Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited the debate in Greece on the historic relations between the two nations that share a common religion.
The destruction of towns and villages in eastern Ukraine, especially Mariupol where tens of thousands of ethnic Greeks live, has led many Greeks to rethink and re-evaluate those relations.
Greece and Russia have “strong historical ties of friendship based on shared spiritual and cultural values,” the Foreign Ministry in Athens notes on its website. But, what exactly was the role of Russia and the Soviet Union in modern Greek history?
Russia and the Greek revolution of 1821
The Greek War of Independence was conceived in Russia. Russia had long been hostile to the Ottoman Empire, and their support of smaller revolts—some Greek, some among other Balkan communities—in Ottoman territory only exacerbated tensions between the two powers during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The uprising was put on course with the founding in Odessa in modern Ukraine of a clandestine organization named Filiki Eteria (Friendly Society) in September 1814. The aim of the organization was Greek independence with Russian support.
One of its early outstanding members was Alexandros Ypsilantis, a prince and high-ranking officer of the Imperial Russian Cavalry.
Ypsilantis issued a declaration on October 8, 1820 announcing a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He went on to say that the Greeks did not need foreign help as they could defeat the Turks on their own before going on to say that Russian support was assured.
Ypsilantis began the revolt in the spring of 1821 in the Danubian Principalities. During his march into Moldavia and Wallachia, he was counting on Russia for support, but Alexander I not only refused to help but also condemned the revolt and discharged Ypsilantis from his army.
The Ottomans slaughtered the Sacred Band, a force mainly composed of volunteers and students of the Greek communities of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Odessa.
Diplomatic and ideological issues regarding the European balance of power and the preservation of peace on the continent following the fall of Napoleon made Russia very reluctant to support of revolutionary activity of the Greeks.
This international political climate prevented the Russian government from taking any formal action despite the ties that bound the Greek and Russian communities together.
Kapodistrias and Moscow
Ioannis Kapodistrias who served as the Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire was the first head of state of Greece.
Kapodistrias became increasingly active in support of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire but did not succeed in obtaining Alexander’s support for the Greek revolution of 1821.
This put Kapodistrias in an untenable situation, and in 1822 he took an extended leave of absence from his position as Foreign Minister and retired to Geneva where he applied himself to supporting the Greek revolution by organizing material and moral support.
On March 30, 1827 the National Assembly of Trizina elected him Governor of the newly established Greek state. After arduous consultations in European capitals to ensure the necessary support for the Greek state, he arrived in Nafplio on January 7, 1828 and was welcomed with enthusiasm and celebrations.
Being one of the most distinguished politicians and diplomats of Europe, he championed the recognition of Greece’s sovereignty by the Great Powers and worked tirelessly to set the foundations for the nascent republic.
Russia and the Battle of Navarino
Russia played a decisive role in the Battle of Navarino, a naval battle fought on October 20, 1827, during the Greek War of Independence. Allied forces from Britain, France, and Russia decisively defeated Ottoman and Egyptian forces attempting to suppress the Greeks, thereby inching closer to Greek independence.
The sinking of the Ottomans’ Mediterranean fleet saved the fledgling Greek Republic from collapse. However, it required two additional military interventions by Russia, in the form of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829, and a French expeditionary force to the Peloponnese to force the withdrawal of Ottoman forces from Central and Southern Greece and finally secure Greek independence.
Russia and the Asia Minor Catastrophe
A century later, Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey were temporarily united by the struggle against a common enemy: The Greeks and Armenians who were supported by the Western powers.
Russia’s valuable aid to Kemal was a key factor in the Asia Minor catastrophe suffered by Greece. It was a cataclysmic event of such enormous importance for modern Greek history that it shaped generation upon generation after 1922, adding yet another unforgettable—and unutterably tragic—milestone to Greece’s long history.
On April 26, 1920, Mustafa Kemal formally approached Vladimir Lenin with a proposal for mutual recognition and request for military assistance. The Bolsheviks responded positively.
