The Greeks of Ukraine
“Ola kala — kai panta kala”. And with the clink of our glasses and the downing of another vodka drink I started to feel very much at home here in the Ukraine. On a bright Sunday afternoon, I had found myself in a small town, Sartana; and by chance my guide and friend, Athena Khadzhynova, had taken me past the Community Centre. Poking our heads inside to listen to the music being played, we found ourselves at a local Greek wedding. This was the second day of the wedding: the feast day. True to the nature of Greeks and their generous hospitality, I was immediately invited in to sit at the main table and enjoy as much local cuisine and food as I could possibly consume. The only problem being that most of the people at the wedding were keen on meeting a Greek from another country and each person made it their mission to have a drink with me. One can not be rude and refuse a drink in the Ukraine. Throughout the course of the day, I met many wonderful people, danced Greek and Ukrainian dances and listened in awe to stories of how these remarkable people have survived for so many years.
So this was a taste of Greek life in Ukraine. A wedding where most of the guests were Greek descendants — many still speaking the ancient and Byzantine dialect and many more could speak Modern Greek, I almost felt like I was back in Athens. At the end of my afternoon, with a full tummy and a dizzy head I thought I was going home, instead I ended up at the home of a lovely couple, Larisa Arnautova who is a Greek and her husband, Pavel Chumakov, who is Russian. Of course the drinking and hospitality started all over again.
Ukraine, like many places in the Black Sea was an outpost for ancient Greek colonies dating back 2700 years, with famous cities such as Odessa emerging in antiquities. I decided to visit the city of Marioupolis in the south-east of Ukraine in the Sea of Azov, the world’s most shallow ocean. Marioupolis was founded by Greeks in 1779 with permission from Russian Queen, Katherine the Great. These Greeks were from the Black Sea, descendants of the great colonies of antiquity (circa 700-600 BC onwards) but were allowed to move from the Black Sea to avoid the harassment and pillaging by the Turkish troops in the Crimean War. Many of the Greek Gods would surely have visited the Black Sea and ancient heroes such as Hercules and Jason have also have come this way.
Marioupolis, known today as Mariupol is a city of 500 000 with just a small population of Greeks (perhaps 5%) however their influence in the city is everywhere, their legacy here is an industrial city marked by a lovely city centre. However, it is also a city that has suffered from a lack of government funding and years of communist rule. The Greek government maintains a consulate office in the heart of the city, which proudly flies the Greek flag.
It is estimated that there are 260,000 Greeks living in the Ukraine. What makes this figure even more incredible is when you compare how many descendents of ancient and Byzantine Greeks remain in other places such as southern Italy (Magna Graecia), which has approximately 35,000, or Georgia with 50,000. The Greeks of Ukraine have had to deal with the loss of Greek independence when Constantinople was captured in 1453; living in a foreign empire (under Russia and Ukraine); Russian wars with Turkey; famine and poverty; world wars; and communist rule. Perhaps it was communist rule that should have destroyed Hellenism in the Ukraine. Minorities under communist rule were not allowed to learn or speak their respective language, and for many Greeks, it wasn’t until 1991 that they were able to learn to speak their mother tongue. I am amazed at how well many Greeks have learnt modern Greek and how the ancient dialect has somehow survived despite the best efforts of the former communist regime to suppress the cultures of minorities.
One can’t help being inspired by visiting Marioupolis and the towns that surround the city, and the Greek towns. Despite the obstacles in their path, such as lower income rates (compared to the rest of Europe) and the effects of communism, there are many amazing people that I encountered who are a credit to the cause of maintaining Hellenism in their special region. There are 25 Greek towns and villages outside of Marioupolis and I had the pleasure of visiting six of them. From the moment I arrived until the day I departed from this country, I was impressed by the determination of the Greeks and their villages to survive. Many of these villages and towns have sizeable populations. Sartana for example has 10,000 with 70% being of Greek origin. A visitor is immediately struck and impressed by how the Greeks paint the houses white with either blue or green windows and doors to signify their ancestry. This is the local Greek way of displaying their determination and willingness to show the whole world where their hearts lie.
Yalta, which literally means “Glass of the sea,” was another Greek village that I visited and I was taken on a tour by my new friend Sergey Pazizin and his uncle. (Sergey’s uncle by the way is the director of the Theatre of Marioupolis, by far and way the most impressive building in Marioupolis). A thriving seaside town of 6,000 with a Greek population that accounts for 80%, Yalta has a magnificent Orthodox Church to rival any seen in Greece, this is also the birthplace of former Moscow Mayor and famous writer of Hellenic background Gavriil Popov. His generous donations have helped the town finish the church.
Sergey organised for me to have lunch at Yalta’s resort with the Town’s Mayor, Minayev Dmitrij and the energetic President of the Greek Association of Yalta, the charismatic and dedicated Valentina Chelpan, as well as a visit to various schools. If ever I needed evidence to highlight the sense of patriotism, it was at the schools. Whether it was the beautiful Greek alfrescos, the children learning Greek or the enthusiasm and hard work of each Principal and their staff to teach Modern Greek, I was truly impressed. Until 1991, Greek was banned from being taught at schools and this ban had been in place since 1937. It is worth noting that the Greek Government sends out teachers and many teachers such as Sergey have been to Greece to learn Modern Greek. However, the Greek state should provide more teaching places and greater funds to cater for thirst of the children and the community to learn.
