It had been an unusually cold period for that time of the year in the Ukraine. We were waiting anxiously, freezing, near the village’s only shop. It was a rather overcast day. I had already asked people if they spoke Greek, surprisingly the responses I received were: ‘Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian, English.’ Then I heard a group of middle aged and older women speaking Greek. I rushed over to them to chat – but this was no facebook chat window. They were initially hesitant and frightened by an outsider, who seemed to be able to speak their language. As I did so the sun finally came out …… now lets backtrack for a minute. How did I get to this small village near the Black Sea?
Standing by the river in Kiev a few weeks ago I was relieved to be back in the Ukraine. This time I was here on a holiday and not to visit the Greek towns of Marioupolis near Russia. Kiev is one of the most fascinating cities in Europe; charming, elegant, captivating, visually pleasing. More importantly it has no Greek history, or so I thought!
When I wrote about the Greeks of Marioupolis (‘Ola Kala kai Panta Kala’) in 2004, I promised myself I would return to the Ukraine to experience local culture and cuisine. So here I was in 2008, taking in the sites with my friend Athena Khadzhynova who organised my Marioupolis trip all those years ago.
After visiting an Uzbekistan restaurant we made it to the river. It was nice and peaceful when suddenly, out of nowhere, Athena told me about the Greek towns of the Crimea and Odessa on the Black Sea. This was not why I came to Kiev! I didn’t want to know about the Greek descendants of the Crimea and Odessa, I just wanted a relaxing holiday in the Ukraine capital.
The next day Athena took me to a Greek restaurant (the food was exquisite) and then it was off to see the Agia Sofia cathedral. This was built by 1037 as the sister church to Agia Sophia in Constantinople, then a Greek city under Byzantine control. The cathedral was originally a 5 apse church and had 13 domes. There are countless frescoes of Greek saints adorning the interior walls. As I stood in the cathedral admiring the similarities with the Byzantine church, I began to realize that Kiev would lead to another Greek adventure.
And so it should. It was after all the Greeks under Emperor Basil II who converted the people of Kiev to Christianity by baptizing Prince Vladamir in 989. He took the Byzantine princess Anne as his bride. The Greeks initially provided Kiev with a Metropolitan and greatly influenced their culture. In turn, Kiev would thereafter send to Constantinople the important Varangian Guard and troops whenever they were required.
Within minutes of departing from Agia Sofia I had found a travel agent. The only available flight for the next day was to Odessa. So it was set, another former Greek place to visit in the Ukraine.
Before we arrive in Odessa, I thought a brief overview of Crimea is worth mentioning despite not visiting this region. The ancient and Byzantine Greeks have had a tremendous impact on the Crimea. In the seventh century BC, a number of colonies were established, including Berezan, Chersonesus, Feodosiya, Panticapaeum. Within decades a Greek kingdom existed that maintained close ties to Athens.
Hercules made visits to the Crimea – known as Tauris in ancient times, it is also known for Achilles and his wife Iphegenia who ruled on the island of Leuce. Euripides wrote ‘Iphegenia in Tauris’ and many other famous authors of ancient times wrote about the region including the historian Herodotos. Many poems were also written about Tauris.
The Pontians captured the Crimea by 114 BC lasting until Roman rule arrived in 63 BC. The Greeks of Byzantium held the Crimea intermittently from the fourth century AD until gaining real control early in the eleventh century AD. In 1204 control of the Crimean tip passed to the Greeks of Trebizond until 1461. Greek was spoken as a major language in the Crimea for 2000 years. There are still many Greek speakers and descendents in some of the towns in the region, a truly amazing accomplishment.
There are a number of Greek sites and musuems in the region, for a more comrehensive coverage see ‘Ancient Greek Sites in the Crimean Penisnsular,’ published by the Odessa branch of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.
Arriving at Odessa airport was a delight – you get to pick up your luggage from the back of a ute outside the exit. No such thing as customs and rigid security. I met my first Greek of Odessa at the airport – he was however from Greece!
Odessa on the Black Sea is the fourth biggest city in the country with a population of over 1 million people. It is easy enough to get around and even easier to find a Greek restaurant. Except of course the Greek ouzeri – we had instructions, a map, a phone a friend option and a recommendation from other Greeks to go there but never found it.
In ancient times Odessa was known as Olbia and founded by the Miletians around 502 BC. Over the next 2000 years the city had numerous overlords – the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Turks, Russians, as well as various other tribes or rulers. Greek persisted as a spoken language until the middle ages before subsiding. The Russian, Catherine the Great officially refounded the city with the name of Odessa in 1794, a play on the original Greek name Olbia.
