good for people,” Szczęsnowicz tells The Beet. 

Despite the bureaucratic hurdles in getting permission from embassies and the Polish authorities, Bohoniki’s Muslim community has held eight more funerals since then, burying the dead on the edge of their cemetery. The most recent ceremony took place in January of this year. 

“They found him close to the Białowieża [Forest]. His brother came for the funeral, and so did the ambassador of Iraq,” Szczęsnowicz recalls. 

Imam Aleksander Bazarewicz (center) says a prayer during the funeral ceremony of a 19-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the border river trying to get to Poland. Bohoniki, November 15, 2021.
Wojtek Radwanski / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

At least 49 people have died since the border crisis began, and more than 200 others are still missing. One body was found with a piece of paper that had the address of the Bohoniki community center written on it, Szczęsnowicz says.

The response to the funerals hasn’t always been positive, however. Szczęsnowicz has even received death threats, as well as offers of police protection.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s The Green Border, a film based on the true story of refugees stranded between Belarus and Poland in 2021, has met similar backlash — including from figures in the Polish government. Before the film’s premiere at last month’s Venice Film Festival, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro likened it to Nazi propaganda. (The film won a special jury prize, and Holland filed a lawsuit against Ziobro for defamation.) 

Though the crisis has somewhat abated, the electronic sensors on Poland’s newly constructed border wall registered 20,000 attempts to cross between January and August. 

On election day, October 15, Poles at the polls will also take part in a national referendum, which will ask (among other things) whether they support the “admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa” as part of the European Union’s migration pact

The referendum is widely regarded as a way to boost turnout ahead of a tightly fought race where both sides have used immigration has as a rhetorical chess piece. How Poles respond may show how much of the commonwealth’s legacy lives on today. As loyal Muslim defenders of Poland and descendants of refugees, the Tatars will be watching.

Weekly newsletter

Sign up for The Beet

Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.

Story by James Jackson for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

  • Share to or