Saturday, March 26, 2022



My late uncle Stathis was my first ever contact with Karagiozis. Possessed of a deep, rumbling voice, he would insert of all the great Greek shadow puppet play hero’s catchphrases in all of his sentences, whenever he would address us. Bringing the play beyond the screen and into the real world, he would call me Hatzatzari, Karagiozis’ favourite nickname for his best friend and chief tormentee, Hatziavatis. In the days before DVD’s, Youtube and mobile phones, he would travel to Greece, sit his vast video camera before a flickering TV set and record countless Karagiozis plays to bring back home to us. I was brought up on those barely audible, grainy recordings and even though he is long gone, whenever I think of Karagiozis or try to emulate his voice, which is quite often, since my uncle’s enthusiasm was inordinately infections and hastened by conversion into a devotee of the art of Karagiozis, it is my uncle’s voice I hear, booming in my ear. 

A couple of years ago, inspiring Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria Greek language schools educator Christina Soumi presented an inspired Karagiozis shadow puppet play to my daughter’s class entitled “Karagiozis in Australia.” Enthralled by her art and witnessing the delight of her students, many of whom were encountering my childhood friend for the very first time, I told her: “If ever you need a spare pair of hands, look no further. (Please, pretty please, not to appear needy, but please….)” 

I had tried my hand at writing a few Karagiozis plays in my younger days. While studying Greek at University, I attempted a Brechtian meets Arthur Miller meets Camus existentialist-symbolist take on the genre involving Karagiozis exposing all of the internal contradictions of his paradigm, in turn causing the screen and the puppets to spontaneously combust during the performance. My lecturer at the time, the saintly Anna Chatzinicolaou, handed back the script with a pained smile. In answer to my question seeking her impressions, she muttered hesitantly, “ Well it is what it is, isn’t in?” The script is now buried irrevocably within a mountain of other forgotten works, so deep as to never vex the genre ever again. 

It is for this reason that I rejoiced rather volubly when I received earlier this year, an email request from Christina Soumi for assistance in putting on a Karagiozis play for the students of the GOCMV’s Saturday Greek school. Having been put through the trials of COVID and been denied the annual and now defunct march to the Shrine, it was felt by Ms Soumi and Ms Maria Bakalidou, the principal of the school, that the children deserve something original but spectacular in order to make their Greek national day celebration memorable. A Karagiozis play set in the Revolution would not only introduce this staple of Greek tradition to a new generation but also with any luck, provide a conduit through which concepts such as freedom, human rights and equality could be interrogated and negotiated. I accepted with alacrity, hoping that the intensity of my fervour could not be felt through my nonchalant email response: “Yeah, happy to help.” 

There is a stock scenario involving Karagiozis in the Greek Revolution which is used by schools in Greece and my first suggestion was to reject it utterly. It is preachy. More importantly, it is not funny. It departs from the formulaic order of all Karagiozis plays which gives them structure and lends themselves to the most important attribute of the character himself: his innate ability to subvert the narrative and to expose the flaws within it. It is for this reason that Karagiozis is a perennial and ideal means of satire, for any period. I sought and was granted leave to write my own version. 

Immediately, I was faced with a dilemma. What should the standard of the language be? I was writing for children aged between 4-16, a vast range, even if they all have a good knowledge of Greek. Our team, consisting of Ms Bakalidou, educators Ms Soumi and Ms Petala, drama co-rdinator Katerina Poutachidou and parent, friend and fellow Karagiozis devotee Evan Stamatiou spend a good deal of time discussing the pedagogical benefits of employing various forms of vocabulary, over and above what the children may be used to. For example, the iconic Barba Yiorgos character, being of rural origin, now and then drops idiomatic expressions from my own ancestral village while Karagiozis engages in a good deal of wordplay.  

All these elements were deconstructed by the teachers. They debated the extent and necessity of slapstick within the text. They analysed the suitability of the jokes from a linguistic, socio-cultural and psychological point of view. At all times, they were sensitive to the necessity of presenting a work that instilled in the children pride in their origins, without this translating into racial bias against an erstwhile foe. For me, to witness the immense amount of care taken to hone a production that would be deemed suitable for the students was an intensely humbling experience. It was evident from the outset these superb educators treat their jobs not as mere toil but rather, as a mission, and their love for the children in their care shone in every single word spoken in reference to the play. 

