Ukraine has long been a site of Hellenic history with Greek populations present in the area for over two thousand years. Specifically, of crucial importance for the Greeks of Ukraine is the decree of Catherine II of Russia in 1778, according to which the Greeks and other Christian populations of Crimea were ordered to leave the area. The Greeks were given land to settle on the coast of the Sea of Azov. There they founded a city which today is unfortunately known to us for its tragedy, Mariupol. So to Mariupol, which has been completely destroyed by the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict, the Greeks gave the name of the Holy Mother. The word “Mariupol” literally means the city of Virgin Mary. This article will focus on the history of the Greeks on the north coast of the Black Sea and the reasons for which the decree of the great Catherine of Russia was issued.
Counting Over 2,500 Years of Presence
The ancient Greek city-states began establishing colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea as early as the 6th century BC, so their presence in this land counts two and a half millennia. The Greek communities there flourished mainly through trade with other peoples. Until the Hellenistic period, they were to some extent autonomous, but later they were subsumed into the great empires, either Roman, Byzantine (Eastern Roman), Mongol or Ottoman (Agtzides 2022).
The Greeks are the most historic population of the Crimean peninsula. The ruins of the ancient Greek cities of Hersonissos, Fanagoria, Theodosia, etc. testify to the old glory of the Greeks. On the other hand, many Crimean toponyms have Greek roots. The name "Yalta", for example (yes, the place where the Allied leaders met in 1945) comes from the word "gialita", which in the local Greek dialect means "small beach". Until the arrival of the Tatars in the 13th century, Crimea was a purely Greek region (Agtzides 2022).
Despite the conquest by the Tatars, in a part of Crimea there was an independent Greek state which was occupied in 1475 by the Ottomans. The occupation of Crimea by the Tatars and the Ottomans caused great suffering to the Greek population; economic oppression, violent Islamization, forced use of the Tatar language, etc. Nevertheless, the Greek presence remained strong in Crimea until 1778 when a part of the Greek population left Khanate of Crimea and settled in the lands granted to it by the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great (Agtzides, 2022).
The General Framework Before the Decree
After the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 and its victory over the Ottomans, the Russian Empire, among other territories, annexed the Crimean Khanate to its territory. The ultimate goal of the Russians was to expand as far south as possible. In the background there was always the ardent desire to conquer Constantinople. Before expanding into the Balkans, however, they had to achieve the smooth annexation of the Crimean Khanate, a strong element of which was the Muslim Tatars. This smooth annexation lasted about five years and the decree of Catherine the Great was to this direction. According to this decree, all the Christian populations of the Crimean Khanate (Greeks, Armenians, and Georgians) had to leave the area and relocate elsewhere (Gentio, 2018).
Until now no clear answer has been given to why in 1778, when the situation in Crimea was controlled by Russian troops, the entire Christian population was expelled from the peninsula, which welcomed the Russian Orthodox troops and could be a pillar of the future Russian administration. Some historians of the last century suggest the romantic explanation that the Russians wanted to protect the orthodox population of the region from the Muslim Tatars who, as mentioned above, oppressed them. However, this answer probably does not correspond to reality (Gentio, 2018).
The Real Causes of the Relocation
With the conquest and annexation of Crimea, Russia secured influence over the Black Sea. The Russians also wanted to show the other European powers that the Tatars themselves wanted to become part of the Russian Empire. For this reason they placed on the throne of Crimea a man of their own, Sahin Giray. Sahin Giray tried to turn the Crimean Khanate into a powerful independent state, but Catherine and Potemkin, a Russian general and commander in chief, refused. In order to weaken the Khanate financially and push it into dependence on Russia, they decided to remove a social group that offered a lot of taxes, and therefore economic power, to the local administration. This Crimean social group consisted of the Greeks, Armenians, and Georgians, who controlled the entire trade of the Khanate. All of them were Orthodox, and this inevitably led to the choice of ostensibly rescuing the Orthodox from Muslim oppression (Gerasimchuk, 2017).
The Founding of Mariupol
The Greeks of Crimea were given land at the mouth of the river Kalmius on the shores of the Sea of Azov in order to settle. The Armenians and Georgians settled in other parts of the empire. In total, about 30,000 thousand Greeks were relocated. To the new city they founded they wanted to give the name of the Virgin Mary, which they believed helped them to move and settle in their new homeland. Thus, Mariupol was founded (Gerasimchuk, 2017).
As one can easily realize, Russia had the first say in the creation and destruction of Mariupol. In 1778 Russia essentially forced the Greeks of Crimea to become refugees and to establish Mariupol at the location indicated to them, and in 2022 they simply decided to destroy it completely, because it was a strong enclave of Ukrainian fighters. Finally, if one thinks about it, History hides many ironies and paradoxes. At that time, Russia used Orthodox Christian troops to impose its interests over Muslim Tatars, and is now using Chechen Muslims to impose itself on Orthodox Ukrainians.
Greek women of Ukraine in a public event wearing traditional costumes and holding Greek-Ukrainian flags. (2022, February 24). [Photo]. Greek City Times. Rerieved from: https://greekcitytimes.com/2022/02/24/agony-100000-greeks-of-ukraine/
The decree of the Empress of Russia, Catherine II in 1779. (2022, March). [Photo]. Kathimerini. Rerieved from: https://www.kathimerini.gr/world/561779416/i-megali-aikaterini-o-zntanof-kai-i-marioypoli/
Tsiagalakis, G. (2015). Greek colonies of the Northern Black Sea. [Map]. Wikimedia. Rerieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greek_colonies_of_the_Northern_Euxine_Sea_%28Black_Sea%29.svg
Agtzides, V. (2022, March 16). An unknown Greek force far from Greece; The Greeks of Ukraine. CNN Greece. Rerieved from: https://www.cnn.gr/focus/story/305117/mia-agnosti-elliniki-dynami-makria-apo-tin-ellada-oi-ellines-tis-oykranias
Gentio, A. (2018, December). The expatriation of the Greeks from the Crimea in the area of the northern Azov in 1778. (N. Zalevska Trans.). Aggeleiaforos. pp 98-99. Rerieved from: https://elibrary.kubg.edu.ua/id/eprint/29962/1/%CE%91%CE%93%CE%93%CE%95%CE%9B%CE%9B%CE%99%CE%91%CE%98%CE%9F%CE%A1%CE%9F%CE%A3.%20%CE%94%CE%95%CE%9A%CE%95%CE%9C%CE%92%CE%A1%CE%99%CE%9F%CE%A3.%20%CE%91%CE%B8%CE%AE%CE%BD%CE%B1,%202018.pdf
Gerasimchuk, A. (2017, April 27). Why were the Greeks expelled from the Crimea? How did the Greeks of Crimea become the Greeks of Donetsk?. (V. Tausan Trans). Ukranorama. Rerieved from: https://www.ukranorama.gr/el/sb-ellines-ths-oukranias/2285-zachem-iz-kryma-izgnali-grekov-kak-donetskimi-stali-greki-krymskie-2