Athena’s family is a special and revered family in Marioupolis. Athena’s father kept the spirit of Hellenism alive during the dark days of communist rule and her mother, Olympiada, has done the same for the last few years. Eduard Khadzhynova, recorded the first songs of the local Greek dialect in the 1970’s, whilst Athena’s brother Kostas, who edits the Greeks of Azov website, is so passionate about Hellenism he once flew to Cyprus to record an interview at the spur of the moment of a dying Greek teacher, Servas Poloutis, who had taught in the Ukraine in the 1930’s. I even had the pleasure of visiting an aunt of Athena’s, Alla Dremukha, in the village of Sartana who spent the afternoon conversing with me in her native tongue-the classical and Byzantine dialect. This was akin to stepping back in time and listening to how the Greeks would have spoken all those years ago. It was a day I will never forget.
The Greek towns, like any you will find in Greece are also famous for the local panagiria-festivals and every two years the cultural Olympics are held and different towns get the opportunity to play host. You will find thousands of people dancing, singing, enjoying sport and cultural activities-a true highlight on the Greek calender and an important avenue to promote Hellenism among the local Greek and Ukrainian population.
Over the years I have encountered many fellow travellers who enjoy visiting museums. As a traveller I am more interested in people and what the landscapes have to offer, so it was with reluctance that I was taken to visit the Greek museum in Sartana. Fearing a boring afternoon in a museum, I prepared for the worst. What I encountered was most unexpected. Upon entering the humble yet palatial museum I felt as though I had taken a step back into history even though the museum is approximately 10 years old. I was greeted by the staff and volunteers who were dressed in their Hellenic costumes-especially for this stranger from Australia. The moment I entered and was greeted by these wonderful people, I knew that I was not entering any ordinary museum. I was given a tour by Tatania Bogaditsa who spoke to me in a combination of the Greek dialect and Ukrainian and I was truly amazed at how well many of the local Hellenic items were preserved, especially when you consider how destructive the Soviets had been. The top floor even consists of a specially designed display room using material and items from over a hundred years ago to show what a typical Greek home would have looked and felt like. Perhaps the most lasting memory I will take away from the museum is the song and poetry recital performed for my benefit. The song and poetry was sung from the heart with such emotion and beauty that Pinder himself would be proud. The song, “H Teleftaia Patrida (my last homeland),” was actually written by Athena’s father many years ago.
Such beautiful music, not only touched this traveller, it served as a reminder of how rich Greek arts are in the Ukraine. I had heard similar enchanting music from Tamara Katsy who tragically died in a car crash a few years earlier. Her music and her legacy can be felt around the towns and villages of the Sea of Azov. I also had the privilege of visiting her tomb in Sartana, her place of birth.
On each of my adventure filled days in Marioupolis, I had the pleasure of meeting some remarkable people. Aleksandra Protsenko, the President of the Federation of Greek Societies of the Ukraine, the charming and diligent Greek Consul-General, Anastassios Petrovas, and the prominent Greek journalist and documentary maker, Stellios Ellianides, who is revered and loved by locals who look forward to his frequent visits from Athens. In fact, Stellios is considered not just a member of the Greek “family” of Marioupolis, but he is their defacto voice in Athens, promoting their needs to Greek authorities. His love of the Greeks of Marioupolis is akin to the love a father has for his children.
With limited funds but with the energy and determination reminiscent of the Greek heroes of yesteryear, Aleksandra and her staff have helped cultivate and represent local Hellenic culture. The Federation building is also the site of the recently opened and impressive Medical Centre and Hospital, which was built by international funds from Hellenes abroad, with our own SAE Oceania playing a major role in fundraising. Kostas Karamanlis, the current Prime Minister of Greece, attended the official opening two years ago along with many prominent politicians from Greece.
The Federation with approximately 90 affiliates was established ten years ago and I found it to be a place of inspiration-not only are the staff carrying out important work, you can also find initiatives that include the distribution of a Greek newspaper and Greek singing lessons, among other activities. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a lesson taught by the revered Vasilis Alita. His class containing 40 people from Greek and Ukrainian backgrounds, all singing beautiful Greek folk songs. If I shut my eyes I can still clearly see Vasilis, or should I say Yiannis or Vangelis, leading the class, or better yet a choir performing from the heart as if they were at the amphitheatre at Epidavros in Greece.
I had a magical week in Marioupolis and the surrounding towns-the romantic and idealistic side of me felt a connection with the people and their struggles. I learnt a lot about my own culture and I admire the will of the people to overcome enormous odds and difficulties to succeed. Considering that the Ukraine is now at the dawn of a new era as it begins to look to the west, I hope readers can consider visiting the country and making a visit to this incredible place. With the possibility of tourism and hopefully meaningful economic ties with Greece and Europe, the Greeks of the Sea of Azov (and the Black Sea) can only benefit from external support. Its time we supported all those countries in Europe (southern Italy, southern Albania) and the Middle East (countries from the Black Sea to Pakistan) that still have descendents of classical or Byzantine Greece living there. So next time we go on an international holiday ask your travel agent about including these places in your itinerary. For more information check out the following websites: azov.nostos.gr or http://www.iky.gr or you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author’s note some of these places are hard to get to, but a bit of research on the world wide web will get you there.