There are at least 350,000 Greeks in the former Soviet Union. Some think there are more than 500,000 of them, more than a million if children of mixed marriages are included. Also known as the Pontian Greeks and Pontic Greeks, they settled mostly around the Black Sea and are found in significant numbers in the Crimea, eastern Ukraine and the Transcaucasus region of southern Russia and Georgia.

Pontian and Pontic are named after historical Pontus Euxinus, the Greek name for the Black Sea. Pontus is also the name of the Black Sea region in present-day Turkey. They make up the largest number of Greeks in the former Soviet Union. Journalist Robert D. Kaplan wrote: "Black Sea life without the Greeks has been like Vienese life without the Jews: hollow and sterile."

As of 1990 there were around 150,000 Greeks in southern Russia, 120,000 in the eastern Ukraine and 120,000 in Georgia. There are around 100,000 Greeks still living in Central Asia, remnants of the mass deportation of Greeks in the Stalin area

Most Greeks in the former Soviet Union speak Russian as their first language. Some hardly speak any Greek at all. Traditionally, the majority of them spoke Pontic, a Greek dialect derived from the ancient Ionic dialect. It is more similar to the ancient Greek language than the modern “demotic” Greek language spoken in Greece. Greek is spoken less than it otherwise might because there was a ban on teaching it Soviet schools. In any case, the Greeks are quite divided linguistically anyway. There are several Greek dialects and Greeks generally speak the language of the people they live among: Russian, Georgian, Tatar, Ukrainian and Uzbeki.

Greeks in the former Soviet Union were very committed to keeping their culture alive. They adapted their settlement styles, diet and work choices to the communities they lived among but kept alive their language, the traditional foods, marriage customs, holidays, music, dance and literature. The Pontic Greeks were famous for their cheeses and dancing. The have tried to keep their Orthodox Christianity alive but have a reputation for not being very religious and occasionally sacrificing an animal to a saint and determining a person fate on the basis of a song sung at the time a person’s possession is plucked from a water vessel.

Greek traditionally lived in extended family houses with a bride coming to live with the groom’s family. In the old days, girls were married young, perhaps to avoid abduction to Turkish harems. These days most people are in their 20s when they get married. It is common for men to seek out brides at religious festivals, with professional matchmakers being called in to work out the details of a successful match. Virginity is greatly prized among women. It is not uncommon for the mother of the groom to check the sheet of the marital bed for evidence of her daughter-law’s purity.

The Pontic Greeks have a reputation for being hard working and enterprising. In the tsarist era, the Greeks prospered economically as farmers and traders. They introduced tobacco farming to Russia and made quite a bit of money from that. Many rich farmers ended up prison or were executed when they resisted forced collectivization in the 1930s. Persecution was not new to them. They were persecuted under the Turks. Even though many families were uprooted and resettled several times, many managed to proposer wherever the ended up.

History of the Greeks

The Greeks have lived around the Black Sea Coast from ancient times when the Black Sea area was a garin-growing colony for the ancient Greeks. Contacts between Greeks and Russians can be traced back to around the 10th century when Rus Vikings set up trade routes between Scandinavia and Black Sea areas. Contact increased in the late Byzantine era, when Orthodox Christianity took root in both places. Greeks were invited by both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great to settle in Russia. At that time both Greeks and Russians shared a loathing of the Turks and Greece was strategically located to serve Russia’s interests in southern Europe.

The Greeks that live in the former Soviet Union arrived in different waves. Around 30,000 settled in the Maripul region in 1770s. Some of these had lived under the Tatars in the Crimea. Odessa became a center of Greek culture. The Pontic Greeks arrived during the 19th century. Many were from Greek areas in Turkey. Those in the Pontus region had been under Turkish control since the 15th century. Some political refugees fled after the civil ware in Greece in 1948-1949.

The large numbers of Greeks came to Russia between 1916 and 1924 when there was a massive persecution of the Greeks living in Turkish areas in Asia Minor. In 1923, they were kicked out of Turkey after Greece invaded Anatolia.

Persecution of Greeks

Initially the Greeks prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory.

Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.”

Following Stalin’s death in 1953 exiled Greeks were given more freedoms. Some returned to their former homes, where they had difficulty reclaiming their confiscated property. Many had problems getting out of Siberia and Central Asia because they lacked the necessary documents. Unlike most other ethnic groups they had refused to accept Soviet nationality and never gave up their Greek passports.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Greeks in the Soviet Union have been trying to emigrate, particularly those in Central Asia and Georgia. Soviet Greeks had traditionally idealized Greece as a kind of paradise but many of those who emigrated had a hard time adapted to a new life in Greece. Many Pontic Greeks now live in Thessalonika, Greece. Many of those that remained in Turkey converted to Islam and live in the Pontic Mountains in Turkey.

Meskhetian Turks

Meskhetian Turks are a Turkish group that has traditionally lived in south-southwestern Georgia to the south of Meskhetian mountain range. In November 1944, after being denounced as “enemies” of the people” by Stalin, they were rounded to and deported to Central Asia (mostly Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). About 155,000 Meskhetian Turks from 200 villages in the Meskhetia region of southern Georgia were deported.

Meskhetian Turks have received some attention for the way they adapted their traditional culture and lifestyle from the western Caucasus region to Central Asia. The two areas could not be more unalike. The western Caucasus is well-watered, mountainous and mostly Christian. Central Asia is flat dry and mostly Muslim. The traditional way of life of the Caucasus was of little use to the Meskhetian Turks in Central Asia and their modern identity has been shaped by how they dealt with this change.

The traditional homelands of the Meskhetian Turks has since been taken over by Georgians and other ethnic groups who are adverse to te idea of giving the land back to the Meskhetian Turks. The Georgian government said Meskhetian Turks could return under the condition that they replace their Turkish names with Georgian ones. Proud of their Turkish identify, most refused. The issue o resettlement is still being debated to this day.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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