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Russia’s Decree for Greeks in Mariupol Vanished from Museum

Catherine the Great
Catherine, the Great’s decree is deemed the most important historical relic of the Greeks of Ukraine. Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

A decree from Empress Catherine the Great of Russia ordering the Greeks of Ukraine to relocate from Crimea to Mariupol vanished after Russian troops occupied the city and bombed the museum housing it.

The document, written in both Russian and Greek, is deemed the most important historical relic of the Greeks of Ukraine. According to museum officials, it may have been burned, as it had been stored in the underground crypt that went up in flames. Other potential scenarios include someone moving it to a safe place or transporting it to Russia.

In a statement to Kathimerini, the interim director of the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore said, “When the Greeks, exiled in essence from the autonomous region of the Crimean Khanate, arrived in Azov after the Russian-Turkish war [of 1787 to 1791], they received, in May 1779, the official document from Catherine the Great, which ensured their voluntary resettlement and settlement.”

Mariupol as Black Sea’s center of Hellenism

Ukraine has long been a site of Hellenism. Greek populations have been present in the area for over two thousand years. Of crucial importance for the Greeks of Ukraine is the decree of Catherine II of Russia in 1778, according to which the Greeks and other Christian populations of Crimea were ordered to leave the area. The Greeks were given land to settle on the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov. There, they founded today’s city of Mariupol.

Mariupol, which has been completely destroyed by the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict, was given the name of the Holy Mother by the Greeks. The word Mariupol means “the city of the Virgin Mary.”

The ancient Greek city-states began establishing colonies along the Black Sea coast of Crimea in the 6th or 7th century BC. Thus, they have had a significant presence in the area for two and a half thousand years. The Greek communities of the Black Sea flourished mainly through commerce and shipping. Until the Hellenistic period, they were autonomous, but, later, they were subsumed into the great empires, either Roman, Byzantine, Mongol, or Ottoman.

Greek colonies_Black Sea
Ancient Greek colonies of the Northern Black Sea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The majority of the early colonies were established by Ionians from the city of Miletus located in Asia Minor. Following the Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople, which fragmented the Byzantine Empire, Crimea became a principality within the Greek Empire of Trebizond.

When that state, which was centered on the eastern Black Sea coast and Pontic Alps of northeastern Anatolia, fell to the Ottomans in 1461, the Crimean Greek principality (Principality of Theodoro) remained independent, becoming subject to the Ottomans in 1475.

The beginning of large-scale settlement of Greeks in the steppe region north of the Sea of Azov dates to the Russo-Turkish War (1768–74), when Catherine the Great of Russia invited Greeks of Crimea to resettle to recently conquered lands (including founding Mariupol) to escape persecution in the then Muslim-dominated Crimea.

Before the decree

After the end of the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), which ended with the victory of the Russian Empire, Crimean Khanate was annexed to its territory. The Russian Empire’s ultimate goal was to expand as far south as possible.

The annexation lasted about five years, and the decree of Catherine the Great ordered all Christian populations of the Crimean Khanate (Greeks, Armenians, and Georgians) to leave the area and relocate elsewhere.

To this day, there has been no clear answer as to why, in 1778, when the situation in Crimea was controlled by Russian troops, the entire Christian population was expelled from the peninsula. Some historians suggest the Russians wanted to protect the Orthodox Christian population of the region from the Muslim Tatars who severely oppressed them.

Founding of Mariupol

The Greeks of Crimea were given land by the Kalmius River on the shores of the Sea of Azov in order to settle down. In total, about thirty thousand Greeks relocated to the area. To the new city they founded, they attributed the name of the Virgin Mary, who they believed helped them become established in their new homeland.

In the 20th century, Rumeíka was the Greek dialect used in most Greek-speaking villages in the North Azov Sea Coast region. There are about seventeen villages where this language is spoken today. Modern scholars have identified five subdialects of Rumeíka based on their similarity to Standard Modern Greek.

Rumeíka is not the only Greek variety spoken in the northern Azov regions, however, as, in the village of Anadol, which was populated by groups from the Pontus region in 1826, Pontic proper is spoken.

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