Tucked away among Central Asia’s rolling deserts and sand dunes, in the eastern part of Uzbekistan, is a small community of people who are the living vestiges of Cold War politics, the Greeks of Tashkent.
By Christianna Kontou
A Greek diaspora that once counted in the tens of thousands, are the people who live and work in Uzbekistan, many of whom have never traveled to Greece, but who, when they are asked, will still say, “I am not Uzbek, I am Greek.”
To understand the evolution of the Greek community of Uzbekistan, one must understand its origins. Much like many stories of mass exodus and displacement, the history of the Greeks of Uzbekistan is a harrowing one, one of separation, war, and turmoil.
“Greeks came to Central Asia in two waves,” says Costas Politis, President of the Greek Cultural Center (formerly the Greece Association of Tashkent) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The two waves of Greeks in Tashkent
“The first wave came during World War II, in 1944, when Stalin displaced thirty to forty thousand Pontiac Greeks, many of whom lived in the Caucasus Mountains and modern-day Georgia, and sent them to southern Uzbekistan, to the Fergana Region, which at the time was still considered Kazakhstan.” The area had barren land, and it had barely been cultivated; Stalin knew that Greeks knew agriculture, and they were good farmers, so the Greek population undertook agricultural development there.
The second wave was of political refugees in 1949, with the end of the Greek Civil War. When the rebels – “andartes” – went to Albania and Yugoslavia to avoid persecution, they took their families, wives and children and fled the country. Of these people, approximately 12,000 were rounded up by the Communist Party and sent to Georgia, then placed on boats and herded onto trains and taken to Tashkent.
“Most of these people thought they were going to Piraeus,” describes Politis in a somber tone, adding “They had no idea where they were actually going. And after two weeks of travel, with nothing but their clothes on their backs, under unthinkable circumstances, they were brought to Tashkent as political refugees.”
The tragic story of mass child kidnapping – referred to by many as “paidomazoma” – also took place at this time; children were stripped away from their families and sent to schools in neighboring countries, like Czechoslovakia, to be schooled by local Greek teachers. As a result of this policy, of the 12,000 Greeks transferred to Tashkent, only 28 of them were children. It would not be for six or seven years that nearly 3,000 children would finally be reunited with their families in Tashkent.
These two distinctive Greek communities had no communication or interactions; the Pontiac Greeks in Fergana were already in exile and were treated as persecuted people, whereas the Tashkent Greeks were political refugees, who were supported by the local Communist government. The status of political refugees and the Communist Party’s desire to indoctrinate more people was why they were given resources and rights, which led to the creation of a burgeoning Greek community, in the distant Central Asian region.
“To the local Uzbeks, the Greek Center was like an elite”
Thus, on land bestowed upon the Greek community by the Communist Party, the Greeks of Tashkent, with their own hands, built their association headquarters, in 1964. It is in this 3-story building that the refugees of Tashkent sustained and maintained their Greek culture nearly 3,800 kilometers (2,361 miles) away from the homeland.
“The Communist Party focused a lot on social gatherings. It was heavily promoted throughout the Soviet region; they wanted people to constantly be doing things as a way to reinforce the notion that everyone is the same. So, Greek people, with our culture and tradition, we are inherently, in our core, social. We dance, we have ‘panigiria,’ we build community and do things together. The Greeks in Tashkent stood out,” explains Politis.
“To the local Uzbeks, the Greek Center was like an elite, exclusive club, full of life and far removed from their own conservative, Muslim ethos. They would marvel at us, almost jealous, of the energy and joy.”
For two decades the Association was a hub of Greek society, with weekly events and gatherings; it served as the epicenter of the community, much like the Greek Orthodox Church does in North America, Australia and everywhere else where members of the Greek diaspora settled.
Because the Soviet Union had a strict policy of atheism, in the absence of religion, the Greeks of Uzbekistan sustained themselves through song, dance, and language. “No, there are no churches here, and the members of the community would not identify as ‘believers,’” explains Politis, “But Sundays were spent at the Association. Families and children would arrive in the morning and leave at night. They could not consider doing anything else.”
