I am absolutely enthralled by Prince Grigori Alexandrovitch Potemkin, primarily because in Russian, consonants effect the pronunciation of the anteceding vowel, so that his surname is actually pronounced ‘Patyomkin.’ Further, the great statesman Potemkin, who conquered the Crimea from the Ottomans and revived the memory of the ancient Greek Bosporan kingdom in the region, by naming the colonies he founded there after the original Greek colonies that preceded them was reputedly the mastermind of one of the best con-jobs in history. In an effort to impress Catherine the Great and her travel party with the value of her new conquests, he had hollow facades of villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River.
Potemkin’s motivation was not so much to hoodwink the Empress into believing that he had already colonised the Crimea, as to display the potential of the region. Nonetheless, his singular act endures as a testament to delusion and dishonesty.
Near the end of his life, it became apparent that Potemkin was suffering from a mental disorder, probably due to complications following the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease. This behavior included a series of violent assaults on the members of his staff and public declarations that he will conquer Poland, Turkey and Egypt. In 1791, while on his way to Nikolayev, he died in the open steppe, in consequence of eating a whole goose while in a high state of fever.
Like Potemkin, our communal goose appears these days, to be well and truly cooked. Our community too has also founded extensive colonies in new regions. A cursory glance at statistics will reveal a population of anything up to half a million Greeks residing in Australia, a multitude of churches, schools and clubhouses in the major metropolises of the land, which would indicate the existence of a vibrant, dynamic ethnic minority, well-positioned to perpetuate its identity into the future.
Indeed, especially here in Melbourne, we are omnipresent. So important are we that we have an entire precinct named after us in the heart of the city, comprising of two or three shops keystoned by the imposing Greek Community Building, just begging to be transformed into a Tower of Babel, since there is no fear that God will confuse our tongues, considering that most of the time we communicate with each other through torrents of abuse in the local newspapers or give up altogether. We have a Hellenic Museum, designed to showcase who we are to the rest of the world and we also have an Antipodes Festival, where we parade ourselves for public view in a manner mandated by the City of Melbourne to be acceptable. Upon airing our identity for a few days, we pack it carefully away for re-use at another function, perhaps a National Day parade or panigyri that we will put on, either because in the manner of the Poseidonians, we feel compelled to repeat the same customs and traditions even when these are verging upon the trite and the incomprehensible to the younger of those who enact them, lest our sense of self be diminished.
Facadism is what we do best. Our brotherhood buildings are many and they are worth much. And yet save for catering to the social and personal needs of their ever diminishing first generation membership and constituing a hot-bed of micropoliticla, internecine strife, an alarming number of these are able to do little else than occassionally concoct some type of cultural manifestation to reassure themselves of their existence, such as a dinner dance or other social function. The mantra: «Πρέπει να κάνουμε κάτι για να φανούμε,» is repeated so often that we appear to be caught in a time loop of existential hysteria. An increasing number of brotherhood buildings, denuded of members, are becoming cold, mute tombstones to past dreams and endeavours that are finally becoming extinct.
Greek language education is also a field in which facadism reigns supreme. Ten years ago, there were Greek language departments or courses offered in all the major tertiary institutions of Melbourne and Sydney. This was the culmination of the combined effort of church and community and was achieved only after a long struggle. Today, few remain, and recently, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) announced its decision not to appoint a new lecturer in Modern Greek, after the resignation of the old one. That decision was met with derision and sadness by the community and the efforts of Greek students to protest against this, holding placards in Greek proclaiming: “Our education is our history,’ are laudable.
What is it however, that really hurts us about the closure of Modern Greek departments and courses? In his letter to the Vice-Chancellor of UNSW, His Eminence, Archbishop Stylianos, who presides over the most extensive Greek educational system in Australia stated: “With regards to the significance of Hellenism, I am certain that there is no need to write further to an Academic of your standing and responsibility.”
Vice-Chancellor Hilmer’s response, was terse and to the point. “It has to be acknowledged,” he wrote, “that despite the manifest community support for Modern Greek being made available, the number of students enrolling in Greek languages courses … has been consistently and disappointingly low for many years now.” In other words, we may profess our love and desire for Greek education until we are blue in the face. However, when push comes to shove, there are not enough enrollments and we seem unable to ‘put our money where our mouth is.’ Thus, our yearning for the institutionalized tertiary study of Greek is at best a righteous hope and at worst, a façade, worthy of Potemkin.
Furthermore, it would be noted that the Vice-Chancellor did not comment whatsoever upon the “significance of Hellenism.” That concept appears to be significant to us, not them. After all, the good Chancellor is only seeking to entertain our righteous hopes in satisfying what demand truly exists, “without jeopardising the interests or strategic priorities of the University.” Though we may like to think otherwise, outside our own tightly wrought circle of self-satisfaction masking deep unease at our own precarious position vis a vis our ethno-linguistic future, the Vice-Chancellor’s response instructs us that we are not that intrinsically important. His Eminence’s letter to the Vice-Chancellor is thus invaluable, as it elicits the responses necessary to view ourselves outside our comfort zone. This is mandatory, if we are to address, let alone arrest the delusion that is leading to our multi-faceted decline.
It is all well and good to protest and rail against the closure of “Greek” institutions simply because this signals a defeat and brings ever more home to us, the terrible truth of our assimilation. After we dry our tears, we will get on with our lives, much as we did following the demise of the notorious EKEME. After all, how can we expect a community of Greek-Australian students, who in their vast majority have very poor functional Greek, and who, again in their vast majority, do not wish to improve those skills, to facilitate the survival of Modern Greek Departments? The fact that we have permitted to ourselves, and in some cases even facilitated the present situation proves that despite what we may outwardly profess, de facto, at least, learning and speaking Greek further than the usual “yiasou pappou,” is no longer a priority.
The solution then is to make the Greek language a true priority for the members of our community. The first generation laboured in Herculean fashion to found the institutions that would see us as an entity, safe into the future. We cannot squander the 4000 year old written tradition that they sought to preserve. There is absolutely no reason why a functional Greek linguistic standard cannot be achieved by all, given enough community encouragement and commitment to speaking the language amongst ourselves – in contrast with the defeatist tendency we have to lapse into English whenever our competence as Greeks is threatened. For it is only when proficiency is achieved that students with a love of the language will seek to venture into the labyrinthine and unexpected paths of delight that constitutes Greek literature, by studying these at a tertiary level. We need to secure the bedrock, as well as the topsoil and time is of the essence.
Much like Tom Jones, I believe in miracles. Some two hundred years ago, a lone itinerant preacher traversed the length and breadth of Greece preaching a gospel of love and Hellenism. Solely out of his own efforts, through his construction of schools, churches, but mostly through his charisma and perseverance, he was able to inspire and revive within a wayward flock, a love of Hellenism that has never been extinguished. St Kosmas the Aetolian was a saint. His teaching was simple: “Teach your children Greek, for our church and race is Greek. It is better to have a Greek school in your country than springs and rivers.” We are Greek. We must study Greek. His Eminence abjures the need to remind the UNSW of the significance of Hellenism because he knows that it is us that need to be reminded and re-awakened. It is time we discarded the façade and bravely faced the emptiness that beckons beyond it. We have done it before. It must be done again.