Azov Greeks: “The frontline cuts us up”

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Azov Greeks are most disappointed by the fact that their historic homeland remained deaf to their appeals. Credits: Alexey Verbin

According to the All-Ukrainian population census, Greeks are one of the largest national minorities in modern Ukraine (91.5 thousand), with 84% living in Donetsk Oblast. They belong to a particular ethnic group, the Azov Greeks, which made its appearance in the late 18th century, when Christians living on the territory of the Crimean Khanate were evacuated and resettled in the lands of the southern Donbas.

The military conflict in Ukraine has caused the Azov Greeks to be artificially divided. Part of the area where they live together compactly has ended up under the control of the Ukrainian government (the Mariupol, Volnovakha, Volodarsky and Pershotravneve districts of Donetsk Oblast), and part is found within the Donetsk People’s Republic (Starobeshevsky, Telmanovsky and Novoazovsk districts). Moreover, a large Greek community has remained in the capital of the DPR – Donetsk.

Many social organisations engaged in the support and development of Greek culture continue to operate on both sides of the front. Europe Insight talked with some representatives from these organisations about what life is like for the Greek community in these wartime conditions.

Greeks in the DPR: “We stayed. We were not afraid.”

Right now, the main Greek organisation operating in the DPR is the Donetsk Greek Society named after Fyodor Stambulzhi. Founded in 1990, it remains one of the most active in promoting Hellenistic culture in Ukraine – even despite the war. The society involves itself in preserving the historical legacy of the Azov Greeks, continues its work towards the revival of their traditions and customs, and runs educational programmes for teaching Greek language and literature.

During the military conflict, the organisation had to take on the responsibility of securing humanitarian aid for local Greeks and perform representative functions in dialogue with the Consulate General of Greece in Mariupol.

In summer 2014, at the request of its members and ordinary Donbas Greeks, the society launched an appeal to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a request to issue Certificates of Hellenes Abroad, which would give applicants the right to leave for Greece with members of their family during the period of military hostilities. Despite the fact that 302 applications were collected and sent, the outcome was disappointing. The Azov Greeks who tried to get visas to Greece independently were also refused by the consulate in Mariupol.

Left without the support of their motherland, members of the diaspora were forced to survive nearly two years of military activity independently. The Chairman of the Donetsk Greek Society Elena Prodan talked about what it was like in a conversation with Europe Insight.

— Did the Donetsk Greek Society continue functioning during active hostilities?

— We worked the whole time. We closed in 2014 for only two weeks, during the period of the most active military operations here. Last year was more difficult. There were few people in the city; many left. Those who were in the city were afraid to travel very far. But this year, thanks God, we have fully resumed our work. And now we are working at almost pre-war levels.

— What has war changed in the life of the Azov Greeks?

— We have become friendlier to each other, more cohesive. We started to sympathise more with our neighbours, to help them. There is a youth organisation connected to our society (Donetsk Union of Greek Youth – Ed.), and its members took the situation very close to heart. By their own efforts they collected humanitarian aid and went out to rural areas where Greeks live, especially in the Starobeshevsky district – to villages hit hard by destruction, to kindergartens, churches. They donated blood voluntarily. Everything came from the soul, the heart.

— How are relations between the Greeks living in the DPR with the consulate in Mariupol and Greek organisations in Ukraine?

— The consulate in Mariupol is operating now, but there is no consul there. And the consulate is not processing visas. They are being issued in Dnipropetrovsk, where a visa centre has been set up. So the concept of a Greek consulate in Mariupol is now purely nominal.

We maintain our relationships with Mariupol and with societies that are located on that side (under the control of the Ukrainian government – Ed.). But usually only online or by telephone since it has now become very difficult to travel there; many problems arise.

— Are there no disagreements over political issues with Greeks living in Ukrainian territory? What is the political position of the society?

— From the very outset, even prior to the war, we made the firm decision to stay out of politics, to not ally ourselves with any parties, and to not pull people into elections under any slogans. When the referendum was held here (11 May, on the independence of the DPR – Ed.), we did not participate as a Society. We gave people the opportunity to independently determine their own answers for such vitally important questions as “Where to be?”, “With whom to be” and “Which language to teach?” And now we still avoid getting mixed up in politics. Especially since we understand that we are cut in two by the frontline.

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25th anniversary of the Donetsk Greek Society. Credits: pontos-news.gr

— Is it tough being in such a position?

— Greeks, who have always been friends, who have relatives and parents left over there (in Ukraine – Ed.) are suffering because they cannot currently visit their native villages. And there are those who cannot go in general because they work in some governmental body. This is a great tragedy for the people. So, if someone thinks that you are a “separatist” or “terrorist” or, on the contrary, a “Banderivets” (a hardline Ukrainian nationalist – Ed.), we are certain it’s not true. Things will surely go back to normal at some point, and we will have to look each other in the eyes. It is necessary to maintain one’s human face in any type of situation.

— What is your relationship like with the DPR authorities?

— The Minister of Culture is helping us. Not long ago, we held a commemorative event (25 years of operation for the Society and 235 years since Greek settlements were founded in the Azov region – Ed.). We asked the ministry to provide us with a hall for our celebration, and they gave us all we needed. The authorities occasionally meet with us, inquire about our work and ask if we are having any problems. This is not only the Minister of Culture but also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Interior Ministry.

— Are Greeks from Russia assisting you?