Having agreed upon the play’s final form, it was time to get to work. Dividing the characters between us, it was resolved that the versatile talented polyglot Evan Stamatiou would voice Hatziavatis, Kollitiri, Omorfonios, Philike Etaireia members Panagiotis Sekeris, Dimitrios Ypsilantis, Nikolaos Skoufas, Athanasios Tsakaloff, Bouboulina, Papaflessas, Kolokotronis and Karagiozis’ vengeful wife Agalaia, while I would play Karagiozis, Stavrakas, Emmanouil Xanthos, Dervenagas, Manto Mavrogenous, and Bishop of Old Patras, Germanos.  Whilst meeting to coordinate voices and the timing of delivery, to the delight of our children who have now learned most of the lines by heart through osmosis, I also set about creating the shadow puppets, a painstaking and intricate process that saw me drawing on the features of Kolokotronis while participating in a Professional Development online seminar. All of the puppets are studded with the thumbprints of my children, as they have claimed them for their own and go about the house performing their own plays, as I run after them, for I harbour misgivings about the fastness of the colours I have used.  

By Saturday last, when the indefatigable Evangelos Karakasis brought into the mezzanine floor of the Greek Centre the largest and most cunningly fashioned Karagiozis theatre screen ever created in the Southern Hemisphere, we were ready. From behind the screen, Evan Stamatiou and I, along with Ms Petala and drama teacher Jeremy Artis who were enlisted to assist with the puppeteering could hear the excited voices of the children as they walked in, perused the stage settings and sat down expectantly. All of a sudden, I received an attack of nervousness. At that moment, Dr George Athanasopoulos, who when he is not being an Associate Professor in the Department of Econometrics and Business Statistics at Monash University, is a talented musician, staple of the Melbournian rebetiko scene and a parent at the school, and his son Theodoros, began to play the traditional opening song of every Karagiozis production: the Hasaposerviko of Karagiozi. I picked up my puppet and began to play. 

Over the next forty five or so minutes, the laughter of the children acted as our gauge and we played to their twittering accordingly. In seeking to provide a truly Greek Karagiozis experience, the teachers had provided each child with an υποβρύχιο dessert, vanilla submerged in water and they were thus fed and happy. As we ended the production on a feminist tone, with Karagiozis wife providing him with a new understanding of the word freedom, the cheers and laughter of the children moved us profoundly. We answered questions about the characters, the puppets and watched in awe as the teachers moved the children behind the screen, encouraging them to pick up the puppets and try to bring them to life in awe. 

In producing the play, we were aware that we were walking in the footsteps of giants such as Dimitris Katsoulis, whose Karagiozis puppets are housed by the Victorian Immigration Museum and whose efforts to translate Karagiozis to an Australian environment must be studied and never forgotten. We were also conscious that the sympraxis between the GOCMV educators who conceived of the project and oversaw the minutiae of its execution, the parents such as ourselves, who can variously write, perform, or play music and talented students forms a blueprint for grass-roots, organic, substantive collaboration within our broader community. It encapsulates just how the GOCMV is able to marshal resources and bring people together. 

Ours is a diverse community in which a vast array of interests are represented. In any given week, a large number of events will be held with a social, folkloric or administrative focus. Few of those events will centre upon the most important members of our community: our children. Ours was an event that was not advertised. No dignitaries were invited. There was no opportunity for photographs or speeches. No money was sought from anyone. No one received any praise or glory. Its sole aim was to entertain, delight and teach children, their receptiveness and appreciation being its own incalculable reward. And as the children walked back to their classrooms, yelling «Ε ρε γλέντια» exuberantly, I realised that this was the most fulfilling event within the Greek community, I had ever participated in. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 March 2022

Saturday, March 19, 2022



As my great-grandmother would cook in the kitchen, she would point to the dish she was preparing and say: «Αυτά μας τα μάθνεσκαν οι Αούτσες» (These were taught to us by the Aoutisses). An Aoutissa was a female refugee from Pontus, so named because of their use of the term «αούτο» instead of the ordinary term «τούτο» for “this.” 

It was not a term of endearment but rather was used in a pejorative sense, to denote someone so much an outsider that they could not speak the Greek language properly. As such, they were reviled for their lack of communication skills, their strange customs, their even more incomprehensible cuisine involving such great quantities of yoghurt that they were nicknamed: «γιαουρτοβαπτισμένες» (baptised in yoghurt). Living as they did, on the borderline of starvation, in tents, in the middle of the freezing Epirotic winter and thus prone to disease, they were also considered by many of the natives to be vessels of contagion. Accordingly, they were shunned. It just was not done for people of society to consort with their sort. 

