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Russian Cyprus

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Russian Cyprus


Cyprus, the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is famous for its excellent climate, golden sandy beaches, scenic mountains and secluded monasteries. Its strategic location has led to it passing hands more than once throughout its long history. And today Cyprus is a striking example of a “frozen conflict” one part is Greek and is already a member of the European Union, and another is Turkish, which is still not recognized by the international community.

Relations between Russia and Cyprus have a long history. Already in the 1st century, Christianity began to spread on the island. Orthodoxy was established, which became the key link between our two countries. Beginning in the medieval era, Russian pilgrims stopped in Cyprus en route to the holy sites of Palestine. It was in this way, 903 years ago, that Cyprus was visited by our first compatriot – Russian pilgrim Abbot Daniel. He was stunned at the shrines on the island and dedicated three chapters to them in his book “The Life and Pilgrimage of Abbot Daniel of Land of Rus,” which he wrote in 1106-1108. Among other things, he described the monastery on Mount Stavrovouni, which was founded in the early Byzantine era by St. Helen, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, on the top of a 700-meter-high rocky mountain. He also describes the unique wonder of the soaring cross. (In 2006, with the blessing of Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia and in connection with the anniversary date, a Unity Festival was held in Cyprus and an international academic conference in Russia.)

Then, for almost three centuries, relations between the two countries were broken off. In 1191, Cyprus was conquered by Catholic crusaders led by King Richard the Lionheart of England, and Rus was decimated by Mongol-Tatars. The next contact with Cyprus occurred only in 1370 when the Russian traveler Archimandrite Agrafeny visited the island.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Cyprus was visited by Zosimus, a monk from the Trinity-Sergius Monastery, who introduced Russian readers to the cities, villages and monasteries of the island, while paying particular attention to the Kykkotissa Monastery. In addition, from Zosimus’ works we can garner interesting information about the rule of the Lusignan dynasty of Frankish kings in Cyprus. A quarter century later, “The Pilgrimage of Igumen Varsonofy to the Holy City of Jerusalem in 1456 and in 1461-1462” was written. This work also tells about Cyprus.

In 1571, Cyprus was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and again for a long period of time pilgrimages by Russians to the island were interrupted. Only in 1708 did the monk Ippolit Vyshinsky manage to visit the island. He left a written statement on the situation of the church in Cyprus under the yoke of the Turkish conquerors. In the 18th century, a number of Russian travelers visited Cyprus: Nechaev, Hieromonchs Sylvester, Nicodemus and Miletus, and finally, the famous Kievan pilgrim Vasily Barsky (who visited three times). The travel notes of Russian pilgrims contain a great deal about the situation on the island at the beginning of 19th century, as do the memoirs of a nun by the name of Varvara, who provided substantial financial assistance to the Stavrovouni Monastery. High-ranking dignitaries visited the island and left records of their visit, including Avraam Norov, Hieromonch Anikita, and the poet Pyotr Vyazemsky.

Russia provided systematic assistance to the Orthodox island by sending financial aid through both civil and diplomatic channels through its consuls in Beirut and Constantinople. As a token of gratitude Cypriots usually sent church relics of their saints to fraternal Russian churches. An enormous role in maintaining close ties between the two countries, including those of a religious nature, was played by the Soviet-Cyprus Friendship Society, which was established in 1964 and included representatives of both the Cypriot Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Given the nearly thousand-year history of Russian-Cypriot relations, the fact that a Russian-speaking community appeared only recently on the island is surprising. That is how things turned out, however, for only in recent years have large groups of Russian speakers come together to form a full Russian diaspora in Cyprus. According to various estimates, the Russian-speaking community of Cyprus has between 20,000 and 50,000 people, most of whom live in the cities of Nicosia, Larnaca, Paphos and Limassol. Limassol has the largest Russian-speaking community, with about 10,000 people. The Russian diaspora in Cyprus is highly organized, with several large Russian compatriot organizations on the island. There are also Russian magazines, as well as radio and television stations.

As mentioned above, the oldest organization of Russian compatriots in Cyprus was established in the mid-1960s – the Soviet-Cyprus Friendship Society (currently the Russia-Cyprus Friendship Society). For more than twenty years the Romashka Cultural and Educational Society has been operating. It was established in the late 1980s by a small group of Soviet citizens permanently residing in Cyprus in order to assist Russians in adapting to life in the country. Among the largest Russian institutions on the island are the Horizon Association of Russian Speakers of Cyprus and the Larnaca Russian Society.

It is worth pointing out that the Russian Orthodox Education Center is the only Russia-Cyprus Orthodox charity organization that has been created with the blessing of the Cypriot Orthodox Church under the spiritual support of the Moscow Patriarchate. The center focuses on working with Russian pilgrims and continuing the ancient Russian Orthodox tradition of visiting holy sites of the island. The Russian Orthodox Education Center regularly (since 2006) holds the Days of Slavonic Literature and Culture in Cyprus, publishes books in Russian, organizes the Russian Orthodox radio station and holds educational programs in Russian schools on the basics of Orthodox culture. Finally, an important focus of the center is the Historical Memory Project, whose employees study the history of Russian Civil War cemetery that was recently discovered in Cyprus.

