The city of Mariupol, sieged by Russian troops for more than two months, was the core of the Greek Ukrainian community for centuries. The future of this community is now more uncertain than ever
"What I saw, I hope no one will ever see. Mariupol is Guernica, Grozny, Velingrad, Aleppo. Mariupol is no more".The statements of Greek Consul General in Mariupol Manolis Androulakis, made soon after his repatriation, portray the extent of the destruction. Upon his arrival in Athens on March 20th, Androulakis was hailed as a hero. He was the last European diplomat to flee the war zone, working until the last minute to aid the Greek diaspora.
In the last days of February, as Russian troops had already advanced towards Mariupol from parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists, the Greek diplomatic authorities set up an evacuation plan to extract diplomatic staff, journalists, and Greek nationals. Even in the last moments, there was a diplomatic hope that the Greeks of Mariupol would be somehow spared from attacks; this expectation was rooted not only in the longstanding friendship and cooperation between Greece and Russia, but also in alleged reassurances that Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias had received by his counterpart Sergey Lavrov during their meeting on February 18th in Moscow.
On March 2nd, the evacuation convoy, headed by Ambassador Fragkiskos Kostellenos, set off from the city of Zaporizhia, approximately 300km northwest of Mariupol, initially with 82 passengers and 21 vehicles, to which more were added along the way. The exit from the martyred city was a risky operation, as the convoy had to stop and change course several times under the threat of Russian tanks, destroyed roads, and bombed bridges. Passing through shattered villages and ghost cities, the Greek caravan eventually reached Moldova, leaving behind several diaspora Greeks who continue an uneven fight to survive amid extreme hardship.
The historic and cultural importance of the Greek presence in Mariupol
In early days, Ukrainia was in close contact with the Greek colonies on the shores of the Black Sea. Some Greek blood flows in the veins of the Ukrainians, manifesting itself in their charming sunburnt faces and their graceful movements.
This is an excerpt from the biography of great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, written by his daughter Aimée. It illustrates in the most poetic way how the history and nature of the Ukrainian nation is intertwined with the Hellenic spirit.
Unlike other Greek diaspora communities, which are the products of economic migration, particularly in the last century, the Hellenic presence in Ukraine, and in particular the Azov region, where most Greeks lived until recently, goes back to Antiquity. According to historical sources, ancient Tauris, the region of present-day Crimea, was inhabited by Greeks from the 7th to the 6th century BC. Greek-state colonies were founded possibly for reasons of commerce and influence; in the following centuries, Greeks secured their position in the region.
Hellenic presence survived in modern history. During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Greeks from the Aegean islands and the Turkish coasts of the Black Sea settled in Crimea. After the fall of Constantinople, the area remained under the control of the Ottomans for 300 years. Following the decline of the Ottoman empire and the signing of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774, Russia annexed the region of Crimea to its territory. By order ofCzarina Catherine II, Orthodox Christian Greeks were transferred to the Azov Sea region, where they founded the city of Mariupol in honour of Virgin Mary.
Throughout the years, Mariupol grew into a vibrant hub of Hellenism. Right before the war, Greek language would be taught in primary and secondary schools, but also at the Humanitarian State University of Mariupol. There were 29 Greek villages and 150,000 inhabitants of Greek origin, the majority of which married to other nationals. Unlike other diaspora communities, who are keen to preserve their ‘purity of blood’ through intra-ethnic marriages, mixed marriages have been a trend and a conscious choice among the Greeks of the Azov region, as researcher Kira Kaurinkoski illustrates in her studies: for many ethnic Greeks, marrying a person of a different ethnic background is a way of feeling socially ‘accepted’ and bearing children who would have more opportunities in life simply by belonging to ‘a people with a recognised territory’.
Another element differentiating the Greek diaspora of Mariupol from other Greek communities around the world is language. Except for the standard Greek, there is also the ‘Mariupol Greek’ dialect, called roumeika. Moreover, there are ethnic Greeks who speak a Turkish dialect, called Urum. If one were to study the linguistic mosaic of Greeks in the wider region of Crimea, they would discover other dialects too, such as the Pontic Greek, now spoken mainly by the elderly population.
An uncertain future
Under the current circumstances, the future of Hellenism in Mariupol is uncertain. Mariupol today is a ghost of its glorious past. The Greeks who have remained are struggling to save their land and prevent the overall extinction of their heritage and identity.
In an emotional letter of appeal to the international community and Greeks all over the globe, published on the international media in the second week of March under the title ‘Save us’, Alexandra Protsenko-Pichadzhi, President of the Federation of Greek Communities of Ukraine, describes the humanitarian catastrophe that Mariupol has been experiencing, as the city has been left without water, electricity, or communications. Citing the killing of Greeks by Russian troops and the destruction of Greek villages, Protsenko speaks of ‘genocide’ and calls for help inorganising a “corridor for the evacuation of the Greeks from the settlements surrounded by the enemy and the provision of humanitarian assistance’.
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