Relations between Greeks and Russians can be traced back to ancient times, with Greek colonization of the Black Sea beginning in the eighth century B.C. Archaeological evidence suggests that there were also Greek settlements on the northern shores of the Black Sea and in the Caucasus. Contact between Greeks and Russians increased in the era of the Byzantine Empire, and from the ninth century A.D. Greeks had strong religious and cultural influences in Russia and Georgia.
The Greeks were favored by both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and the latter specifically encouraged the settlement of Greeks in her empire. As fellow Orthodox Christians who were opposed to the Turks, Greeks were strategically placed in areas of southern Russia. The city of Mariupol, by the Sea of Azov, was founded in 1779 by about 30,000 Greeks. They have lived for centuries in the Crimea, under Tatar domination, but in Mariupol the empress gave them protection and the right to maintain their Greek culture. Odessa's population immediately after its foundation in 1796 was 3,150, about 2,500 of whom were Greeks. Both Mariupolis and Odessa became important centers for Greek culture and trade, and the Philiki Etairia (the movement that played a major role in the Greek fight for liberation from the Turks) was founded in Odessa.
Greek migration from Asia Minor continued throughout the nineteenth century, and, following the three Russo-Turkish wars, large numbers of Greeks arrived in southern Russia. As noted above, most Greeks in the Soviet Union are migrants from what was the Pontus, a region of northeastern Asia Minor bordering the southeastern shores of the Black Sea. Greeks of the Pontus region had lived under Turkish domination since the fifteenth century, and their population had become linguistically and religiously divided. The Ottoman regime had periodically forced the Greek population to choose between their language and their religion: as a result, some were Turkish-speaking Christians, some Greek-speaking Moslems, and others secretly practicing crypto-Christians. The Greeks from Pontus who settled in the Georgian plateau of Tsalka in the mid-nineteenth century were and remain Turkophone.
When the Turks began their persecution of the Asia Minor Greeks in 1914, their census for the Pontus listed nearly 700,000 Orthodox Greeks and about 190,000 Moslem Greeks. In the genocide of various minority nationalities that followed, the Turks massacred over 350,000 Greeks. From 1916 until 1924 about 80,000 to 100,000 Greeks left the Pontus and took refuge in Russia, the Crimea, and Georgia, where about 650,000 Greeks were already living.
During the period following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Greek population of the newly formed Soviet Union began to flourish, especially in the Transcaucasus. Despite communism's negative impact on the previously successful merchant community, Greek schools, newspapers, theaters, and literature continued to flourish. The number of Greek schools in Georgia rose from 33 in 1924 to HO in 1938. The political movement to establish an autonomous Greek territory within the USSR succeeded to some extent, with several autonomous Greek regions being established in 1928.
In the 1930s Stalin began the persecution and deportation of various nationalities. Among the innumerable victims (including the Volga Germans, Tatars, and Koreans) were large numbers of Greeks. Thousands were imprisoned and executed as "enemies of the people" or on charges of spying, and whole communities were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Siberia. Greek schools were shut down, Greek theaters closed, and Greek newspapers and publications banned. The deportations continued in the 1940s, and in 1949 over one-half of the Greek population of Georgia was exiled to the steppes of Central Asia. Official figures are not available, but, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who were exiled, about 50,000 died as a result of the appalling conditions in which they were transported or in which they were subsequently forced to live.
Following Stalin's death in 1953, exiled and imprisoned Greeks (and other persecuted minorities) were given some degree of freedom. A number returned from exile to the regions of their former homes, although rights to their confiscated property were never reinstated. Many were unable to leave Central Asian republics such as Kazakhstan, as they were not given the necessary documents. Unlike most ethnic minorities, the Greek community refused en masse to accept Soviet nationality and suffered for its attempts to keep their Greek passports. Many accepted Soviet passports only after their period in exile.
Under both the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, Greeks (with few exceptions) continued to occupy a disadvantaged position in Soviet society and were unable to obtain high positions in political, military, scientific, and academic hierarchies. This was one of many factors that further encouraged Greeks not to declare their nationality on their Soviet passports. It was only in the 1980s that significant changes began under President Gorbachev, and minority nationalities were allowed to express their identity openly. The suppression of Greek culture, religion, and language for so long has meant that, in many cases, younger Greeks in the Soviet Union have lost any obvious markers of their ethnicity.