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Russophone Greece: Part 1
In 2008, Russia and Greece marked the 180th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. This modest number could lead to confusion, however, as the historical, cultural and political fates of Russia (as the heir of Kievan Rus, Muscovy, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union) and Greece (in the broader sense – Byzantium) go deep into the centuries. They are so closely intertwined that a similar example in world history is unlikely to be found.
It is common knowledge that Orthodoxy came to Russia from Byzantium. Greek sources gave rise to Russian religious art, as well as philosophical and theological thought. The names of many Greek personalities have become an integral part of Russian culture. The Russian language was created by Cyril and Methodius, natives of Thessaloniki. The Russian double-headed eagle and the very idea of Moscow as the Third Rome also came from Greece. On the other hand, in the modern era it was Russia that extended its hand to assist an Orthodox brother and free Greece from foreign domination.
The contribution of ancient Hellas to Russia’s history, culture and economy is undeniable. It could not have turned out differently, as the Greeks are one of the most ancient peoples living on what is today post-Soviet space. In the northern Black Sea region, Greeks first appeared in the 5th and 6th centuries. A new surge of Greek migration began after the Byzantine capital of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, which proved to be a major tragedy for Hellas. From that time until the beginning of the 19th century, the Greek colony in Russia steadily increased in size.
By the end of the 15th century, there was a Greek settlement in Moscow. In the middle of the 17th century, Greek monks who had arrived in Moscow were given a copy of the miraculous Iversk Icon of the Mother of God at the Nicholas Monastery in Kitai Gorod. The largest Greek community in the 17th and 18th centuries formed in Nizhyn. It lost its significance at the end of the 19th century, however, as more trade began to take place via shipping. Later, during the reign of Catherine II (1762-1796), Greeks appeared around the Sea of Azov, where their administrative center was Marienpol, which over time became Mariupol.
We should note that throughout Russia’s history, Greek businessmen and traders played a significant role in the country’s economy, especially in its southern regions. Unlike other people of foreign origin – Germans, Dutch, Brits and Jews, for example – Greeks felt very comfortable in Russia, as their Orthodox belief gave them the same rights as those enjoyed by the Russian population. Many Greek priests served in the Russian church and as rectors at monasteries. Russia sympathized with the Greeks living under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, and as such accepted new Greek settlers and sent aid to Athos monasteries. Many Greek military volunteers studied in the Russian military corps of coreligionists.
Russia’s mark on Greece prior to the early 19th century (aside from visits by pilgrims to sacred sites of Orthodoxy) was virtually nonexistent. This is not surprising, as the original Greek lands were part of the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 15th century, and Russia’s relations with the Sublime Port were, as we all know, quite unfriendly.
Russians occasionally found themselves in Greece, and sometimes these “visits” were very tragic. Examples include the history of Ivan the Russian – today one of the most revered saints in Greece. This story began in the early 18th century when the young Ivan was recruited as a soldier to take part in a Russian-Turkish military clash. Somewhere near the Azov he fell captive to the Turks, was transferred to Constantinople and from there to Prokopi in Asia Minor where he finally ended up in a Janissaries camp. For a period of 13 years, despite the dire conditions and systematic torture (for many years he lived alongside cattle with little food), Ivan refused to convert to Islam, instead accepting a martyr’s death on May 27, 1730.
When Asian Greeks moved to the Aegean island of Euboea in the 1920's, they brought with them his relics, and since that time, Ivan the Russian has been regarded as a common Greek saint. Thousands of pilgrims arrive on the island every year on May 26-27 to celebrate his memory.
Ivan the Russian’s act of bravery did not occur without leaving a trace, although the Greeks had to wait nearly a century before real help came from Russia. Only at the turn of the 19th century did Russians once again come to the ancient land of Hellas. The purpose of that arrival was to liberate Greece. As early as the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774, the favorite of Catherine II, Count Grigory Orlov, put forward a plan to liberate Greece and insisted on sending a fleet to the Mediterranean. Following the legendary victory in Cesme Bay in the summer of 1770, the Orlov name became a symbol in Greece of the victory over the Turks. Many Greeks began to attach it to their Greek names. On the island of Spetses, which at that time served as the headquarters of the Russian squadron, one Greek family abandoned its own name altogether in favor of the Orlov name. To this day, about 30 people with the Russian name live on the island. In 2003, a monument to Orlov-Cesme was erected there.
