How Russia’s war has harmed Ukraine’s ethnic Greek minority

Most ethnic Greeks lived in the city of Mariupol, but some have died and many were displaced by Russia’s constant bombardment.

An Orthodox Christian priest talks to train passengers in Mariupol, Ukraine, in 2019 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
An Orthodox Christian priest talks to train passengers in Mariupol, Ukraine, in 2019 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Natalia Harakoz died in early May, in the basement of her apartment building in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

The 86-year-old writer had relocated to the subterranean shelter after Russian shelling destroyed her apartment and large library, where the shelves included books she had written in her native Greek, describing the life of Ukraine’s Greek diaspora.

The first was published in 1989, when perestroika reforms abolished Communist-era censorship and gave Ukraine’s ethnic Greeks a voice and a chance to rediscover their collective Odyssey.

Her final book was released in 2013, a year before Russia annexed Crimea, the homeland of her community’s forefathers.

“Crimea” and “Russia” are key words in the history of the Mariupol Greeks, whose diaspora was the former Soviet Union’s largest – 80,000 strong says official data, or at least three times larger, according to community leaders.

They were the third-largest ethnic group in the southeastern Donetsk region after Ukrainians and Russians, but the war destroyed and uprooted their community.

The chaos of the Mariupol battle made it impossible to know exactly how Harakoz died. But in the early weeks of Russia’s war on Ukraine, foreign ministry officials in Athens said they were “appalled” that Russian bombardment had killed several ethnic Greeks near Mariupol, as they summoned Moscow’s envoy.

An ethnic Greek woman sells dried fish at a market in Mariupol, Ukraine, in 2019 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
An ethnic Greek woman sells dried fish at a market in Mariupol, Ukraine, in 2019 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

“Many died, many were forced to leave,” Mykola Akhbash, an ethnic Greek police officer told Al Jazeera.

He compared the war-inflicted damage with the Stalinist-era “Greek operation” to purge the community’s intellectual elite and force others into shame and silence about their heritage and ethnicity.

“It is actually being repeated,” said Akhbash, who fled Yalta, his home village near Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, on February 25, the day after the war began.

His former police colleagues who stayed behind were tortured as Russians and Moscow-backed separatists coerced them to switch sides, he said.

‘Fooled by Russia’

Almost 250 years ago, tens of thousands of ethnic Greeks arrived from Crimea in horse-driven wagons and by foot in what is now Donets.

They called it the City of Holy Mary – Mariupol.

Czarist Russia needed them to work the fertile and resource-rich lands it seized from Crimean khans, a Mongol dynasty that adopted Islam and a Turkic language.

Some Crimean Greeks also switched to Turkic in their daily life, but retained their Orthodox Christian faith.

Others kept speaking Greek – but peppered their speech with Turkic words and often had Turkic last names.

“They are one people with a common history, culture, religion and two languages,” Oleksandr Rybalko, a linguist and self-described language activist, told Al Jazeera.

Linguist Oleksandr Rybalko shows a book in a Greek dialect spoken in Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Linguist Oleksandr Rybalko shows a book in a Greek dialect spoken in Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Greeks have had toeholds in southern Crimea and on the coast of the Black and Azov seas since at least 700 BC – mostly to export wheat from inland areas. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus even thought that the Sea of Azov divided Europe and Asia.

But Russia needed them inland. It attracted Crimean Greeks to future Donetsk with the promise of free land, tax breaks, freedom from conscription and other perks.

Mariupol became their biggest city, their “nest, centre, capitol,” Rybalko said, while their villages mushroomed all over Donetsk.

In a generation or two, the perks were abolished in what became a pattern of relationship between the Russian government and the Greek diaspora.

“In the end, the Greeks were fooled,” said police officer Akhbash, whose last name means “white head” in Turkic.

‘Olives and tunics’

He grew up mostly speaking Russian – and learned Greek from his grandmother, elderly neighbours and high school teacher, one of a handful of Greek nationals Athens dispatched to Donetsk in the 1990s.

