When Greek minister of foreign affairs Nikos Dendias visited Odessa in early April, he spoke about Greece’s historic ties to the city. I was asked to comment about those ties in an interview with the Greek Current Podcast. Host Thanos Davelis gave me some time to prepare, and I welcomed the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Greek experience in the Black Sea port of Odessa.
I had been following the Greek media coverage that celebrated Odessa’s Greek connection by pointing out that the Philiki Etaireia, the society that prepared the ground for the Greek revolution, had been formed by Greek merchants in Odessa in 1814. Overall, those reports suggested that Odessa was yet another commercial, cosmopolitan hub where Greek diaspora merchants prospered.
That diaspora success story narrative is only partially true. There is an element of struggle and success in the history of the Greek diasporas, but the reality is often more complex. It all started very well for the Greeks when they were among the first colonists to settle in the new city that Catherine the Great established in 1794 in a region which was first inhabited by Ancient Greek colonists many centuries earlier. The seafaring and commercial skills of the modern colonists were much in need as Odessa grew exponentially thanks to it being the conduit of the Russian Empire’s lucrative wheat exports to Western Europe. Within a few decades the Greeks were about 10% of the city’s population. Wealthy Greek merchant companies with a presence throughout the Mediterranean, such as the Ralli Brothers, the Rodocanachis, and the Salvagos opened branches in Odessa. Soon after establishing the Filiki Etaireia, the Greeks of Odessa also founded the prestigious Helleno-Commercial School in 1817. Its name confirms their important economic role in Odessa.
Yet not everything was rosy for the Greeks. The local Russians envied the wealth being amassed by the foreign merchants, Greeks, Italians, other Europeans, and Jews. The authorities worried that the presence of all those communities would stymie the rise of an indigenous Russian entrepreneurial class. They pressured the foreigners to acquire Russian citizenship, which came at a considerable monetary cost, and to also assimilate and even change their Greek names to Russian ones. Thus, for example, Avierinos became Averoff. It may have been that a distant ancestor of mine named Kitros became Kitroeff, but this is a hypothesis that needs further research.
Despite the pressures of Russification, the Greek merchants continue the wheat exporting business. This ended with Russia’s defeat in the Crimean Wars in the 1850s which brought a devastating economic recession. By the time the economy recovered, Russian exports had to compete with the so-called ‘grain invasion’ – the American wheat that began reaching Europe. This meant Russian wheat lost some of its markets. At the same time, in Russia itself new technologies such as railroad transport and telegraph communications helped the rise of Russian merchants and also Jewish merchants who were content to work with smaller profit margins than those preferred by the Greeks. All the big Greek merchant companies closed their branches in Odessa, never to return.
It was not quite the end for the Greeks, but it was the beginning of the end. Their numbers began to diminish, even though those who remained retained a sense of Greekness and community. They turned to secondary areas of the city’s business life, construction, textiles, flour mills. There was one exception, a success story but one by a Greek who fully assimilated into the Russian elite. Grigoris Maraslis, or Grigori Marazli in Russia, was born in 1831 in Odessa, his father was from Evia, his mother was from Constantinople. They were among the wealthiest families in the city. Grigoris became a Russian citizen and served as mayor of Odessa from 1878 to 1894. During his tenure the city experienced an era of urban revival and modernization.
But Maraslis could do nothing to prevent the steady exodus of Greeks. By the early twentieth century Odessa’s economy was in decline, due to a combination of crop failures and its port facilities not being able to keep up with the modernization of other ports in Southern Russia.
Greeks were already leaving the city, and those that remained were mostly artisans, shopkeepers, and employees. The Jews were also leaving because of the rise of Antisemitism. Odessa’s cosmopolitanism was coming to an end. Rather than struggle and success, the story of the Greeks of Odessa was typical of so many other Greek diasporas. An ability to seek out opportunities, to assimilate without losing their identity, and adapt to changing circumstances until that was no longer possible. But as I said in the podcast interview, it is still important that Greece honors their legacy because their experience was so common with other Greek diaspora communities.