During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s many Greeks from the Ottoman Empire found their way to Odessa. For the first time in centuries Greek was a language that was spoken, and spoken often in Odessa. Today it is the fourth language of Odessa. One of the main city streets is known as Greek Street (Grecheskaya) which I was lucky enough to visit.
A few blocks down from Grecheskaya you will find the Greek ‘area.’ The Greek Emporiko Kentro complete with Greek flags, columns, statues, Greek frescoes and Greek designed shops. I felt like I was in Greece except I could not hear the sound of motor bikes, young men shouting expletives for no apparent reason, no frappe and it was very modern!
The Greek church of Odessa is Saint Troiskaya located at Ekaterininskaya 67. In 1821 after the unfortunate murder of Patriach Gregory V in Constantinople, his body was brought here for burial by the Greek patriots.
Odessa will forever be a special place in Greek history, regardless of where Hellenic history may take us over the next 2000 years.
In 1814 several brave men met in Odessa to pursue ways to overtrow Ottoman rule in Greek lands. These men were heroes in the same vain as Hercules, Alexander the Great, Basil II, Constantine Paleologos, Nikolaos Skoufas, Emmanuil Xanthos and Athanasios Tsakalov. The story of the Philiki Eteria does not necessarily concern us here suffice to say that the foundations of Greek freedom had been firmly set in Odessa.
I had the privellege of visiting the home and musuem of the Philiki Eteria. As it was a Saturday, the musuem was closed. Athena, as she has so often in the past, came to my rescue and arranged for a private tour. The security guard spoke Greek, among a number of different languages and he provided us with a tour of this small yet, on a cultural level, massive musuem. You can say that the Louvre is one of the world’s greatest, but the Philiki Eteria has something else – it contains the key to unlocking modern Greek freedom. Not many musuems can match this important element.
The musuem also contains a Greek library, art classes, Greek books for sale and a Greek school. The school was established as the Centre for Modern Greek Studies in 2000, with 75% of the students being ethnic Ukrainian. I was fortunate enough to meet Nanoushka Podkovyroff who teaches Greek here. Her mother is Greek and father is French and has lived in Odessa since 1996. She seems to pride herself on teaching Greek in Odessa and spoke glowingly of her students, praising the Ukrainian pupils for their dilegence. She told me that Greek is also taught at some of the Odessan schools and the university.
So this brings us back to the Greek village – Xorio Sverdlovo (Malyy Buyalyk). After freightening the Greek speaking women – they seemed reluctant to talk to me, we decided to look for the President of the Greek society, Tatyana Orynyanskaya. The local Ukrainian women from the church called her on our behalf. She agreed to meet us with the President of the Village, Yuriy Kavanda.
The village has approximately 500 residents and it is about 15 km from Odessa. It is isolated and has plenty of open space for children to play and animals to roam. A beautiful Ukrainian church can be found at the centre of the village. We met both Yuriy and Tatyana at the church and soon migrated to the restaurant on the outskirts of the local village. I was really looking forward to eating Ukranian or Russian cuisine. As it turned out, we ate the local Greek food!
Yuriy was the first Greek person in the village to be elected to the post of President. He only speaks limited Greek but is proud of his heritage. Tatyana speaks a Greek dialect which is different to the one I have learnt in Australia. They told me that 25% of the village speaks Greek. The number was higher, however many have moved out or the young have not been able to maintain the language. Originally 48 Greek families came to the area in 1799 from Bulgaria and until this day the Greek language has persisted in the village.
We had an enjoyable lunch and it must have been interesting for anyone to watch. A Greek from Australia sitting with Athena, a Greek from the Marioupolis region where they call themselves Romai (Greeks from the Byzantine Empire – Roman citizens) and 2 Greeks whose roots go back to the Greek presence in Bulgaria.
Greek holiday and post script
In 2008 I went to Greece 5 times and on each occasion I have seen things that have upset me about my country – unruly behaviour of some Greeks towards foreigners, overpriced frappe, rudeness on some of the islands and a few unscupulous tour operators. Yet when I meet the Greeks in places such as the Ukraine who continue to hold on to their identity I can’t help but feel patriotic. The Greek spirit remains impressively alive and well in some areas of the Ukraine. From my end I was glad to have made the visit to Odessa. It puts the concept of Hellenism into perspective and makes me proud to be a Greek.