NEWS

Greek communities outlive empire and USSR

From the 10th century up until 1917, the Greeks and the Russians shared a common destiny, and the participation of the Russians was a crucial determinant in helping the Greeks achieve their national goals. Russia became a second home for many Greeks after the fall of Byzantium. The period 1938-1948, however, was traumatic for the Greeks of Russia and the USSR. Thousands of Greeks were uprooted by the new regime from their homes on the Black Sea or other southern parts of the USSR; they were loaded onto trains in a reprehensible manner and were exiled to Siberia and Central Asia. Many perished from the adverse circumstances but most managed to restart their lives. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the relations between Greece, the ex-USSR countries and the diaspora entered a new era. Greece has been rediscovering the diaspora Greeks and is attempting to revitalize her relations with the other peoples of the former USSR. The post-Soviet period, however, was a painful one. Millions of ex-Soviet citizens were forced to move within and between the 15 successor states of the USSR, uprooted by armed conflict or other crises. Thousands of Greeks were also forced to abandon their homes and to seek their new fates in Greece. Greece did whatever possible in order to satisfy their needs and to support them by adopting procedures for prompt repatriation and by organizing extensive operations, such as «Golden Fleece» in Abkhazia in 1993. The Greek population of the Russian Empire in 1917 numbered approximately 750,000. A great number of Russian Greeks left for Greece after the October Revolution, while another substantial number left during the first purges of 1937-39. Several estimates have been made regarding the precise number of people of Greek descent living in the USSR at the time it broke up. According to the census conducted in 1989, this number was estimated at 370,000. According to Greeks themselves, however, this number exceeded 700,000 and was probably 1 million. Other sources have estimated the Greeks of the USSR at 500,000, spread over the various countries as follows: 120,000 in Ukraine, 110,000 in Georgia, 120,000 in Russia, 57,000 in Kazakhstan, 15,000 in Uzbekistan, 7,500 in Armenia, 3,000 in Kirghizia, as well as smaller numbers in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, and other areas. Origins The origins of the Greek diaspora in the USSR vary. Many Greeks also emigrated to Russia after the fall of the Byzantine Empire and soon they became important factors in religious, cultural, economic, military and diplomatic life. Others are descendants of the 18th century immigrants who were invited by Catherine the Great to inhabit the northern shores of the Black Sea when they became part of the Russian Empire. Other Greek immigrants headed for Russia after the Russian-Turkish wars that took place during the last half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. A great number of them are the descendants of Pontian refugees who were forced to abandon their homes in Asia Minor between the years 1917 and 1923. After the collapse of the USSR, a large number of Greeks (about 150,000) opted to return to their historic motherland. Many were forced to abandon their homes and to seek new lives in Greece due to social crises, the civil wars and other grave problems that developed. Others sought a better life, a better perspective, in their mother country. Diaspora Greeks were characterized by a strong attachment to their history and tradition. Thus, even the terminology coined to express the «return» to Greece was palinnostisi (repatriation) although not correct and precise, as most came to the Tsarist empire from Asia Minor and the historic Pontus. In conjunction with these population movements to Greece, internal migrations were taking place within the countries of the former Soviet Union. Many Greeks from Georgia, Armenia and Central Asia moved to the Russian Federation. An estimated 9 million people have moved within the post-Soviet area since 1989, prompted by a number of different reasons. The diaspora Greeks have consistently shown the same admirable ability to endure, adapt, and persevere, despite the various difficulties they have had to face. Whether or not they lived among people who held the same beliefs, whether they chose the place they were living in or whether they were exiled there, they never failed to display these admirable traits. Their presence has always been positive and productive. The diaspora Greeks have been and continue to be industrious and friendly. As a result, the Greeks have been welcomed by all other nationalities. Their position in local societies was strengthened by the renown of certain Greek figures, such as the ex-mayor of Moscow, Gabriel Popov, the archaeologist Victor Sariyiannidis, the philosopher Theocharis Kessidis and the musician Odysseas Demetriades, in addition to many others. The presence, importance and role of the Greek communities was also manifest after 1991. Diaspora Greeks were elected to Parliament at both a local and national level; they became involved in the academic community, and they eventually excelled in business affairs on a national level. However, the harsh reality of everyday life in Greece for those who opted for repatriation, in conjunction with the limited opportunities that the country had to offer, was a slight disappointment for the first repatriates. But this disappointment was short-lived, because due to their given ability to conform to circumstances, they were able to adapt quickly to their new environment. First post-Soviet crises The first post-Soviet period was followed by wars between the former Soviet states by separatist movements, civil wars, and by extended political and social crises. The Greeks who lived in such areas of conflict were direct or indirect victims of these crises. The conflict in Abkhazia, which broke out in 1992, has had 30,000 victims. It also has led to the internal displacement of 270,000 people, while a further 80,000 have fled to Russia and other CIS states. The war also caused the shrinking of the once-flourishing diaspora in Sukhumi, even though the Greeks were never persecuted by either side. The years 1992 and 1993 marked the third great exodus of Greeks heading from Abkhazia toward Greece and Russia. More than 17,000 Greeks lived there before the war. The protracted war involving Armenia and Azerbaijan on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in thousands of people being killed and more than 1.5 million becoming refugees and internally displaced persons. Many Greeks left Armenia at the time. The hostilities and reprisals between North Ossetia and Ingushetia in Ossetia produced between 40,000-60,000 Ingushetian refugees, almost all of whom fled to Ingushetia. In Moldova, violence flared up in Transnistria in 1992, following the secession of Gagauzia and Transnistria. The problem of the political status or the «Transdnister Republic» has yet to be decided. In Chechnya, the two bloody wars had disastrous repercussions. Prior to the establishment of the Doudayev regime there were approximately 550 Greeks living in Chechnya. Many of them had however already abandoned the area before the onset of the first war due to the «Islamification» of the region and the regime’s fundamentalism. On the eve of the first war, 1994-1996, 250 Greeks lived there. In Central Asia, the long and bloody civil war in Tajikistan resulted in 60,000 victims, 700,000 displaced persons and 270,000 refugees. No social or political crisis has threatened the Greek population in the other countries of Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, where the diaspora Greeks numbered 60,000. However, more than half of them left the area after the collapse of the USSR. A substantial number returned to their homes on the Black Sea coast, while others sought a better fortune by being repatriated to Greece. A reason for their flight was the widespread sense of uncertainty and insecurity especially prevalent at the time. Prospects Some years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the situation in the various former Soviet republics has been steadily improving. Peace tends to prevail in the area and a spirit of cooperation is being developed. Hence, considering the cessation of armed conflicts in the region and the improvement in relations and cooperation between the countries as well as the great importance of the region for the future energy supplies, one can easily see the importance of maintaining close ties with all of those countries. The presence of our diaspora in the countries of the former USSR and its positive and productive role constitutes a «comparative advantage» for our country. (1) Dionyssis Kalamvrezos served as head of the Consular Section of the Embassy of Greece in Moscow from 1992 to 1997 and as counselor at the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations (1998-2002). He participated in special missions to the Greek embassies in Nicosia (1997) and Tbilisi (1993).