The Greeks of Ukraine: from Marioupolis to Odessa

Billy Cotsis takes us on a journey through the Greek areas of the Ukraine including the historic Philiki Eteria Museum, the home of the Greek Revolution

Ola kala, kai panta kala (always good, forever good).’

With the clink of our glasses and the downing of another vodka drink I started to feel very much at home in the Ukraine.

On a bright Sunday afternoon, I had found myself in a small town, Sartana; and by chance my guide and friend, Athena Khadzhynova, had taken me past the Community Centre. Poking our heads inside to listen to the music being played, we found ourselves at a local Greek wedding. This was the second day of the wedding, the feast day. True to the nature of Greeks and their generous hospitality, I was immediately invited in to sit at the main table to enjoy as much local cuisine and vodka as I could possibly consume. The only problem being that most of the people at the wedding made it their mission to have a drink with me. One cannot be rude and refuse a drink in the Ukraine!

This was a taste of Greek life in Ukraine. A wedding where most of the guests were Greek descendants — many still speaking the Byzantine dialect and many more could speak Modern Greek, I almost felt like I was back in Athens.

At the end of my afternoon, with a tummy full and thirst quenched, I ended up at the home of a lovely couple. Of course the hospitality started all over again.

Ukraine, like many places in the Black Sea was an outpost for ancient Greek colonies dating back 2700 years.

MARIUPOL, ON THE SHORE OF THE AZOV SEA

I decided to visit the city of Marioupolis (Mariupol) on the Sea of Azov, the world’s most shallow ocean. Marioupolis, which is close to Russia, was founded by Greeks in 1779 with permission from Russian Queen, Catherine the Great. These Greeks were from the Black Sea, descendants of the colonies of antiquity, were allowed to move from the Black Sea to avoid the harassment and pillaging by the Turkish troops in the Crimean War.
Many of the ancient heroes such as Hercules and Jason have also come this way.

Known today as Mariupol, with a population of 500,000 with perhaps 7 per cent being Greek in this industrial city, which is marked by a vibrant city centre. In 2018, Greek Square was established, further enhancing the unique Greekness of the city. The Greek government maintains a consulate office in the heart of the city, which proudly flies the Greek flag. However, the shadow of Russia and Putin looms as the struggle between Ukraine and Russia plays out every week.

Girls holding Greek and Ukrainian flags during the inauguration of Greek Square.

It is estimated that there are over 200,000 Greeks living in the Ukraine in 97 areas. The Greeks of Ukraine have had to deal with the loss of Greek independence when Constantinople and Trebizond were captured by 1460, living in a foreign empire (under Russia and Ukraine), Russian wars with Turkey, famine and poverty, world wars, and communist rule. Perhaps it was communist rule that should have destroyed Hellenism in the Ukraine.

Many minorities under communist rule were not allowed to learn or speak their respective language, and for many Greeks, it wasn’t until 1991 that they were able to learn to speak the language of their ancestors. I am amazed at how well many Greeks have learnt modern Greek and how the old dialect has somehow survived despite the best efforts of the former communist regime to suppress minorities.

One can’t help being inspired by visiting Marioupolis and the towns that surround the city, including Sartana. Despite the obstacles in their path, such as lower income rates (compared to the rest of Europe) and the Putin-Ukraine issue, there are many amazing people that I encountered who are a credit to the cause of maintaining Hellenism. There are approximately 25 Greek towns and villages outside of Marioupolis and I had the pleasure of visiting six of them. From the moment I arrived, I was impressed by the determination of the Greeks and their villages to survive. Sartana has 10,000 residents with 70 per cent being of Greek origin. A visitor is immediately struck and impressed by how the Greeks paint the houses white with either blue or green windows and doors to signify their ancestry. This is the local Greek way of displaying their determination and willingness to show the whole world where their hearts lie.

Yalta, which literally means “Glass of the sea,” was another that I visited, and I was taken on a tour by my new friend Sergey Pazizin and his uncle. Sergey’s has been the director of the Theatre of Marioupolis, by far and away the most impressive building in Marioupolis. A thriving seaside town of 6,000 with a Greek population that accounts for 80 per cent, Yalta has a magnificent Orthodox Church to rival any seen in Greece, this is also the birthplace of former Moscow Mayor and famous writer of Hellenic background Gavriil Popov. His generous donations helped the town finish the church.