— During active hostilities here, when we were isolated, help did not reach us from Ukraine or Greece. All aid coming from Greece went to Mariupol, and we could not get medicine from there, or foodstuffs, nothing. That is why we were left with only one way to get aid – from our brothers in Russia. There are also many Greeks living there. They constantly called us. They were concerned, asking us how we are. Regular people collected money. They felt bad for us and wanted to help. The Russian Charitable Foundation of Ivan Savvidi also helped us. This is a Russian Greek living in Rostov. We distributed the Russian aid that we received from him and other donors among the Greek communities on DPR territory: Starobeshevsky and Telmanovsky districts, Gorlovka (Horlivka), Khartsyzk, Makeevka (Makiivka) – wherever Greeks are there are Greek societies.

— There are Greek units in the DPR army – how did this happen?

— They felt the need. We have very many militiamen called “Greek”. This is the call of the heart and soul. We don’t know why they went there.

— How do you evaluate the results of your work during the war?

— I think that the Society’s main objective in this time was accomplished: we stayed; we were not afraid; we did not close down. Even during the bombings, people came to us and said, “We are so happy that you are working!” This is worth a lot.

“We gained hope of reunification with Russia”

On the territory of the Donetsk Oblast under the control of the Ukrainian authorities, there are also several Greek organisations. The largest one is the Mariupol Greek Society, but its representatives, unfortunately, did not respond to Europe Insight’s inquiry. However, analysis of open sources bears witness to the fact that the community organisation is actively functioning.

Greek cultural centre in Mariupol. Credits: greeks.in.ua

Greek cultural centre in Mariupol. Credits: greeks.in.ua

Its main areas of activity are sending children, youth and pensioners on summer holidays in Greece, as well as work raising cultural awareness. In particular, in July 2014, jointly with the Federation of Greek Associations of Ukraine and the Mariupol literary union Azovye, the society hosted an evening dedicated to an awards ceremony and awarding the champions and laureates of the contest “Taras Shevchenko – Our Contemporary”. And on 28 October, in celebration of the Greek national holiday Ohi (a day commemorating Greece’s rejection of the ultimatum made by fascist Italy in 1940), the Greeks of Mariupol invited participants of the so-called anti-terror operation, who they thanked for fighting for Ukraine’s independence. With the exception of this action, the Mariupol Greek Society, like their colleagues in Donetsk, keep far away from politics.

However, not all Azov Greeks are apolitical. In the opinion of cultural analyst and activist of the Ukrainian Anti-Maidan from Mangush Maria Kiziridi, the crisis in Ukraine created a unique opportunity for reunification of the Azov region Greek community, which, however, was missed. Kiziridi expressed her position in an interview with Europe Insight.

— How did the Donbas Greeks react to the “Russian Spring”, and how has it affected their lives?

— There was a great enthusiasm, just fantastic. Especially in late-March of last year, right after Crimea rejoined Russia. We were waiting for Donbas to be next. Never forget that it was thanks to the Russian government that the Crimean Greeks were saved and resettled in the Azov region. Greeks and Russians are so close that neither the decades of Soviet power or 25 years of Ukrainian independence could destroy our bonds, our friendship and mutual loyalty. One must also remember that 94% of the Greeks living in Ukraine indicated on the census that they consider their native language to be Russian. Of course it is depressing how the “Russian Spring” turned out. But it was a nice try – we’ve gained the hope of reunification with Russia, a country where our fellow countrymen live in Rostov Oblast, the Caucasus and the Kuban and Volga Regions.

— In your view, has Ukraine supressed Azov Greeks in some way for supporting the “Russian Spring?”

— First of all, not all Greeks supported the “Russian Spring”. For many, this was a step backwards from European integration and potential unification with our “great” homeland – Greece. Moreover, for some of us the family tragedy is the anti-Pontic repression conducted by Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s. There are those for whom Soviet power is equated with modern Russia. There is nothing to be done here. On the other hand, Ukraine has systematically pursued a policy aimed at assimilating the Azov Greeks.

— When did you leave Donbas? And have many of your compatriots left for Greece because of the conflict?

— I have been in Greece since August 2014. I have been to Mariupol six times since then and twice at home in Mangush. Very few have left. I won’t be wrong if I say a couple hundred. Maybe even less. The main problem, I think, is the criminal inactivity of the Consulate General of Greece in Mariupol. Instead of protecting its people, it is blocking any attempts to leave the battle zone, obtain a visa and return to the homeland.

— Since the victory of the Leftists headed by Alexis Tsipras, has anything changed, in your opinion, with regard to Greece’s policy towards Azov Greeks?

— Yes, the situation has gotten worse. Before, the government had a basic idea of the problems faced by our community. There were rare, but periodic, consultations with the Ukrainian MFA about these issues. Not even this is being done anymore. I’m not even speaking about the visa policy. Personally, I could only leave because of a multi-entry visa issued in Italy. I do not think they would have let me in.

— Organizations located in the Ukrainian part of Donbas have not yet responded to our interview requests. What do you know about life for the Greek community there?

— If we speak about cultural development, everything is the same as it was before the war. The societies are functioning. In Mariupol there is a faculty of Greek Philology at the public university. There are no problems. But daily life is full of great difficulties. Do you know where the front line passes? Right through the Greek villages. Sartan is a perfect example. It is constantly under fire. Life in the villages is very hard even if they are far from the front – prices for food, public services. It is especially tough for pensioners whose relatives, say, worked in Donetsk and cannot get out from there now. They cannot bring money; they can’t help. The region has been torn apart. They have divided our people.

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