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Guest Viewpoints

Anthropological History of Mariupol Greeks

Mariupol – Marioupolis in Greek, ‘City of Mary’, has been a focal point of extremely brutal fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries today. Due to the fierce house to house combat, many of the city’s Greek population are now endangered. The Greek population of Mariupolis has a rich history, with both enlightening events and tragic outcomes.

Before the city of Marioupolis was founded, early Greek presence in Ukraine had been difficult to estimate, but one of the earliest colonies in modern-day Ukraine dates to Pontian Greek colonization along the Black Sea coast. They are considered as part of today’s Rûm community after Christianity spread through the territories of the Roman Empire along the Black Sea and then to the Kievan Rus thanks the emperor Basil II. Many Greeks in the region today are descendants of Pontian Greeks, many whom settled in the BC era, Roman era, or during the wave of refugees from the Ottoman conquest of the Empire of Trebizond in 1461 AD.

The region between Crimea and the Donbas went through a turbulent period when the Rus were turned into vassals by the Golden Horde and their successor, the Crimean Khanate, which influenced those lands for several hundred years. Around 1778, close to 18,000 Greeks moved from the Crimean Khanate towards the Azov Sea, where they founded their own autonomous enclave. They were given permission by Catherine the Great of Russia after taking back lands held by the Ottomans and their Tatar vassals in the region.

Due to forcible assimilation by Mongol and Turkic tribes, much of the Mariupol Greeks’ dialect was lost. Romeiis and Urums were the primary dialects for them until the late 19th century. In the modern era, the dialect primarily used was Rumeika, with Pontian Greek being spoken in the city as well. Even though Rumeika is a version of Pontian, many refer to it as one of the separate Greek dialects. Though these languages and the Greek community thrived in Mariupol, a major turning point was the rise of the Bolsheviks, especially the Red Terror under Josef Stalin. Many Mariupol Greeks were accused of being bourgeoisie and traitors to the Soviet Union; the most absurd charges pertained to studying their own sacred and ancient language. Many Pontian Greeks were deported throughout the lands of the USSR, and they even wrote a song about their deportations as well to Kazakhstan.

Despite the communist repressions, the Mariupol Greeks remained true to the USSR and fought against Nazi Germany in World War II. After the death of Stalin, the Greek population of the region started to stabilize and grow as Soviet repressions in the region died down in the latter half of the 20th century. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the Mariupol Greeks were now part of the Ukrainian nation that declared independence from the USSR on August 24, 1990. Greek influence remained high in the city. There is a museum of history for the Azov Greeks and there are Hellenic events and parades in the rich city. Today, Greeks of the Azov represent about 4.3% of the population, though many have fled the city during the Russo-Ukrainian War. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has pledged support in rebuilding the city to keep its Hellenic heritage intact and like any Hellenic city that has suffered from tragedy, Mariupol will rise from the ashes and prosper again.

Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims who never get their voices heard.


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