Sergey organised for me to have lunch at Yalta’s resort with the Town’s Mayor, representatives of the Greek Association of Yalta, as well as a visit to various schools. If ever I needed evidence to highlight the sense of patriotism, it was at the schools. Whether it was the beautiful Greek murals, the children learning Greek or the enthusiasm and hard work of each Principal and their staff to teach Modern Greek, I was truly impressed. Until 1991, Greek was banned from being taught at schools and this ban had been in place since 1937. Sergey has been to Greece to learn Modern Greek.

Athena’s family is a special and revered family in Marioupolis. Athena’s father kept the spirit of Hellenism alive during the dark days of communist rule and her mother, Olympiada, has done the same for the last few years. Eduard Khadzhynova, recorded the first songs of the local Greek dialect in the 1970s, whilst Athena’s brother Kostas is also passionate about Hellenism; he once flew to Cyprus to record an interview at the spur of the moment of a dying Greek teacher, Servas Poloutis, who had taught in the Ukraine in the 1930s. We visited an aunt of Athena’s, Alla Dremukha, in Sartana, who spent the afternoon conversing with me in her native tongue, the Byzantine Greek dialect. This was akin to stepping back in time and listening to how it would have spoken all those years ago. It was a day I will never forget. She told that she is Romai – Roman, which is the medieval term for Greek speakers of the Byzantine Empire.

MUSEUMS VS PEOPLE AND LANDSCAPES

Over the years I have encountered many fellow travellers who enjoy visiting museums. As a traveller I am more interested in people and what the landscapes have to offer, therefore it was with reluctance that I was taken to visit the Greek museum in Sartana. Fearing a boring afternoon in a museum, I prepared for the worst. What I encountered was most unexpected. Upon entering the humble yet palatial museum I felt as though I had taken a step back into history. I was greeted by the staff and volunteers who were dressed in their Hellenic costumes-especially for this stranger from Australia.

Marioupolis.

The moment I entered and was greeted by these wonderful people, I knew that I was not entering any ordinary museum. I was given a tour by Tatania Bogaditsa who spoke to me in a combination of the Greek dialect and Ukrainian and I was truly amazed at how well many of the local Hellenic items were preserved, especially when you consider how destructive the Soviets had been. The top floor even consists of a specially designed display room using material and items from over a hundred years ago to show what a typical Greek home would have looked and felt like. Perhaps the most lasting memory I will take away from the museum is the song and poetry recital performed for my benefit. The song and poetry were sung from the heart with such emotion and beauty that Pindar himself would be proud. The song, “H Teleftaia Patrida (my last homeland),” was actually written by Athena’s father many years ago.

What I encountered was most unexpected. Upon entering the humble yet palatial museum I felt as though I had taken a step back into history. I was greeted by the staff and volunteers who were dressed in their Hellenic costumes-especially for this stranger from Australia.

Such beautiful music not only touched this traveller, it served as a reminder of how rich Greek arts are in the Ukraine. I had heard similar enchanting music from Tamara Katsy. Her music and legacy can be felt around the towns and villages of the Sea of Azov. I also had the privilege of visiting her tomb in Sartana, her place of birth.

On each of my adventure filled days in Marioupolis, I had the pleasure of meeting some remarkable people including representatives of the Federation of Greek Societies of the Ukraine and the Greek Consul-General.

With limited funds but with the energy and determination reminiscent of the Greek heroes of yesteryear, the Federation, led by Oleksandra Protsenko, has helped cultivate and represent local culture. The Federation building is also the site of the impressive Medical Centre and Hospital, which was built by international funds from Hellenes abroad, with our own SAE Oceania playing a major role in fundraising.

