Greeks of Tashkent still long for home

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan – «How are things in Greece these days? We rarely see visitors,» said Tassos Prassidis, a retired music teacher we met at the Greek Cultural Association of Tashkent. What can you say to someone who hangs on your every word and hasn’t been to his homeland or seen his relatives in more than 10 years? «On my pension of 42 dollars a month, my lad, I’d have to fast for a year and a half. And don’t think that we old folk eat anything fancy – boiled potatoes and meat a few times a month. And to think that my pension is one of the biggest,» he told me. A sign at the entrance to the building sums up the start of a dramatic Greek story that we have come to explore in the capital of the former Soviet Socialist Republic: «Our first days in Uzbekistan: We arrived in 1949. Men: 8,571, Women: 33,401, Children: 25.» Unrequited devotion Alexandra Baklanova from Epirus took us on a guided tour, starting with the little theater where they celebrate national anniversaries and the Greek children have their music and dance lessons. Another sign reads «With our mind always on the homeland.» Unfortunately, as we hear in conversations here, the reverse does not apply: The homeland almost never has its mind on the Greeks of Tashkent. Rewind to August 1949. After three years of savage civil conflict, the Democratic Army of Greece took refuge in Albania and Bulgaria. The end of the civil war marked the beginning of the odyssey of 60,000 Greeks who went into permanent political exile. In October they scattered across Soviet bloc countries – East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. But most of them boarded Soviet timber ships in the port of Durres, and ended up in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan after a long, exhausting journey by land and sea. G. Syros’s book «I zoi mas stin politiki prosfygia’ (Our Life as Political Refugees), published by the Panhellenic Union of Political refugees, recounts moving details of that journey. There was the warm welcome that met the uprooted Greeks when they stepped ashore at the port of Poti in Georgia, the images of the new world they saw later from the windows of the trains that took them to Baku in Azerbaijan, very different from the pictures they had seen in the Communist Party newspaper Rizospastis. Then there was the kindness shown to them by people everywhere, who offered them blankets to keep them warm, food for strength, and musical instruments and chessboards to pass the time. Leaving the desert behind, they found the oasis of Tashkent, one of the most beautiful cities in the Soviet Union. Almost six decades later, most Uzbeks speak well of the local Greeks, who worked in factories, studied hard, were active in cultural and sporting pursuits, and coexisted harmoniously with the locals, sometimes intermarrying with them. In 1960 there were 12 Greek neighborhoods in Tashkent and another two in Chirchiq. Greeks built the first two-story houses in the capital, and they survived the 1966 earthquake almost intact. At that time Greek was taught at nearly all schools in Tashkent and was studied by pupils of other ethnic groups. Islam Karimov, now president of Uzbekistan, started working with Greeks then, and has always felt close to the Greek community, which he helps, we were told. The Greek population reached a peak of 36,000 in 1972. Years later, when the junta fell in Greece, most of the Greeks in Tashkent repatriated, only to find themselves migrants again in their own country. Around 6,000 Greeks remain in Tashkent today. Free Greek lessons At the Cultural Association we see four classes with pupils of all ages who are studying Greek. None of this is funded by the Greek state. As the association’s president Sarantis Lazarou explains, he and other Greeks paid for it all. I spend the afternoon in a classroom where Kyria Panayiota teaches Greek and music. The school has 100 pupils and four teachers and is open weekday afternoons and Sundays. In the mornings the children go to Uzbek schools, which stopped teaching Greek in 1993, and the adults are at work. «Up until 2004, pupils paid tuition fees of $2.50 a month apiece,» said the teacher. «Iphigenia Kontoleontos, who was then Greece’s consul general in Moscow and responsible for the Greeks of Uzbekistan, found that unacceptable and we eventually managed to secure funding for -2,000 a year for the four teachers.» But that sum was abolished the following year. «We did not humiliate ourselves by asking the parents to pay us because the Greek state had vanished again, and we decided unanimously to work unpaid.» In another Greek neighborhood of Tashkent, Number 9, we see large courtyards, children’s playgrounds, simple but well-designed houses that stand out in a city where time seems to have stood still. Most are deserted or are inhabited by Uzbeks. On the way back we stop at the privately built Greek Embassy to Uzbekistan which never went into operation. Even larger than its counterpart in Moscow, it was acquired in 1998, when Theodoros Pangalos was foreign minister. When he was expelled from the Cabinet, the issue stalled and Greece never had a permanent diplomatic presence in Tashkent. That both intensifies the sense of abandonment and causes unbelievable practical difficulties. Greeks in Uzbekistan who can afford to visit Greece have to apply to the Italian Consulate or post their passports via the Greek club to the Greek Consulate in Moscow to get a visa. People complain that the authorities are in effect absent, but they understand why. They are not entitled to vote in Greece, so the political cost of ignoring them is nil, and Uzbekistan has never been such a big player on the international stage that Greece has needed an embassy there. As for television, despite the number of Greeks in Tashkent, I couldn’t get the Greek state-run ERT on the TV in my hotel room, though I could get RAI, RTL and TRV5. The only source of news from Greece is the Communist party’s daily Rizospastis, which arrives late and sometimes not at all. Besides, even the Communist party, to which so many of them devoted their lives, has forgotten them, they say, which hurts them more than the indifference of the Greek state. Send us singers On a sunny Sunday morning at the Greek club, young and old come for their weekly meeting. Three elderly men, who ask me not to mention their names, relate their painful experience. Three years ago, they were told that 30 of the surviving 250 elders of Tashkent had been invited on a trip to Greece. «We were thrilled. We had our medical tests and waited for the big day. Eventually a paper came saying there had been a mistake, and only five people were entitled to the trip,» the men said. «We decided unanimously to thank them very much and say that none of us wanted to go.» Meanwhile, lessons have begun. Xenia, Tassoula and Costas are struggling with their first words of Greek, and next door the traditional dancing has started. Last year 10 Greek children went to Greece thanks to Greek diaspora holiday camps. They want to go again. What else do they want? Musicians and singers to visit them and perform concerts. (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on February 11, 2007.