Having lost her parents, a husband and two children, tragedies that placed her on the margins of society, my great-grandmother had no problems in fraternising with the Aoutisses. She observed that despite the parlous conditions in which they lived, (and indeed in many of the refugee villages, proper permanent facilities were not constructed until the fifties) they were almost obsessively clean and immensely dignified. They had knowledge of agricultural techniques unknown to the local inhabitants that resulted in greater efficiency and higher crop yields and their understanding of spices lent zest and interest to the otherwise bland and uninspired cuisine of the region. 

Then there were the dark things that my great-grandmother could not speak about, only hint at obliquely. The young girls that in desperation were sold by their desperate mothers to satiate the lusts of the local menfolk in order to feed their families. The refugees turned prostitutes who haunted a particular part of Ioannina, picking fleas off each other. The young women who were married off to local men and abused their entire lives because they had neither property nor family to give them station or afford them protection. The women who similarly disenfranchised, could not go about their daily business without being harassed by the local men or abused by the local women.  

When we make mention of the women of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, whose century we commemorate this year, our minds conjure up images of ladies experiencing the worst deeds that humans can inflict upon each other: murder, mutilation, torture, forced marches, rape, the loss of children, starvation, absolute terror and removal from one’s homeland. These unspeakably vile deeds were perpetrated by a genocidal regime that determined that the Greek people, among other Christian minorities no longer had a legitimate place in Asia Minor and had to be removed. As such the tragic outcome of the post-war settlement is invariably presented as a clash of civilisations, one in which our own people were vanquished, paying the price for policies that are considered variously as dreams of national fulfilment or imperialism, depending on one’s ideological worldview. Consequently, the traumas experienced by women are contextualised either as collateral damage or, more often, as proof of the barbarity of the perpetrator. In this scenario, the forced expulsion to Greece, however painful, is presented as a type of homecoming, in the sense that though wounded and broken, the women of the Catastrophe were able to find a refuge. 

This is especially so in the diasporic anglosphere, where the word refugee derives ultimately from the French for “hiding place,” a term that in turn comes from the Latin “place to flee back to.” In Greek, however, the πρόσφυγας, is he who flees towards a place or person. The element of that place already granting a sense of belonging so as to lend itself to a return is conspicuously absent. Not only were the women of Asia Minor thus carrying with them the anguish of their harrowing experiences, they were fleeing to a place that was largely unknown to them. In that place, their gender would render them vulnerable once more. 

«Μ' έχουν τρελό τα χάδια σου έμορφη χαϊδεμένη αχ Σμυρνιοπούλα μου γλυκιά και μικροπαντρεμένη,» (Your caresses make me crazy, my sweet, young-married, beautiful, pampered girl from Smyrna), proclaim the lyrics of a rebetiko song of the period. In his famous book “Orientalism”, Edward Said argued that the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not.  He examined how these attitudes have traditionally woven themselves through art where Eastern cultures and particularly women are presented as alien, exotic, and subversive. 

Within Greece, the process is more acute considering that the country occupies a liminal sphere between East and West and it is fascinating how mainland Greeks, who in no way would be considered as Western by the “West,” entered into the paradigm, imagining the female refugees from Asia Minor and especially from Smyrna as coming from a foreign land of sex, excess and exciting exotic experiences. 

Complicating the paradigm is the fact that Smyrna in Asia Minor was perhaps the most European of the cities inhabited by Greeks. In that polity, Greeks rubbed shoulders with the French, English and other European traders, espoused modern European modes of dress and engaged in European cultural pastimes such as the Opera, Theatres and Classical Music concerts. In that environment, the women of Smyrna mixed more freely with members of the opposite sex than was the case with the cloistered women of the Greek mainland, were, because of the culture of the city and the relative wealth of its inhabitants, better educated, more outspoken and relatively less inclined to passively allow their lives to be determined by the men in their family. 

