The Greek Odessa

Odessa, the Greek Street – the first street parallel with Deribasovskaya – in the early twentieth century

We actually wanted to publish this post some days ago, on March 25, the feast of the Greek independence, but it’s not yet too late. The reason was that the Filiki Heteria, “Friendly Society”, founded in 1814 in Odessa, one of the most important Greek cities of the era, played a decisive role in launching the Greek Revolution of 1821, as we will se below. We have illustrated the article of the Hellenist expert Tamás Glaser, written for our journey to Odessa, with pictures selected from Russian and Greek sites.

The history of Odessa was intertwined since its foundation with that of the Greeks. On May 27, 1794 Empress Catherine decided the founding of the city on the place of an earlier Ottoman fortress, and, incidentally, of an ancient Greek colony. It was first mentioned by the name of Odessa in January 1795.

As to the origin of the name, a number of versions compete with each other. According to one, the name refers to the ancient Greek settlement of Odēssos, a little further away, around the modern Varna in Bulgaria, and Catherine deliberately gave this name to the city to be found, so as to attract the hoped-for Greek settlers, whom – besides the many other invited ethnic groups – she intended to provide with a special role.

The settlement of the Greeks on the territories annexed to Russia as a result of the Russo-Turkish War of 1792 was part of Catherine’s “Greek plan”. According to this idea, Russia, acting as the advocate of the oppressed Christians of the Ottoman Empire, would undermine the Sultans’ rule by referring to its own historic rights going back to the co-religionist Greek Byzantium, with the ultimate aim of “erecting the cross on the dome of the Hagia Sophia again”, that is, to include the region in the Russian sphere of influence.

Greeks already lived since the seventeenth century on the northern Black Sea coast. Their number increased toward the late eighteenth century, when the territory gradually went under Russian rule, and when, during the repeated Russo-Turkish wars, the Greeks serving in the Russian army or those rebelling against the Turks (often on Russian instigation) and then fleeing the reprisals, mainly settled in this region with favorable climatic and economic characteristics. The majority of the immigrants at that time came from Epirus, Macedonia and the Peloponnese.

Greek women from the Little Arnaut Street. The Arnauts, settling in the mid-1800 at the then edge of the city, in the Little and Great Arnaut Streets, were Greeks originating from the northern Balkans and Moldova, often speaking Albanian or Vlach, who participate in a large number in the anti-Turkish wars.

On April 19, 1795 Catherine issued a decree, in which she offered various privileges (tax exemptions, low cost loans, commercial advantages, free land, and – not least – such personal and political freedoms, of which the majority of the Russian population could not even dream) to the Greeks and Christian Albanians who were willing to settle in the newly established city. From then on the number of immigrants dramatically increased. This time, most of them came from the islands of the Aegean Sea. The Russo-Turkish war of 1806-1812 brought about a new wave of immigration.

In the newly conquered southern Russian territories, the Russian state considered the co-religionist Greek population as a stabilizing factor, and thus from the outset sought to give them an advantageous position. Typically, the area of the city was divided at the beginning of its construction into a “military” and a “Greek” district. They set up a special committee for Greek affairs. In parallel, a volunteer Greek military formation was recruited, which took part in the wars of the following decades.

Odessan Greek soldiers in the early 20th century. From Katy Georgiou’s article on the Northern Greek diaspora.

At the foundation of the city the proportion of the Greeks was 9.5% (224 persons in a total population of 2349 persons), which by 1817 sunk to 5%, and in 1910 was only 1.8% (which, of course, was a growth in absolute terms in the dynamically growing city, at least until the mid-nineteenth century). The Greek consulate’s annual report of 1910 estimated the number of the Greeks at 10 thousand. (By comparison, the 1897 census puts the number of Jews at around 120 thousand.) The influence of the Greeks, however, was always considerably higher than their proportion: their role in the city’s commercial and cultural life remained dominant for a century.

The Greek trade from the outset was based mainly on the sale of the rich grain harvest of the South Russian black soil. During the Napoleonic wars, the Greek ships carried grain by breaking through the French and British blockades to Western Europe, struggling with the disruption of supply, by which their owners laid the basis for huge fortunes. In 1819 Odessa received free port status (the goods could be imported and exported with a significant reduction of duties, or sometimes even duty-free), which further boosted trade.

The port seen from the top of the Giant (later Potemkin) Stairs

Thus the Greeks had a leading role from the beginning in the city’s commercial and economic life. In the 1850s, the Greek trading companies conducted the most traffic. The resulting, often fabulous wealth was invested, in addition to the development of their own companies, into real estate acquisition and construction, but they also generously supported the Greek communities in Odessa, and in the Ottoman Empire, and later the Greek state, too.

At this point it is worth to mention, that one of the first and defining episodes of the series of events leading to the formation of the Greek state is also linked to Odessa. In 1814 three Greek merchants founded here the secret (somewhat Masonic-style) organization called Filiki Eteria (“Friendly Society”) with the aim to prepare the uprising against the Turks and the liberation of Greece. The uprising broke out just seven years later, in 1821, and it reached its goal by the end of the decae. The house where the Society was founded, together with the two other building attached to it, today host the Filiki Eteria Museum and the Greek Cultural Institute (Krasny Pereulok 16-20).

