Greeks of the steppe


Galina Chumak, director of the Donetsk Regional Arts Museum, says it's foolish to be proud of her Greek heritage but she can't help it. Here she stands before a 1952 painting in the museum called "Moving In," which features a proud Soviet family and a portrait of Josef Stalin, who died the next year. He killed 20,000 Soviet Greeks. (Will Englund/The Washington Post)
November 10, 2012

Galina Chumak is proud to be Greek, however foolish she knows that pride may be. It wasn’t anything she did, she points out, just the circumstance of birth into what may be Ukraine’s oldest existing ethnic group. The Greeks arrived in present-day Ukraine before the Tatars, before the Russians, before the Jews, possibly even before the Ukrainians themselves.

They were settlers from the civilization that we think of today as ancient Greece. They came to the Crimea — a dramatically mountainous peninsula that juts into the Black Sea — in the 5th century B.C., or maybe even the 7th, or just possibly, says Chumak, who once worked on archaeological digs there, the 9th. That would be before Homer got around to composing “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

There are about 91,000 Greeks in Ukraine, according to the last census, but they don’t live in the Crimea anymore, and that fact lies at the heart of one of those arguments that Ukrainian Greeks love to bat around, and have been doing so ever since they left there in 1778.

What’s indisputable, though, is that when they got to the region around today’s Donetsk, in easternmost Ukraine, after a harrowing two-year trek, they were most definitely the first settlers, clearing virgin land at the behest of its new ruler, an empress far away on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Irony is a Greek word, so that’s Irony No. 1. The Crimean Greeks lived for about 300 years under the rule of the Muslim Khanate, and when imperial Russia made a move to conquer the Crimea they asked Catherine the Great, fellow Orthodox Christian, to offer them her protection.


Galina Chumak, director of the Donetsk Regional Arts Museum, stands before a reproduction of an ancient bust of a Greek charioteer. (Will Englund/The Washington Post)

Sure, she said (or words to that effect). You’ll be best off if you leave your homes of the past two millenniums and set up shop in this other land I’ve just acquired, far to the east. Oh, and that means all of you. Now.

“She awarded lands to the Greeks,” exclaimed Yelena Prodan, head of the Donetsk Greek Society, at a board meeting one night recently. “Orthodox Greeks were rescued from the Muslims.”

“We were deported,” Chumak replied. “People died from the cold, the lack of shelter.”

“They made themselves at home,” said Ivan Makmak, gesticulating. “And only the best, the most cunning, the strongest survived,” he added, looking on the bright side.

‘Just because he was Greek’

Starting on the shores of the Sea of Azov, the Greeks settled in villages on the steppe. They were exempt from conscription, which was a plus, and they prospered. When the city of Donetsk was founded in 1869 by the Welshman John Hughes, as a coal center, they began migrating into town.

They kept their native language — or, actually, languages. Those whose families came from the coastal towns of the Crimea spoke a Greek that was heavily influenced by the Turkic language of the Khans. Those whose roots were in the remote mountains spoke a language that’s descended directly from ancient Greek — closer to it, probably, than you’d hear in Athens today.

And that gets at Irony No. 2, but first, a word about the Soviets.

In the 1920s, in the first blush of the proletarian revolution, the early Soviet Union strongly encouraged the development of ethnic cultures, a sort of de-Russification after czarist rule. Here, a Greek theater opened, as did Greek schools and Greek newspapers. Greek poets flourished.

Then in 1937, Joseph Stalin decided that this was, in fact, criminal behavior. About 20,000 Greeks were executed, Prodan said, others deported to Kazakhstan or Siberia. Vasily Gala, just to take one example, was a poet who helped run a Greek newspaper. One day he was arrested and then shot, “just because he was Greek,” said his great-niece, Tatyana Patricha, who today carries on his work by editing Donetsk’s monthly Greek newspaper.

But the paper, called Kambana, from the Greek word for bell, is published in Russian, because so many have lost touch with their native tongue.

“After 1937, people were afraid of saying they were Greeks,” Prodan said. But deep in the villages, within their own homes, families kept the old memories, and the old languages, alive.

The second irony

Chumak, 64, spent every summer with relatives in a little village that had originally been named Karan, after the Crimean village, near Balaclava, that their ancestors had left behind. She heard the stories. They argued over Catherine. They pointed out to her a photo of her mother’s aunt, who they said had walked to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage in 1896.

Chumak got a job with the Ministry of Culture and for the past eight years has been director of the Donetsk Regional Arts Museum. But for the previous 30 years, she had worked with archaeologists in the Crimea. She found her family’s original village there; only an abandoned church remains.

It was no longer dangerous to be Greek by that time, but it was tricky. “In the Soviet Union, people could only tiptoe up to their history,” she said. “Now they can study it openly.”

And there’s the problem and the second irony. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, suddenly all the walls were down. You were free to be Greek. It was easy to go to Greece; Greeks came to Donetsk. Schools opened to teach Greek to a younger generation — but they teach modern Greek, to foster ties to the people of the ancient homeland. Museums and cultural festivals have sprung up to revivify Greek identity here — yet there’s a real danger that in the slowly dying villages, the indigenous Greek dialects, with centuries of history behind them, could wither away to nothing.

Then again, contemporary Greece is having problems of its own, so the cultural onslaught may slacken for a while.

“I’m proud to be Greek,” Chumak said. “But I’m happy to be Ukrainian.”

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