The history of the Greeks’ presence on the northern shore of the Black Sea, what is now Ukraine and Russia, goes back millennia, even before the Classical Greek era.
The Myceneans, one of history’s first seafaring cultures, knew the Black Sea littoral very well, in their search for raw materials and, importantly, for the fish so vital then (and now) to the Greeks’ diet.
In the Classical Greek era, the Ukrainian coast was full of Greek colonies, some of which, such as Olbia, became wealthy centers of culture and trade. This Hellenic/Hellenistic presence continued through the long Roman era and as Rome gave way to Christian East Rome (Byzantium) the presence remained and transmitted Greco-Roman culture and Orthodox Christianity into Kievan Rus, the parent culture of both Ukraine and Russia.
The story continues into the modern era, and is in fact more interesting . . . .
As Byzantium fell to the Turks, so too did Byzantine outposts on the northern Black Sea coast, most notably the Crimean Peninsula, for millennia a center of Greek culture.
Greeks remained even as they lived among other nationalities, most notably the Muslim Tatars who ran the place as Turkish vassals. In a fascinating twist, many Crimean Greeks adopted the Tatar language while remaining steadfast to their Byzantine Orthodox religion and culture.
History of Greeks in the Russian Empire
The 1700s were a period of “Reconquista” in Central Europe and what is now Ukraine, as the Imperial Austrians and Russians sought to evict the Turks from Europe and to increase their own domains in the process.
In this process, both the Russians and the Austrians actively sought the aid of Balkan Orthodox Christians, primarily Greeks and Serbians. Both peoples had a grudge against the Turks, possessed strong martial and commercial traditions, and were ready to assist in the struggle.
The Russians, in particular, would play the Orthodox Card, dealt from the bottom of the deck (as they do today) to stir up the Balkan Orthodox. Far too often this brought the wrath of the Turks on the Greeks and Serbs, but had the benefit of also bringing Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian settlers (or refugees) into the Austrian and Russian Empires.
Greek presence along the Black Sea coast in Ukraine
In the case of Ukraine, it was the Greeks who predominated, becoming a major demographic element all along the Black Sea coast, with Greeks from the Peloponnese, key islands, and Pontus flocking to cities such as Odessa, Kherson, the Crimea, and key ports in the Sea of Azov, particularly Marioupolis (Mariupol), founded by Crimean Greeks.
The area had been devastated by constant Russo-Turkish warfare, and the Russians encouraged Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and Ukrainians to move southward to develop the region. Greeks, in particular, excelled, as always, in commerce and shipping; it might be said that the Russian authorities subcontracted their export transport to Greeks, who had a wide commercial and shipping network.
Though the Russians were generally hostile to Greek national aspirations, the Greeks of the Black Sea coast had the demographic, economic, and political weight to start the Greek Revolution in 1821 by invading the Ottoman Empire from the Russian Empire.
In 1814, three Greek clerks in Odessa founded the Filiki Eteria, dedicated to the liberation of Greece. The costly war to free Greece brought more Greeks to the Ukrainian coasts, particularly Pontic Greeks fleeing the Turks’ reprisals for the Greek uprising. Waves of Pontic Greeks would continue to flow across the Black Sea, as immigrants and refugees.
Many Ukrainians have Greek ancestry
The southern coast of the Russian Empire remained a key hub of the Greek Diaspora, connected to a far-flung Greek commercial world with hubs all over the Mediterranean, Europe, and later the rest of the world.
While many Greeks retained their identity, far more assimilated into the wider Orthodox population over the course of two centuries, which means that many Ukrainians have Greek ancestry without necessarily being conscious of it.
Greeks were there for too many years, during the initial resettlement of the Black Sea littoral, with considerable demographic and economic gravity, not to have been a central demographic element in the wider southern Ukrainian society.
Generations of Greeks, assimilated or not, were loyal Russian subjects and fought for the Tsar in every battle “Mother Russia” faced. In some cases, such as the Crimean War, Greeks (from all over) formed their own units to fight for the Tsar.
Greeks survived Stalin’s deportations
In spite of Stalin’s horrific deportations of Greeks in the 1930s and 1940s, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Greeks fought in the Second World War even as their families were being deported to Central Asia.
In spite of all odds, the Greeks persisted, and though several hundred thousand relocated to Greece after the fall of the Soviet Union—my unit when I served in the Greek Army had a high proportion of ex-Soviet Greeks—the population stabilized, and several hundred thousand identifiable Greeks remained in Ukraine and Russia.
For nearly one month, as I type these words on March 19, 2022, Ukraine has been under attack by Russia, and among the cities most viciously targeted by Putin’s advance is Mariupol, a city built largely by Crimean, Peloponnesian, and Pontian Greeks with a large Greek population.
Though Greece has used all its diplomatic and consular efforts to help the Mariupol Greeks, Greek cultural and advocacy organizations in the US and elsewhere have largely been silent about the specific impact on Ukrainians of Greek descent.
This needs to change–now. Putin is smashing the mosaic of Ukraine, which was always multiethnic and like most coastal societies, had a tolerance for commerce, culture, and diversity.
In this mosaic, the Greeks played a founding and fundamental role. Further, like those of us outside Greece, these Greek Ukrainians are Diaspora Greeks–and that should matter to us.
If we are silent, we betray our heritage.