Greece allows the repatriation of political refugees
At the time, there were scholarship funds from within the Association and from Greece, which allowed children to attend summer camp in Greece and unite with the language, the culture, and the people in person.
Perhaps it was this deep connection to Greece that in 1982, when the Greek government enabled an Amnesty Law that permitted the return and repatriation of political refugees, that a large percentage of the Greeks of Uzbekistan felt compelled to return to their homeland. That decade saw approximately 90% of the Tashkent Greeks depart.
It was a period of great joy for many, reuniting with their people and their land, but those who were left behind, had to reconcile their loss and by the early 2000s, the Cultural Association was nearly abandoned, lifeless. Today, there are only 1,200 Greeks remaining in Tashkent, approximately 12 to 13% of whom are children.
It was during this time of a shrinking community that Politis found himself in Tashkent. “I have been living in Tashkent for almost two decades and up until a few years ago, I was not engaged with the Greek community,” admits Politis. “I am ashamed to say it.”
An architect by trade, Politis was born in Thessaloniki and has lived in many cities throughout Europe, including Paris and Constantinople. “I am inspired by Alexander the Great, the King of Asia, whose influence reaches throughout Asia, and here, of course, Uzbekistan. I want to preserve Hellenism, to promote “ευ ζην” – the good life – an ethos that transcends nationality and man-made borders. It’s about humanity.”
Greek Cultural Center in Tashkent
It was this newfound commitment to Alexander the Great’s Hellenism as a unifier of peoples that compelled Politis to actively engage with the Tashkent Greek Association. A few years ago, he joined as President and began rebuilding the community.
The Greek Association was renamed “Greek Cultural Center,” because as Politis explains, “An association may have requirements in terms of members, but a Center, it doesn’t matter if only two of us are left, we are a center of Greek culture nonetheless.”
With this energy and unwavering belief, Politis and the Board of the Greek Cultural Center are reigniting the huge structure that for so many decades housed kept Greek culture and tradition alive.
In the absence of any assistance from the Greek government, and a lack of financial wherewithal, exacerbated by political constraints –- the nearest Greek embassy is in Russia, making it extremely difficult to get a visa to travel to Greece — the Center is utilizing the only resource it has: the community’s love of Greece.
Now, the Center hosts weekly events, from Greek dancing to musical concerts, as well as language and dance classes; it plans to add art classes in the coming month.
“We are modeling our programming after the Greek Church in the diaspora, offering weekly events, typically on Sundays, so that it becomes part of our community’s routine to gather and exchange shared experiences,” says Politis.
The Center is, Politis says, no less than “A place to keep Hellenism alive and transmit it to the next generation. The members of the Board are all third and fourth-generation Greeks in Uzbekistan, they grew up in the heyday of the Association, they know what it means to be a community and they aspire to cultivate that once again, for themselves and their children,” he continues.
All Sunday classes are offered free of charge and have an average attendance of 30 people. For those who are serious about advancing their language skills, the Center also offers paid classes three times a week, during the weekdays, and even these classes have a steady attendance of 7 or 8 pupils.
On November 7th, the Greek Cultural Center celebrated OXI Day in the Center’s 300-person auditorium and Politis and the Board are now preparing for a big Christmas concert.
Despite the physical distance and political barriers, the absence of a common language and even the feel of the Greek sun warming their skin, the Greeks of Uzbekistan are proud to be Greek.
Politis drives this point home by saying, “Just like, if you were to tell a Greek in Constantinople, ‘As a Turk, how do you feel about this issue?’ that person would be offended by the implication that they were Turkish, if today, you were to tell one of these community members, ‘As an Uzbek, what are your thoughts on this?’ They would reply, “I am not an Uzbek, I am a Greek.”
It is a pride that has been transmitted through the years, from father to son, from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. A pride that most members of the Greek diaspora can attest to. And while the Greek government has all but forgotten the Greeks of Tashkent, the Greeks of Tashkent will never forget Greece.