These traits, which in other times would be deemed to be progressive, were considered subversive in Greece and especially among many women. Smyrnan refugees women recall being cast in the role of the “slut” by the local inhabitants in the areas in which they settled. True to the orientalist stereotype, local men believed that the women of Asia Minor were naturally lascivious and more sexually available, a prejudice reflected both in song lyrics and also by the fact that having had musical training, they were more prominent in the public music scene, which was considered decadent and morally ambiguous by the native inhabitants of the region. Similarly, there are accounts of local women hurling abuse at refugee women as they went about their daily tasks, as it was considered that their salacious ways would result in the seduction of their menfolk. As contemporary writer Asimakis Panselinos wrote: "When in 1922 the ladle of history poured the women of Asia Minor and Smyrna all over Greece, a hue and cry arose: "they take our men" as if the country was a canteen that had an obligation to supply men, only to local women.” 

Even the advanced housekeeping skills and domestic hygiene of the refugee women were suborned in order to feed the stereotype. The overly clean refugees were referred to as «πατρικές» literally meaning “clean” but in fact alluding to a “dirtiness” in moral fibre. Comparing them against the “virginal” and “demure” native ladies of Athens, writer Kostas Ouranis, in his infamous 1923 article “Women of Athens,” entrenched the derogatory stereotype further, even divesting them of their gender altogether, opining: “These women are either meaninglessly romantic or terribly flirtatious… they have something common and vulgar… They have no nobility… no instinct of subtlety. They are not "ladies". They are female. The climate of the East has made them soft, fleshy and flirtatious. And from Europe they have taken moral laxitude - and maybe nothing else… They do not have the instinct of the polite women towards the vulgar and the humble […] they love gossip, double entendres and dirty jokes.” 

Rather than being aroused by pity, Ouranis is clearly aroused in other ways by the refugee women who “go about with their arms and necks bare… having something of a Rubens model with long eyelashes… which stir the passions, attract mouth-watering attention to and awaken sudden desires.” Instead of understanding the trauma of their expulsion, he casts them in the role of invaders, instead of victims of catastrophe, harbingers of cataclysm: "These are the women who appear everywhere in today's Athens…the ones who set the tone.. are the women of the East. The young Athenian woman…. has been lost in this flood of women from Ionia and the Bosphorus…” 

Economic, sexual and professional exploitation of refugee women was rife in post 1922 Greece. Commenting on a photograph of refugee girls posted on the Internet, the daughter of a survivor commented ominously: “That reminds me of my mother’s story and the stories she told me about the lengths they had to go to secure some bread.” As we solemnly commemorate the centenary of the 1922 Catastrophe, let us facilitate a full and frank discussion not only of the trials and tribulations of the women of Asia Minor before their expulsion but also the immense challenges they faced in re-settling in their place of refuge. Their successful integration within Greek society against all odds and the manner in which they transformed Modern Greek culture in the process deserve to be studied deeply, but most of all, celebrated. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 March 2022

Saturday, March 12, 2022



They found Stella dead in her living room, slumped over her armchair, in the afternoon. She had been dead for less than a day. When the police took her body away, they figured that the last person she had spoken to, was a friend, who had called the night before to see how she was going. Her glasses and a notepad were on the table beside her. The notepad was blank, as if there was nothing further to add, no reminders necessary and the spectacles neatly folded at a right angle. Nothing to see here. 

Stella was only seventy-five but visiting her home some days after her passing, it seemed as if she had inhabited her home for aeons. The rooms had a dense, aged, timeless feel, arranged according to an order predetermined so long ago that their arcane logic was now incomprehensible. Canvasses rested against the wall of the hallway, for Stella was a gifted artist, portraying the same themes, in the same naïve style, an hierophant uttering oracles concerning the present and future in a language of the past, employing glyphs once known only by the initiates and now merely echoing in the desolation of an abandoned temple. 

Framed examples of faded embroidery jostle for position on the walls with souvenirs from Greece: copper pots incised with the Meander key, plates bearing ancient Greek motifs, reproductions of archaic theatre masks and traditional oil lamps. These must have been brought back from the motherland by her husband on one of his frequent trips, or sent as presents by relatives. Stella never travelled. On the front wall, eclipsed by the light diffused by the curtains hanging in the window, a burnished icon of the Panagia gazes solemnly into nothingness. Nothing to see here. 

