Press play to listen to this article
When Afina Khadzhynova fled Mariupol on March 15, she had 10 minutes to gather a few essentials for the perilous journey away from Russia’s bombs – documents, blankets, emergency food supplies.
Left Behind: An entire archive documenting the history of the Romanians, part of the ethnic Greek population who have lived in southern Ukraine for generations. It is one of the largest and oldest groups of ethnic Greeks outside of Greece.
This story is in danger of being lost amid the near-total destruction of Mariupol and the surrounding villages. The port city of 450,000 has seen some of the worst destruction since Russia poured troops into Ukraine. At least 10 ethnic Greeks were killed amid that attack, according to Greek officials, and countless others were driven from their homes — and away from the materials that preserve their culture.
“What do you take with you from home first?” Khadzhynova considered. “We have pictures, we have works of art and we have the archive. It doesn’t fit in a suitcase; we weren’t ready to take it.”
Her father, a school teacher and folklorist in the 1960s and 70s, had spent his life building the collection, which tells Romanian history through a collection of photos, poems and songs. This story is now preserved in a house that is under Russian siege and may already have been destroyed.
“It’s all still there, a whole archive of Romanian history and culture,” she said. “It’s such a loss.”
It’s just one of many casualties amid the Russian attack that has endangered the Greek community in Ukraine – and its connection to Athens.
Efforts to preserve the group’s cultural heritage had previously helped challenge the stereotype that Ukrainian Greeks were overly pro-Russian. Now that the community is scattered and out of touch, Russia is taking advantage, spreading the narrative that Ukrainian Greeks are blaming Kiev’s military for the atrocities that are in fact linked to Russian brutality. Some Greek media even reinforced this narrative at home.
“Greece is doing nothing,” Khadzhynova said. “And the Russians are now using Greek to show they are pro-Russian.”
A story spanning several centuries
Romanians are part of the North Azov Greek community descended from the Greeks who moved Russia from Crimea to what is now eastern Ukraine in the 18th century.
The group, which numbers about 70,000 people, is split between Romanians, whose language is similar to modern Greek, and Urums, who speak a Turkic language close to modern Crimean Tatar. Both languages are spoken only in this south-eastern corner of Ukraine and both were severely endangered before the war, with no government programs to maintain them through tuition in schools.
Born in the village of Sartana, Khadzhynova belonged to a grassroots group of native speakers, researchers and activists striving to preserve and revitalize the North Azov Greek language and culture.
The war has now decimated the team.
For two weeks, Khadzhynova was trapped in Mariupol under constant bombardment, with no electricity, water, heating, or telephone and internet connections. She cooked outside, boiling water from a nearby stream on a campfire.
Every day she watched the smoke rise as rockets slammed into the other side of town, where her brother and two nieces live. She had no way of contacting them. Her friends and other activists from Romania and Urum could not be reached either, either in Mariupol or in the surrounding villages, which were bombed and passed under Russian control.
“The worst part was not knowing,” she said. “We didn’t know what was happening in the world, or in Ukraine, or even in Mariupol. We had no idea. It was too scary to even leave the house because we might end up under fire.”
When Khadzhynova and her mother fled, her building was one of the few that remained undamaged – although she has since heard that it, too, was shelled. Up to 90 percent of the city’s buildings were damaged, Mariupol’s mayor said, and thousands of civilians may have died, according to the UN human rights organization called.
Khadzhynova, who is now in Cyprus with her mother, still has no news on whether her relatives or many other activists are alive or dead.
The Greek consul in Mariupol, Manolis Androulakis, left two days for Khadzhynova. Many members of the Federation of Greek Societies of Ukraine remain in Mariupol and cannot be reached.
The president of the association, Aleksandra Protsenko, arrived safely in Greece at the end of March. But she told a Greek newspaper that the Greek center in Mariupol had been destroyed.
The Greek-Russian saga
The attacks on Mariupol initially provoked a strong reaction from Greece.
The Greek Prime Minister strongly condemned the invasion of Russia and promised military aid to Ukraine. Greece also pledged to work with France and Turkey to set up a humanitarian corridor to evacuate Mariupol, even offering to have its foreign minister personally lead the initiative. The country also pledged to rely on the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in Mariupol.
It was an abrupt about-face for a country that has long-standing religious, economic and cultural ties with Russia, dating back to the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century.
Nonetheless, the common affinity persists in both Greek and Ukrainian society.
Greek and Russian media have repeatedly claimed that ethnic Greeks in Ukraine have been discriminated against, as have Russian speakers. And within Ukraine, prior to the current invasion, much of the Greek community traditionally held pro-Russian views. More nationalist Ukrainians viewed the group with suspicion, particularly after 2014, when Crimea and parts of the Donetsk region, with their large Greek communities, came under virtual Russian control.
“I always defended the Greeks, even when they were pro-Russian, because people like to put everyone in the same box,” Khadzhynova said. “I have never been discriminated against or oppressed in Ukraine because I am Greek. But there is a stereotype in Ukraine that all Greeks are separatists.”
Efforts to preserve the Romanian and Uric languages attempted to combat these perceptions.
Oleksandr Rybalko, a linguist originally from Donetsk, began collaborating with Greek-Ukrainian colleagues in 2005 to research and promote these languages. They produced CDs of music and spoken word passages. They created phrasebooks and children’s alphabets with verses for each letter written by native speakers from villages around Mariupol.
“I wanted to show by example that Ukrainians care about these languages and that they are part of our national Ukrainian cultural landscape,” said Rybalko, who now lives in Kyiv.
The projects were volunteer work with minimal support from the Ukrainian state. Rybalko also worked to promote cultural tourism in Ukraine’s Sea of Azov region, planning a series of festivals this spring and summer that showcase North Azov Greeks and other minority cultures.
Like so much in Ukraine, these plans have now gone up in smoke. Museums housing Greek ethnological collections in Mariupol and Sartana were likely destroyed, as was the Greek department of Mariupol State University. Rybalko’s local staff and partners have disappeared.
“We’re all so worried because we just don’t know what happened to the people,” Rybalko said. “Sartana was bombed early and the situation in Mariupol is just unbearable now.”
From Cyprus, Khadzhynova has written to former Greek consuls in Mariupol asking to be included in Greece’s planned humanitarian mission so she can return to look for her nieces.
So far, however, the Greek reaction has left her and other Ukrainian Greeks disappointed. The government’s forceful early response has led many Greeks to speculate that it has gone too far. And a third of Greek lawmakers failed to show up to hear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implore them to help save Mariupol residents – a speech that sparked her own controversy when Zelenskyy shared a video of a Greek-Ukrainian member of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian army unit is now fighting in Mariupol, that was connected in the past to right-wing extremism.
Some Greek media even washed Russian propaganda.
In an open letter Written before her departure from Mariupol, Protsenko, who heads the Federation of Greek Societies of Ukraine, appealed to Greeks around the world not to let Russian propaganda triumph.
She implored people to “tell the truth as it is” that there was a “genocide of the Ukrainian people, the genocide of the Greeks of Ukraine by the Russian Federation.” Let’s call it a spade.”
“This is,” she added, “blatant and blatant terrorism.”
However, several Greek media outlets have given a platform to Russian media clips that portray exactly the opposite. Some have published stories uncritically quoting official Russian Twitter accounts. Others used footage from Russian media purporting to show Greeks from Khadzhynova’s native village of Sartana, now under Russian control, saying that Ukrainian forces had committed atrocities in Mariupol, that Greeks had been discriminated against in Ukraine and that the invading Russians would have treated her well.
Such material causes deep divisions within the surviving Greek community.
“What can I say now about Sartana Greeks?” said Khadzhynova. “I can’t deny my heritage, but I don’t want to be identified with it.”
Khadzhynova has followed such stories in Greek media, as well as the interviews with Greek Ukrainians who are now in Greece and criticizing Ukraine. And her posts about her on social media receive a barrage of comments from unknown accounts, reinforcing Russia’s fake version of the war.
Rybalko is experiencing the same on the social media channels he runs about North Azov Greek culture, which was once a niche interest group.
“People with very strange names are commenting,” Rybalko said, “saying it’s all Kiev’s fault.”
Nektaria Stamouli contributed to the coverage.
https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-ukraine-war-greece-roumeans-mairupol/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Russian Bombs Destroy a Greek Community Fighting for Its History - POLITICO