According to Russia Beyond, in the period from 1920 to 1922, Soviet Russia sent Atatürk almost 80 million lire (twice the outlays of the country’s Ministry of Defense), supplied 39,000 rifles, 327 machine guns, 147,000 shells, machinery and raw materials for the production of cartridges, and two destroyers, namely Zhivoy (Alive) and Zhutky (Terrible). Under the stewardship of Soviet experts, two gunpowder factories were built in Turkey.
Russian military aid played a key role in allowing Atatürk’s troops to defeat their two main adversaries: the Democratic Republic of Armenia to the east and the Greek army to the west.
A group of Soviet military experts under the leadership of one of the most prominent Red Army commanders, Mikhail Frunze, took part in the victorious offensive against the Greeks. Aralov, who likewise had extensive combat experience, shared his knowledge of guerrilla warfare with Atatürk’s officers. At one point, even the future Marshal of the Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov served as an adviser to Kemal, Russia Beyond notes.
Russia and the Civil War in Greece
The role of Moscow and Stalin in the tragic Greek Civil War that transpired between 1943 to 1949 was decisive. Despite concluding the Yalta Agreement with the United States and Britain which specified that Greece would belong to the West, Stalin allowed and encouraged the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Yalta agreement, which remained secret until the 1960s and was fully respected by all three powers, had made the Civil War a pointless disaster.
Russia not only did not aid its Communist allies in Greece but simply allowed the tragedy to unfold. The Civil War left Greece in ruins and in even greater economic distress than it had been following the end of the German occupation.
Additionally, it divided Greeks well into the ensuing decades with both sides vilifying their opponents.
Thousands languished in prison for many years or were sent into internal exile on the islands of Gyaros and Makronisos. Many others sought refuge in communist countries or emigrated to Australia, Germany, the US, the UK, and Canada among other places.
Russia-Greece relations today
Recently, Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned Greece that relations between the two nations that “share the same faith” have been “reduced to almost nothing.”
Maria Zakharova, director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, warned in a statement released on social media that the “historical parallels” between Greece and Russia were in danger of becoming “a solid double line between us.”
Greece has joined its EU and NATO allies in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has sent military and humanitarian aid to Kyiv.
Relations reached a nadir when Greece expelled 12 Russian diplomats in early April.
However, recent opinion polls show that more than one out of two Greeks do not support the government’s policies. While refugees from Ukraine are welcomed with open arms in Greece, many Greeks reject the EU measures against Russia. According to one survey, more than 60 percent are decidedly opposed to arms shipments; they see culpability for the war in both Moscow and Kyiv.
Greece is also concerned about the close ties between Turkey and Russia. Moscow has been providing Ankara with weapons, including the controversial S400 missile system and has been financing a nuclear power plant built in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin remotely inaugurated the construction of a third nuclear reactor at the Akkuyu power plant in southern Turkey in 2021.
Erdogan said the plant would launch Turkey into the ”league of nuclear energy countries” and called it a “symbol of Turkish-Russian cooperation.”
Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast in Mersin province. The two countries signed a cooperation agreement in 2010 and began construction in 2018.
Greece-Russia common faith, divided Church
Greece and Russia are both Orthodox nations. Their common faith has helped cultural, political, and economic relations throughout history.
Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers born in Thessaloniki, were responsible for establishing Greek Orthodoxy in Russia and Ukraine.
However, the Russian Church’s stance on the Ukraine invasion has alienated many Greeks. Recently, Archbishop Elpidophoros of the United States slammed Russia’s Orthodox Church for supporting the invasion of Ukraine, signaling out its head Patriarch Kirill.
“Responsibility rests squarely on the leadership of the Russian Church and clearly on Patriarch Kirill,” Elpidophoros had said.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has supported the war, which he claimed in a sermon was a struggle to defend “human civilization” against the “sin” of “gay-pride parades.”
The schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople began on October 15, 2018 when the former unilaterally severed full communion with the latter.
The resolution was taken in response to a decision of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople of October 11, 2018, confirming its intentions to grant autocephaly (independence) to the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine.