Greeks - Orientation
Identification. The Greek population of the former USSR is the result of various waves of immigration: the Greeks of the Crimea, who settled in the Mariupol region in the 1770s; those who originate from Greece, including the few remaining political refugees who fled Greece after the civil war in 1948-1949; and those who came from the historical Pontus (in the Black Sea region of present-day Turkey) and settled along the Black Sea coast in Russia. These Pontian Greeks arrived in Russia during the nineteenth century, but the last and largest influx settled in the Soviet Union between 1916 and 1924. As Pontian Greeks form the overwhelming majority in the Soviet Greek population, it is primarily to them that this article will refer.
Location. Greeks are scattered throughout many of the nations that were republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Most live in areas near the Black Sea, in eastern Ukraine, and the Transcaucasian regions of southern Russia and Georgia.
Demography. Although the number of Greeks in the USSR was listed in 1989 as 358,000, many believe that the total may be well over 500,000, perhaps 1 million if children of mixed marriages are counted. It appears that there are thousands of Greeks in the Soviet Union who were not officially listed, and, in general, population figures remain approximate, based on local knowledge rather than state statistics. There are still up to 100,000 Greeks living in Central Asia, a legacy of Stalin's persecution in the 1930s and 1940s, when much of the Greek population was sent into exile all over the Soviet Union. The majority of Greeks, however, are scattered throughout three republics bordering the Black Sea. Nongovernmental and diplomatic sources suggest that approximately 120,000 live in eastern Ukraine, about 120,000 in Georgia, and 150,000 in southern Russia.
Like some other ethnic minorities (in particular Jews and Germans) who are eager to leave the former Soviet Union, many Greeks now seek to emigrate to Greece. In 1990, 22,500 Pontian Greeks left the Soviet Union, a dramatic increase from previous years. Figures for 1991 indicate that about 1,800 are leaving every month, primarily from Central Asia and Georgia.
Linguistic Affiliation. Today most Greeks in the former USSR speak Russian, with a significant number speaking their traditional Pontian language. Pontian is a Greek dialect that derives from the ancient Ionic dialect and resembles ancient Greek more than the modern "demotic" Greek language. It has been influenced by many other languages, reflecting the historical contacts that Pontian Greeks had with other cultures including the Romans, Venetians, Persians, Georgians, and above all, the Turks.
Until recently, the ban on teaching Greek in Soviet schools meant that Pontian was spoken only in a domestic context. Consequently, many Greeks, especially those of the younger generation, speak Russian as their first language. In republics such as Georgia, it is normal for Greeks to speak Georgian and Russian as well as Pontian. Linguistically, Greeks are far from being unified. In the Ukraine alone, there are at least five documented Greek linguistic groups, which are broadly categorized as the Mariupol dialect. Other Greeks in the Crimea speak Tatar, and in regions such as Tsalka in Georgia there are numerous Turkophone Greeks. In recent years, the Gorbachev regime permitted Greeks to teach their own language again, and a number of schools are now teaching Greek. Because of their strongly philhellenic sentiments and ambitions to live in Greece, this is normally modern, "demotic" Greek rather than Pontian.