The Federation with approximately 90 affiliates was established in 1994 and I found it to be a place of inspiration-not only are the staff carrying out important work, you can also find initiatives that include the distribution of a Greek newspaper and Greek singing lessons, among other activities. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a lesson, a class containing 40 people from Greek and Ukrainian backgrounds, all singing beautiful Greek folk songs. If I shut my eyes, I can still clearly see the teacher, or should I say Yiannis or Vangelis, leading the class, or better yet a choir performing from the heart as if they were at the amphitheatre at Epidauros in Greece.

Marioupolis is of course just one of many important Greek destinations. I have also had the pleasure of visiting Odessa and a Greek town that sits on the Black Sea; Xorio Sverdlovo (Malyy Buyalyk).

ODESSA, FROM THE MILETIANS UNTIL TODAY

Odessa on the Black Sea is the fourth biggest city in the country with a population double that of Marioupolis. In ancient times Odessa was known as Olbia and founded by the Miletians around 502 BCE. Over the next 2000 years the city had numerous overlords – the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Turks, Russians, as well as various other tribes or rulers. Greek persisted as a spoken language until the middle ages before subsiding. Catherine the Great (no relation to Alexander) officially re-founded the city with the name of Odessa in 1794, a play on the original Greek name Olbia.

During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s many Greeks from the Ottoman Empire found their way to Odessa. For the first time in centuries Greek was a language that was spoken and spoken often in the region. Today it is the fourth language of Odessa. One of the main city streets is known as Greek Street (Grecheskaya).

A few blocks down from Grecheskaya you will find the Greek ‘area.’ The Greek Emporiko Kentro complete with Greek flags, columns, statues, Greek frescoes and Greek designed shops. I felt like I was in Greece except I could not hear the sound of motorbikes, young men shouting expletives for no apparent reason, no frappe and it was very modern!

The Greek church of Odessa is Saint Troiskaya located at Ekaterininskaya 67. In 1821 after the unfortunate murder of Patriarch Gregory V in Constantinople, his body was brought here for burial by Greek patriots.

Odessa will forever be a special place in Greek history, regardless of where Hellenic history may take us over the next 2000 years.
In 1814 several brave men met in Odessa to pursue ways to overthrow Ottoman rule in Greek lands. These men were heroes in the same vain as Hercules, Alexander the Great, Basil II, Constantine Paleologos, Nikolaos Skoufas, Emmanuil Xanthos and Athanasios Tsakalov. The story of the Philiki Eteria does not necessarily concern us here suffice to say that the foundations of Greek freedom had been firmly set in Odessa.

I had the honour of visiting the home and museum of the Philiki Eteria. As it was a Saturday, the museum was closed. Athena came to my rescue and arranged for a private tour. The security guard spoke Greek, among a number of different languages and he provided us with a tour of this small yet, on a cultural level, massive museum. You can say that the Louvre is one of the world’s greatest, but the Philiki Eteria has something else – it contains the key to unlocking modern Greek freedom.

The museum also contains a Greek library, art classes, Greek books for sale and a Greek school. The school was established as the Centre for Modern Greek Studies in 2000, with 75 per cent of the students being ethnic Ukrainian. Greek is also taught at some of the Odessan schools and the university.

Taking us back to the Greek village – Xorio Sverdlovo (Malyy Buyalyk); the village has approximately 500 residents, 15 km from Odessa. It is isolated and has plenty of open space for children to play and animals to roam. I was really looking forward to eating Ukrainian or Russian cuisine. As it turned out, we ate the local Greek food!

25 per cent of the village speaks Byzantine Greek. The number was higher; however many have moved out or the young have not been able to maintain the language. Originally 48 Greek families came to the area in 1799 from Bulgaria and until this day the Greek language has persisted in the village.

For those of us who crave Greek history and usually connect Greece with golden beaches and frappe, there are some incredible parts of Europe that veer away from the usual image of Greece. In a place like Ukraine, you will be met with a cooler climate, warm coffee and a rich undercurrent of Greek history. From the home of the Greek revolution to the beautiful blue and white dwellings of Sartana, Greek history remains thousands of miles from the Greek heartland. Next time you go on an international holiday ask your travel agent about including these places in your itinerary, if it is safe visit.

*Billy Cotsis is the author of the Many Faces of Hellenic Culture