The modern-day Greek that Akhbash studied with his teacher was different from the five archaic dialects spoken by Ukrainian Greeks.

“Our language was canned and kept shrinking, it didn’t develop on the common Greek level,” Akhbash said.

He writes poems in his dialect and works with linguists to promote the language among younger Greeks.

But his enthusiasm is rare.

Most youngsters do not know their forefathers’ tongue – mostly because of the insistence on Russian in Soviet times.

“I know a couple of phrases. My parents didn’t speak Greek either,” Elena Fomaidi, a 24-year-old cashier at a fast-food restaurant in central Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.

They also know little about their history apart from what is written in school textbooks about ancient Greece and the role of the Byzantine Empire in the conversion of eastern Slavs, the future Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians, to Christianity.

“Many have an understanding that there was ancient Greece, olives and tunics,” Akhbash said. “It’s funny to observe festivals where they are trying to impersonate Greek gods, roll out amphoras.”

Some are even confused about the names their Greek-speaking and Turkic-speaking ethnic kin use to call themselves – Rumeis or Urums, respectively.

Both words mean “Roman,” and they are not a curious oddity, but a key to Moscow’s main post-Soviet ideology.

‘The Third Rome’

The tiny principality of Moscow grew under the aegis of the Mongols who controlled most of eastern Europe.

Moscow adopted tactics such as hyper-centralised rule, the ruthless squashing of regional autonomy and dissent.

But after overthrowing the Mongol “yoke” – or rulers – the Muscovites sought to boost their prestige among other Christians.

So, the great princes of Moscow adopted the title “czar,” or “Caesar,” after the emperors of Rome and its eastern Orthodox Christian successor – the Greek Byzantine Empire, whose residents called themselves “Romans.”

Since the “Second Rome, Constantinople, fell to Ottoman Turks, the czars dubbed Russia the “Third Rome”.

Even in the waning days of the Russian Empire, during World War I, they dreamed of seizing Istanbul and the straits because of Russia’s “historic right”.

The term regained popularity after the 1991 Soviet collapse as the Kremlin revived the Orthodox Church – and eventually turned it into a key ideological ally that approves almost every step taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, Moscow Patriarch Kirill started propagating the conception of the “Russian World,” a “civilisation” rooted in the Byzantine Empire’s religious and political principles.

Born Vladimir Gundyayev and known for his penchant for exorbitantly expensive wristwatches and luxury, the patriarch adopted the name “Kirill” after the Byzantine Greek monk who had invented the Cyrillic alphabet still used in Russia and Ukraine.

The Kremlin borrowed Kirill’s ideology and presented it as a transnational “unity” of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who need Moscow’s “protection”.

Putin used it to justify the annexation of Crimea, the backing of Russian-speaking separatists in Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk – and this year’s invasion of Ukraine.

Crimea was of paramount importance to Moscow because there, circa 988 AD, Greek monks baptised Putin’s namesake, Great Prince Vladimir, who ruled most of what is now Ukraine and western Russia.

Many Ukrainian Greeks, the scions of the “Second Rome,” welcomed the concept of “The Russian World”.

And then, “The Russian World” broke into their world, turning Mariupol into a smouldering ruin where at least 22,000 civilians were killed by Russian shelling, according to Ukrainian authorities.

There are no statistics about how many ethnic Greeks died during the siege or ended up in Russia as part of Moscow’s “evacuation” efforts.

It is also unclear how many stayed in the city that reportedly has had no running water, electricity and basic healthcare since it was captured by Russian forces. They live next to the bodies of their neighbours and kin hastily buried in backyards or decaying in collapsed buildings.

The invasion appears to have shell-shocked and silenced the Greeks. Several community leaders and members refused Al Jazeera’s requests for interviews.

While many of their villages throughout Donetsk remain untouched by the hostilities, the war upended their cultural capital.

“What Greeks face is that Mariupol is no longer a place where they are concentrated,” Akhbash concluded. “It’s a huge blow to our people.”

Source: Al Jazeera