A few dusty photographs in corroded frames rest here and there, to attest to the rites of passage of life. Stella and Christos, her husband. Some grainy images of family members and a half-remembered childhood left behind. Stella can no longer explain who they are. On the far wall, above the bookshelves groaning under the weight of encyclopaedias, dictionaries and works of Greek literature, a photograph of her daughter Labrina on her graduation day. The image is obscured by dust but true to her name, she appears as luminous as a celestial being. It is proper and right that this is so, for she left us in 2006 after a battle with cancer and is now an angel. Stella had been broken ever since. 

Next to the fireplace there is a zither, an instrument barely played by anyone these days. Alone of the articles in the room, it is the only one not covered even in one grain of dust. Its tinny strummings consoled Stella as she mourned for her daughter and bore the burden of her silence after her husband was admitted into care. Next to it, above the mantlepiece, is a self-portrait of Stella as a young woman. She is breathtakingly beautiful. Yet as her blue eyes gaze at the viewer, one immediately comes to the realisation that these are not the eyes of youth. These eyes are expressionless. They do not wish to give any hint of the darkness, the pain and the desperation that is to come. They give away nothing. There is nothing to see here. 

I know Stella’s kitchen. It is my grandmother’s kitchen, my great-aunt’s kitchen and the kitchen of all Greek migrants of the sixties. Except that Stella never did make it big and move out into the outer suburbs in search of a larger backyard and even greater respectability. The high, stark walls loom precipitously over wooden cabinets from the nineteen thirties. They are lined with the traditional copper pots and utensils once used by the long departed. Inside the drawers, there are knives whose edges have been honed away by decades of sharpening and ancient forks with non-aligned prongs, for Stella was ever the nonconformist. There is still food in the fridge and fruit in the fruit bowl. She was expecting us. 

I do not enter the bedroom. Floor to ceiling wardrobes entomb the secrets of her adornment and the bed takes up almost all the available space in the small room. In the gloom, I discern a couple of blankets, neatly folded. The scent of my mother’s glory box, opened rarely throughout the years re-emerges despite my conviction that it had been lost forever, and pervades this room. This is an abaton and I cannot violate its sanctity. I recede in reverence and awe as a friend enters, seeking the appropriate attire in which to dress Stella for her final journey. 

Like many old inner-city homes, the toilet, bathroom and laundry are to be found outside. These are liminal realms between the motherland and the adopted country: they could plausibly exist in their current form in both places contemporaneously. Yellowed newspapers, rusty old tools carefully preserved lie piled in a corner. A bronze sheep’s bell hangs from the wall. I turn on the tap and it groans as if in pain. Some drops of water spill out and then nothing. There is nothing to wash here. 

Stella lies as a ravaged queen in state in her coffin in Agia Triada church in Richmond. I help to carry the coffin inside, marvelling at its heaviness. It is trite to say that she is at peace. She looks tired and fed up. The members of the congregation enter the church slowly, one after the other and gaze mutely at her coffin. All of these, bar very few, are her elderly neighbours from the Richmond area. 

“We have known each other for a lifetime,” one of the old ladies, dressed formally in an overcoat despite the heat, informs me. “Those were great days when we were young. Every single street in Richmond had a Greek family. We shared our lives together. And one by one we are going. Few of us are left. Where our houses were full of life, now they are empty, silent tombstones. The ones of us that are left, are like ghosts, lingering until our time too is up. No one remembers us.” 

One of the mourners is in his fifties. He too is a neighbour. Despite his work and family commitments, he would ensure that he visited Stella every day to make sure that she was taking her medication and to provide her with some company. The year before last, observing her once immaculate garden reverting to a primordial state, he pulled up her overgrown paving stones slumbering under layers of dirt and re-paved the entire front yard. “I grew up in and among these people,” he shrugs. “We are always there for each other.” 

The noted absence of the vast majority of Stella’s husband’s political and community associates is fitting. Nothing should draw attention to the commanding presence of Stella, before the icons of the iconostasis. The eyes of the characters in the wall frescoes gaze serenely down upon her from their lofty positions. These illustrate the parables of Jesus, cautionary tales relating to lives always fleeting. The names of the families who have dedicated the frescoes are inscribed below for posterity yet they are too far away for me to make them out. The few names I am able to decipher after squinting, are unknown to me. They are long gone. I turn my face in the direction of the gaze of the icons. There is nothing to see there. 

