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.
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.