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On the move: Greek diasporas of Russia and the Black Sea

KATY GEORGIOU examines the history of Hellenism on the North Black sea coast and in the ex-USSR.

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Greek of Odessa. Early 20th century.

Greeks of Odessa at the start of World War I.

4 Aug 2009

The Greek population of Russia and the Ukraine can be subdivided into six distinct communities, each of whose origins can be traced back centuries.

  • Those currently living in the areas of Moscow, St Petersburg, and other regions of Russia and the Ukraine, who are culturally mixed with the Russian non Greek population, after having settled on the Black and Azov sea coast between the 17th and 19th centuries;
  • The Romei, or descendants of the Greek population of Crimea, who speak Modern Greek albeit with distinguishable Mariupol and Crimean-Tatar dialects;
  • the Ponti or Pontians, who are descendants from the settlements of the Ottoman Empire (Asia Minor) who speak the Pontian dialect;
  • The Ouroumi, versed in the Turkish language, who descended from 19th Century Turkish settlements; and finally,
  • The Greeks from Pont, exiled to Kazakhstan, the Kirghizia and Uzbekistan under the rule of Stalin;
  • Descendants of Greek political refugees, who resorted to the Soviet Union after the end of Civil War in Greece 1949, and who settled in Tashkent of Uzbekistan.

The pattern of Greek settlement around the North coast and the ex-USSR can be traced back to ancient times.

References from Homer tell us that Greeks were appearing on the Black sea coast as early as the 8th century BCE.

This is likely because of the rich gold mining opportunities available and other metal sources conducive to trade.

Nevertheless, the Greeks invaded the region during the period of colonisation (6-5 BCE).

The first settlements were founded by the migrants from the Asia Minor’s coast and the islands of Archipelagos.

In total, 75 Greek settlements were founded between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE, many of which (including Kherson and Theodosia) survived until the Byzantine period.

The subsequent invasion of nomads in this area minimised traces of Hellenic life, and the Russian prince Vladimir adopted Christianity from the Byzantine in 988 from where Christianity gradually became recognised as the state religion of Kiev princedom.

Despite this, waves of Greek settlements continued to manifest themselves in the 15th Century.

It is noted that after Constantinople and the Trabzon Empire were captured by Ottomans in the 15th century, Greeks found shelter in different towns on the Black Sea coast or established new ones in orthodox Russia and Georgia, especially in the regions of Middle Russia, Caucasus and Transcaucasia.

Large waves of Greeks settled in these areas in the second half of the 15th century, at the time when Armenia was inviting workers from Erzurum Pashalyk (Ottoman Empire) for mining.

The biggest migrant wave appeared at the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, particularly during the Russian-Turkish wars of 1768-1774 and 1788-1792.

The outcome of this migration was the formation of the Greek settlement zone which stretched out from Ismail and Bessarabia on the West to Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don on the East.

In the early 19th century, the emigrant wave from the Ottoman Empire recommenced; at the end of Caucasus war, Greeks were removed to North Caucuses, Kuban and Stavropol, mainly as refugees of the Ottoman Empire.

They assumed the name Romei and spoke the modern Greek language, whereas the other part of the Greek population spoke the Turkish language and were called Ouroumi.

In 1915, the year of the Armenian genocide, Armenians, Greeks and other Christian populations found shelter in the Russian Empire.

During the First World War, the Greeks of Trabzon, who were called Fonts, moved to Transcaucasia in North Caucasus and Crimea.

In 1917, the Central Union of Greeks of Pont was founded, the main goal of which was the creation of the independent Pont Republic.

After the formation of the USSR, this idea crumbled away.

The last wave of settlement of Greeks from Turkey to Russia took place between 1922 and 1923.

While some Trabzon Greeks wanted to move to Greece, the civil war impeded this and as a result, families were strewn.

Between 1937 and 1938, came bloody events beginning with Stalin’s repressions.

Arrests, imprisonment and punishment of Greeks began with the criminalisation of ‘treason and anti-Soviet activity’.

Four successive waves of mass prosecutions under Stalin’s direction followed in October 1937, February 1938, July 1938 and February 1939.

Thousands of Greeks were either executed at this time or were displaced in Siberian concentration camps.

The deportation of Greeks continued into the next decade to Central Asia.

The first to be displaced, in the 1940s, were the Kuban (Southern Russia) and Kerch (ancient Pontikapay) residents, to Alma-Ata of Kazakhstan.

In June 1944, the Greeks of Crimea were exiled to Uzbekistan and Siberia.

On 13 June 1949, Greek Ponts of Caucasus origin were exiled to Central Asia.

Fifteen days later, the Greeks who were in the region maintaining Soviet citizenship were also displaced, and they were forced to declare voluntary abandonment of their place.

Finally, the last Greeks to be displaced were from the Krasnodar region.

The precise number of Greeks to have been displaced from the region has not been calculated, though it is estimated to be between the 40,000 to 70,000.

According to estimates of researcher  J.G. Dguxa, more than 23-25,000 Greeks were arrested during the period 1937-38.

Adding to this the numbers who were displaced in the 1940s and the migration patterns previously, this number easily reaches 110-120,000 approximately.

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