A few years later, the Russian empress herself put forward her Greek project. The plan provided for the expulsion of the Ottoman Empire from Europe, the liberation of Greece and the creation of a new Orthodox state to be ruled by her grandson, Constantine Pavlovich. This choice was deeply symbolic, as the first Byzantine emperor was Constantine the Great, and last was Constantine XI Palaiologos, who was killed by the Turks in 1453 on the walls of the besieged Constantinople. Both men were the namesakes for her son, Paul I.
The project itself did not meet with success, but nevertheless, by the end of the 18th century, Russia had made a major contribution to Greece’s national renaissance. In 1799, the famed Russian admiral Fyodor Ushakov launched a brilliant attack from the Ionian Islands and defeated the French occupation forces. Enjoying considerable support from the local population, he formed the United States of the Ionian Islands. It was the first independent Greek state after centuries of foreign domination and a real prototype for a future independent Greece. Moreover, Ushakov proved that he was not only a brilliant military strategist but also a talented diplomat. He wrote the new republic’s constitution, which later formed the basis of the Greek constitution. As a result, the Ionian Islands became a semi-state under the protectorate of Russia and Turkey. The Russian emperor Alexander I approved a new coat of arms for the Hellenic Republic, which depicted a lion against a white background holding a Bible in one paw and seven arrows under a cross in the other.
The islands have not forgotten the heroic Russian seamen. Beginning in 2002, Ushakov days are held every fall on Corfu. During the celebrations, sailors, city officials, Russian diplomats, Greek and Russian priests, as well as local residents and tourists march under Greek and Russian flags. An icon of the righteous warrior Fyodor Ushakov and several of his relics lead the procession, which is accompanied by an orchestral ensemble, Greek sailors and members of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Russia’s military presence in the Ionian Sea created a truly unique atmosphere in the United States of the Ionian Islands. Russian observers reported to St. Petersburg in 1803 that Corfu more closely resembled a Russian colony than a Greek city. Residents had become accustomed to Russian customs, and many of them learned to speak Russian. The republic was indeed a stronghold of Russian politics and Russian trade in the eastern Mediterranean and the Western Balkans until 1807. At that time, according to the Treaties of Tilsit, the Ionian Islands once again became French-controlled territory. After the peace treaty was signed, the Ushakov constitution was virtually eliminated, with the archipelago’s governance once again returning to French military authorities. The Russian community soon ceased to exist.
But Russia did not intend to abandon its historical debt toward Greece. In 1812, Russia put an end to what had been an unstoppable advance by Napoleon Bonaparte, and in the spring of 1814, Russian Cossacks were already in Paris. During the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, Russia was recognized as a leading European power. By that time, many Greeks had joined the ranks of Russia’s diplomatic corps and military command, dreaming that with Russia’s help their homeland would eventually gain independence.
In this regard, the fate of Ivan Kapodistria is quite telling. Kapodistria, a man who carried the dream of Greece’s liberation, planned and led the national liberation revolution. He was born in the Ionian Islands in the time of the United States of the Ionian Islands, and together with his father, he played an active role in the life of the new state. He first worked as a doctor at the Ushakov hospital, after which he served as secretary of state. After the Ionian Islands were ceded to France, the young politician joined the Russian foreign service, where he rose to the post of state secretary and the Russian empire’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
It is important to note that Kapodistria, his relatives and allies in the Greek uprising (1821-1829) were leaders of the Russian (National) Party, which represented the Peloponnesian Greeks and withstood the brunt of the fighting with the Turks on land. The culmination of the revolution and the simultaneous triumph of the Russian Party occurred in the spring of 1827. On April 4, at a time of severe crisis in the Greek uprising, the National Assembly elected Kapodistria as the first president for a term of seven years. Characteristically, he opened the National Assembly dressed in the uniform of the Russian Foreign Minister with Russian medals on his chest.
In April 1828, the Russo-Turkish War began, which became the main external factor allowing for the successful completion of Greece’s national liberation struggle. Under the terms of the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, the Turkish sultan recognized the autonomy of Greece, and in 1830, the country’s independence was recognized. Two years earlier, diplomatic relations had been established between Russia and Greece.
This establishment of diplomatic relations and the election of Kapodistria as president not only made Greek independence an internationally recognized fact, but it also seriously helped bring about closer relations with Russia. On October 9, 1831, Kapodistria was assassinated, seemingly by opponents of the Russian Party who were looking for a union with Britain and France. By the end of the 1840s, the Russian Party had lost influence and permanently withdrew from political life in Greece.
Despite the spiritual closeness and common fate the two countries shared, Greece eventually maintained a greater distance from Russia (often due to pressure from the great powers), preferring instead a neutral and beneficial partnership to a closer union.