«Δεῦτε τελευταῖον ἀσπασμόν» (Come, kiss for the last time), the priest intones and one by one the mourners shuffle past Stella. Some of them murmur endearments to her. Others stroke her face lovingly. I touch her hands, the hands whose music enthralled generations of children and wielded paintbrushes to masterly effect, in a symbolic language of colour and parable all of their own but, still frozen, they do not yield at my touch. She does not look at me and allows me to file past unacknowledged. There is nothing to see here. 

We follow Stella outside the church in her final procession. Her neighbours congregate around the hearse making comments such as “We are next,” or «Καλό ταξίδι». Most are making arrangements to arrange lifts for the long drive towards the cemetery. When the hearse finally pulls away from the church, almost everyone is gone, either back to their homes, or rushing to join the funeral cortege. An old lady wipes away her tears and asks: “What time are they all coming back for refreshments?” 

That evening, I drive past Stella’s house. The asphalt is steaming and the twilight is one of those interminably hot, long drawn-out paeans to the summer sun shuddering in its death throes. The shadows lengthen and I can almost make out her silhouette behind the curtain, seated at the front widow. From the pathway, I glimpse the overhanging branches of the pomegranate tree laden with fruit, sustenance for the terminal destination. Tomorrow, everything will be as the day before and the day before that, save that this house will no longer know the occupants who have defined it for the past fifty years. At ten o’clock, an elderly neighbour will shuffle past and cross herself as she sets forth in search of bread and milk. I execute a U-Turn and drive away. There is nothing to see here anymore. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 March 2022

Saturday, March 05, 2022



The last free Greek territory to succumb to the Ottomans was the Principality of Theodoro, in the Crimea in 1475. Since time immemorial, the lands of Ukraine and Southern Russia, currently enmeshed in the throes of conflict, have loomed large in the consciousness of the Greek people, symbolising variously, the wild, the untameable, but also, freedom, safety and opportunity. Indeed, the very idea of a renascent free Greek state was conceived and planned by Greek expatriates, not in Greece itself, but in Odessa, named after the ancient Greek colony that once existed in its environs. As such, the Greek identity as it has evolved over the millenia is inextricably tied to the lands across the Euxine Sea.

In times ancient, the lands now afflicted by war were the personification of remoteness and were termed Hyperborea, that is, “beyond the North Wind." It’s mythical inhabitants, the Hyperboreans, were considered by the ancient Greeks to have lived blissful lives under eternal sunshine. The fierce female race of the Amazons, were placed by Herodotus in exactly the same region, known then as Sarmatia, while the Crimea, known to the Greeks as Tauris was considered the home of the tribes who took the daughter of Agamemnon, Iphigenia prisoner, after her sacrifice at the commencement of the Trojan War.

The region also received some of the earliest of Greek colonies as far back as 750BC. In the Crimea and beyond, Greek colonists were compelled to negotiate and re-imagine their cultural identity in conversation with the native Scythian tribes of the region. What emerged was a remarkable hybrid, vibrant and nuanced multicultural civilisation, unique in nature, that led to the establishment of the Bosporan Kingdom, an entity that endured, in semi-independence, throughout Roman times. When Dio Chrysostom of Prousa in Asia Minor visited the kingdom in 96AD, he was as astonished to find its inhabitants dressed in classical Greek attire, sporting beards, quoting Homer and discussing Plato, as an Athenian Greek is today when visiting Melbourne and seeing us perform folkloric dances in traditional costume. It can thus be seen that these peripheral regions were therefore the first to articulate an alternative form of Hellenism, one that has relevance to all diasporic Greek communities today.

In the Byzantine times the Crimea was considered a place of exile and also of refuge for fallen Constantinopolitan grandees. The unhinged Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetus planned his return to the throne and acts of revenge on the citizens that had dethroned him from Crimea and it was from this region that the marauding Rus descended upon the Empire, besieging Constantinople on a number of occasions. Yet, there was also military cooperation between the Byzantines and the Rus. In 965 AD there were 16,000 Crimean Greeks in the joint Byzantine and Rus army which invaded Bulgaria. The cultural and economic discourse between our two peoples would culminate in the conversion of the Rus to Christianity. According to lore, that conversion was precipitated by the Rus’s awe of Byzantine culture, exemplified by the testimony of their emissaries upon their visit to Constantinople, who were spellbound.

The Church of Holy Wisdom in Kiev, featuring some of the finest mosaics ever to have been created by Byzantine craftsmen, was modelled upon the Great Church in Constantinople and the post of Metropolitan bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church was with few exceptions, held by a Byzantine Greek all the way to the fifteenth century. It is trite to mention that the Cyrillic script, still used in Russia and Ukraine, has its origins among the Greek missionaries who adapted the Greek alphabet to the phonology of the Slavonic languages.

