Another Punished People, the Pontic Greeks, Posing New Problems for Moscow in Crimea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 194

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Russian Pontic Greeks, April 2015 (Source: Facebook)

The Soviet government tried to force out the Pontic Greeks from the southern part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the early 1920s, and then subjected that community to three waves of deportation to Central Asia in 1937, 1942 and 1949. Now, the Russian successor state is having new problems with this community—not only in the southern part of the Russian Federation but also in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, including Donetsk oblast and Crimea. And while these difficulties are still below the boiling point, they have—both because of this history and because of their international links to Greece—the possibility of exploding at almost any time (, October 19).

The Pontic Greeks, who number perhaps as many as a million around the world and approximately 200,000 in the Russian Federation and Ukraine combined, are the descendants of Classical-era Greek settlements along the eastern shores of the Black Sea. They speak a distinct Greek dialect, have their own special culture, and have suffered many times from foreign rule over the last two centuries. Their experience with Russian rule during the 20th century has been especially difficult. Consequently, they view the Russian state with suspicion, which complicates Moscow’s relations with Greece itself. And this minority has resurfaced as a particular problem over the last two years given the Russian invasion and occupation of part of Ukraine.

The Russian government has wanted to promote the Pontic Greeks of occupied Crimea as a counter-example to the Crimean Tatars. Moreover, Moscow hoped the Pontic Greek community in Donbas could become an ally against Kyiv; as a result, Russian authorities have tried to promote Pontic Greek organizations in Stavropol and other parts of southern Russia. However, while some pocket organizations of Pontic Greeks have gone along with these projects, most of the 100,000 Pontic Greeks in the Russian Federation, the 80,000 in Donbas and the nearly 3,000 in Crimea have viewed these Russian efforts with suspicion and even hostility. Furthermore, like most numerically small peoples in the Russian Federation, the Pontic Greeks, although regularly brought out to meet foreign visitors—like the Greek prime minister last April—in fact are not being treated well and are subject to intense russification (, October 19).

Russian sources have been reluctant to talk about these problems, but they are sufficiently large that Moscow has not been able to keep its difficulties with this community from attracting some attention. One of the most interesting of these discussions was recently provided by Svetlana Bolotnikova of Kavkazskaya Politika. Her article focuses on the Pontic Greeks of Stavropol, but these observations extend to occupied Crimea and Donbas as well (, October 19).

Nikolay Matsukatov, the head of the 2,000-strong Pontic Greek community in Stavropol city, told Bolotnikova that general enthusiasm among his co-nationals had fallen to almost nothing, with the population aging, young people increasingly uninterested, jobs few, government support minimal, and pressure to assimilate to the Russian nation so great that the Orthodox Pontic Greeks often find it difficult to resist becoming Orthodox Russians. Indeed, Matsukatov said he was no longer sure whether he should call himself “a Russian Greek” or “a Greek Russian,” a measure of how far assimilation has proceeded.

That reality is certainly no advertisement for Moscow among the Pontic Greeks of occupied Crimea or Donbas, especially since, as Matsukatov points out, the Russian authorities both in Moscow and locally have promised again and again to support the community but in fact have done little or nothing, much as he said he had predicted. The Pontic Greeks have appealed directly to Athens, and the Greek government has promised to help; but so far, nothing has happened on that front either. As a result, the Pontic Greeks are ever less willing to take part in any public activities or to pay for schools or anything except the Church.

Matsukatov says that he comes from the village of Sparta, in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and goes home regularly: There, “the old people are dying out, and the young people are going to the cities and to Greece because there is nowhere in the village to work, just as there is nowhere to find work in Russia as a whole.” They assimilate, intermarry with ethnic Russians because “in the Russian Federation, the main people are the Russians and, therefore, everything is penetrated by the Russians” (, October 19).

Since occupying Ukraine’s Crimea, Moscow has tried to promote the Pontic Greeks as an alternative to the Crimean Tatars for the title of “indigenous people” of that peninsula. The Russian authorities might seem to have a good case: the Pontic Greeks were there at least a millennium before the Tatars arrived. But the fact that Moscow deported them three times—not just once, as was the case with the Crimean Tatars—and that the Russian government has shown itself unwilling to support even the minimal needs of the community means that the local Pontic Greek minority is, with rare exceptions, unwilling to come out in support of Russia there or in Donbas, where their numbers in many of the disputed regions remain large. As in so many cases, Moscow’s own policies in one area are compromising its policies in others.