When it comes to the Russian diaspora on the island, the Cyprus Ladies' Club is quite curious. The organization celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2009 and actively participates in various activities with the Russian-speaking community. For example, last year the Cyprus Ladies' Club  held several roundtables in Limassol on medical subjects. Support for those events was also provided by the Russian Center for Science and Culture. On March 25, 2009, one of the largest hotels in Limassol was the scene of the Charity Spring Ball – 2009, which was also organized by this society under the patronage of Cypriot First Lady Elsie Christofia.

Cyprus has several Russian-language media outlets. The largest publisher – Vestnik Kipra (Cyprus Bulletin) – produces a newspaper under the same name, as well as several magazines (Shops of Cyprus, Houses and People). There is also a weekly newspaper called Europe-Cyprus. In 2009, as a result of a joint project between Plus TV and the Vestnik Kipra group of companies, a weekly news program for Russian compatriots called Telegazeta began broadcasting. The 45-minute program is broadcast on Sundays on one of the country’s leading television channels in Russian with Greek subtitles. It is devoted to various aspects of the life of the diaspora, as well as local news. In addition to the Telegazeta, the Russian-language television channel RTCY (Russian TV Cyprus) began operating in May 2009. From its first day of broadcasting RTCY has been on the air 24 hours a day on all of the island’s cable platforms that are accessible to the majority of Russian compatriots. Limassol is also home to the Russian Wave radio station. Vestnik Kipra and Rossotrudnichestvo have established special courses in Limassol to train journalists and production crews among local Russians and Cypriots. Finally, for the past seven years, the Russian community in Cyprus has had its own website.

Cyprus is full of opportunities to study Russian. The main interest in studying Russian does not concern the actual needs of the Russian-speaking diaspora but rather the large number of Russian tourists that visit the island (up to 200,000 visit annually from Russia and the CIS). Of great importance as well are the dynamic economic ties that are developing between the two countries. There are five Russian schools operating in Cyprus today: a state-owned school operating under the Embassy of Russia, three private general-education schools working under a program developed by Russia's Ministry of Education and the Angara Russian School of the Arts. These schools are the real centers of Russian culture in Cyprus. Their role is so important because children of mixed families study there. As for “adult” education, most of those studying Russian (businessmen, employees of banks and travel agencies, doctors, educators and students) do so in courses organized by the Russian Center for Science and Culture, which has branches in all the major cities across Cyprus. After a period of interruption, Russian-language instruction eventually resumed in state-sponsored language courses and at the Police Academy.

In this way we can talk about how in recent years Russian language and culture has reinforced its position on the island. One telling episode took place in 2000 in the city park of the largest “Russian” city in Cyprus – Limassol – when a monument to Alexander Pushkin was unveiled. Designed by Alexander Balashov, it was given by the city of Moscow to the island to mark the 200th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth (the monument was erected through the efforts of the Association Russian Businessmen in Cyprus). Another example took place in October 2009 when the 900th anniversary of Abbot Daniel’s pilgrimage was celebrated on Mount Stavrovouni. Through the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Education Center and the Russian Center for Science and Culture, a monument was dedicated to the first Russian pilgrim, thereby marking the beginning of the spiritual ties between the people of Cyprus and Russia.* Incidentally, for nearly fifteen years in Cyprus, a Russian Orthodox parish has been operating in the small church of St. Stelian where services are conducted in Old Church Slavonic according to the Julian calendar. In October 2009, an agreement was reached with the Cypriot Orthodox Church to build a Russian church in the name St. Nicholas in Limassol. Finally, we should note that since 2006, Cyprus has established a tradition of holding Cypriot-Russian festivals.

In conclusion, it must be said that the members of the Russian diaspora in Cyprus have taken further steps toward organizational cohesion. A striking example of this was the 1st conference of Russian compatriots in Cyprus, which was held at the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Nicosia on December 20, 2008. At this very representative forum, which was attended by delegates from thirty-three Russian organizations in Cyprus and representatives from the Russian embassy, a range of issues related to “Russian Cyprus” was discussed. Prospects for the consolidation of Russian communities on the island, problems related to preserving and promoting Russian language and culture, and protecting the civil and socioeconomic rights of Russian compatriots were among the topics covered. The conference adopted a draft concept on how Russian organizations on the island should function in light of these goals.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the island of Cyprus, once so mysterious and far off for Russia, increasingly attracts many tourists not only from the Russian world but also representatives of major Russian business (It is not, contrary to popular opinion, a “paradise” for the Russian mafia). The island provides all the necessary conditions for the formation of a full-fledged Russian diaspora, and this process is well underway. In Cyprus there are educational centers, Russian media, and Cypriot-Russian cultural events. All of this contributes to the favorable development of interethnic relations. This partnership introduces a new generation of Cypriots to the great heritage of Russia and creates favorable conditions for the adaptation of our fellow citizens who for a variety of reasons find it necessary to settle in Cyprus.

We can thus conclude that the Russian community in Cyprus has a very high potential for cohesion, consolidation and effective action. It can courageously stand on par with the larger Russian-speaking diasporas in Europe.

*    The project’s realization was made possible thanks to assistance provided by the Yury Dolgoruky Foundation for International Cooperation of Moscow and the Association of Russian Businessmen in Cyprus.


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