The concept of Byzantium was key to providing the ideological underpinning for the formation of the Russian Empire. It was only with the marriage of Byzantine princess Sophia Palaiologina to Tsar Ivan III of Russia, that the Muscovite political theory of the Third Rome, positing Moscow as the legitimate successor to Rome and Byzantium, could be developed.

During Ottoman times, the region was a haven for Greeks fleeing tyranny. As the Russian Empire expanded into the Ukraine, expelling the descendants of the Golden Horde and their Ottoman suzerains, Greeks were encouraged to settle in the region, through tax and other concessions, with Catherine the Great purposely either restoring the ancient Greek names to the settlements she had conquered, or founding new settlements for Greek migrants. Showing just how intermingled Russian foreign policy was with the legacy of the Greek people, Catherine’s ulterior motive was to use them as a jumping off point for the capture of Constantinople and the resuscitation of the Byzantine Empire, with her grandson Constantine as Emperor.

In the meantime, thousands of Greeks flocked to the region and made lasting contributions to the development of modern Ukraine and Russia. Countless Greek clerics, soldiers and diplomats such as Ioannis Kapodistrias found employment in the region while Greek merchants came to make use of privileges that were extended to them in Ottoman-Russian trade, including the ability to trade under the protection of the Russian flag. The ill-fated Orlov revolt, an early attempt at a Russian-sponsored Greek revolution also had its genesis in the region. So pervasive was the Greek influence in the area that local Ukrainians and Russians began to learn Greek and were educated in the local Greek schools, the writer Anton Chekhov among them. Of course, it is arguable that if it was not for the stability, safety and economic opportunities provided in the area that allowed Greeks to flourish, quite possibly, the Philiki Etaireia, which proved the catalyst for the Declaration of Greek Independence, may have never existed.

From the time of the Greek Revolution, the northern Black Sea littoral continued its role as a place of refuge. The Russian Empire permitted refugees fleeing the depredations of the Ottomans who were trying to put down the revolutionaries to stay in the region and its inhabitants raised large sums to aid the revolutionaries and redeem Greek captive slaves. With the onset of the genocide of the Greeks of Pontus, the region would provide refuge to hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks fleeing slaughter and they would flourish in the region, especially in the Donbas, creating a lively local culture, even adapting their alphabet to the phonology of their distinct dialect, that of Marioupolis, although the ill fated 1919 participation of Greece in an allied expedition to remove the Bolsheviks from the region cast the community as politically suspect. The culmination of this was Stalin’s 1937 “Greek Operation” which saw the deportation of hundreds of thousands of them from the Crimea and southern Ukraine, to the gulags and the Central Asian republics. Nonetheless, the Greek community endured, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov having a Greek step-father from the region, and successfully created valuable conduits of communication with the motherland and other diasporan communities since the fall of the Soviet Union.

There are still 150,000 citizens of Greek descent living in the contested regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, the epicentre of the current conflict. They are at particular risk because their homes are in the conflict zone. Further, as is always the case with ethnic minorities in times of trouble, they are particularly vulnerable because, not naturally belong to either “side,” their loyalty is held in question by all, their status as the oldest continuous ethnic community living in the area is impugned  and they can be subjected to ill treatment with impunity.

Here in Australia, a convivial, democratic country which purports to celebrate diversity,  welcomes people of all nations to its shores and actively encourages the cultural events in which we manifest our identity, it is often difficult for us to conceive that in many places around the world, it is not so easy to be Greek. We would do well not to take our privileges for granted. Unlike us, the ‘native’ Greeks of the Crimea and the Donbas have inhabited the region in which they live for millenia. Immediate commitments from all sides must be obtained for their protection. In the meantime our hearts go out to them and to the beleaguered Russian and Ukrainian peoples who we love dearly and who are bound to us by the insoluble ties of kinship, culture and historical experience. For if there is one thing that our sojourn in Scythia, Sarmatia and beyond has taught us, it is this: that if there is any meaning in the region, it is as a realm of safety, not of strife, as a haven, not a living hell and it is hoped that those who incite and seek in armed conflict, the solutions to problems, will learn this before it is too late.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 March 2022