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