The history of the Filiki Eteria in the Russian Greek high school history book: membership certificate and seal of the society; taking an oath (in the picture, F. Koloktronitis, later chief commander of the Greek army); the founders of the society: Emmanuil Xanthos from Patmos, Nikolaos Skoufas from Arta and Athanasius Tsakalov from Joannina (wax figures in the Society’s museum in Odessa)

The families playing the greatest role in the city’s prospering settled there between 1819 and 1825. Many of them soon established merchant houses, which in a few years arrived to a dominant role. Some families from among the best known are: Rhodokanakis, Rallis, Papudov, Iraklidis, Mavros, Maraslis, Inglesis, Skaramangas, Sevastopoulos… In 1835, the Greek merchant houses transacted 37%, and in 1860 46% of the import and export passing through Odessa.

The merchant house as a business form had great advantages, which the Greeks could exploit more than the other groups. This was due partly to their leading commercial methods (contracting the crop in advance, continuous monitoring of the demand and the markets, organization of the flow of information, etc.), and partly to their extensive family and business networks covering the markets of the Middle East and Western Europe, but for example in the case of the London-based Rallis family, also India, Japan and even Northern and Southern America. In addition, the Greek merchants invested large sums in ship building and hiring, which allowed commercial shipping being separated as a separate business from other commercial activities.

From the early nineteenth century, the Greeks took the initiative in the establishment of banks and insurance companies as well. At that time they set up in Odessa, among others, the Greek-Russian Insurance Association, the Commercial Loan Fund and the United Hellenic Skaramangas Bank.

Some Greek monuments in Odessa, as shown in the Russian Greek high school history book: the port of Odessa in the early nineteenth century; the building of the Greek Cultural Foundation in the Greek Street; house number 1 in Greek Street; the Filiki Eteria Museum (the other facade of the Foundation, overlooking the Greek Square)

The Greeks were also at the forefront of the industry and industrial innovations. The products of K. Saliangas’ silk weaving factory, working with modern machines, were highly sought after both in Russia and abroad. The bakery of N. Ambatielos used the most modern equipment, Spiridon Patsiolas operated a well-established pasta factory. Several tannery and tobacco factories were in Greek ownership, but there were also Greek-owned shoe factories and salami producers, fish oil processing and wine production companies.

From the 1870s the Jewish merchants overshadowed the Greeks in the Odessan transit trade, and the American grain raised a massive concurrency to the Russian one. However, the role of the Greeks was far from being over, and was even expanding in retail commerce: they owned increasingly more shops and department stores in the heart of the city. The most famous was Petrokokkinos’ department store on the Deribasovskaya, which, according to contemporary descriptions, was nothing short of its Western European counterparts. It traded with colonial and industrial goods, and it had also Chinese and Japanese products on its shelves. Its stately, richly decorated building was one of the city’s attractions. The Greek businessmen, who became wealthy in the previous decades, now increasingly turned to real estate and construction business. The memory of their activity is still preserved by luxurious villas, elegant neoclassic and eclectic buildings.

The Greek church dedicated to the Holy Trinity at Ekaterinskaya 67, between Bazaar and Great Arnaut Streets
The Greek colony was served by a number of small and large restaurnts, cafes, pastry shops, of course often visited also by the members of Odessa’s other ethnic groups. The cafes – such as the famous “Konstantinopol” – were the centers of social, literary and artistic life. Several hotels also were in Greek ownership, such as Odessa’s finest hotel, the London on the Primorsky Boulevard, owned by the London-based Rallis family.

The Greek community settled in Odessa soon started to organize its religious and cultural institutions. Already in 1795 they built a wooden church, and in 1808 they consecrated the Holy Trinity Church, uniting neoclassical and Byzantine elements. In the following decades a lot of community organizations worked in the city, among which the most important were the Holy Trinity Greek Church Brotherhood (1864), the Greek Philanthropist Society (1865), the Odessan Greek Charitable Association (1871), which also operated a home for elderly people, and the Omonia (“Consent”) Club (1900), including the richest members of the Greek community.

The community also financed several high-quality educational institutions. The most important among them was the Greek Commercial School, founded in 1819, which also offered secondary and higher education, and gave education to several important future businessmen, scholars and politicians. This school existed until the Bolshevik seizure of power, and it had a rich library as well as – from 1827 – its own press. The other famous Odessan Greek school was the Rhodokanakis Girls Educational Institute (1872). Its professors included Kalliopi Siganu-Parrain, a forerunner of the Greek feminist movement.

Already from the late 1810s a thriving Greek cultural life evolved in the city. The Greek theater opened in 1814, and soon it became a focal point not only of Odessa, but of the intellectual life of the whole Greek world. Many important figures of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Greek intellectual elite visited Odessa, and several of them spent here a longer life, learning and teaching in the Greek schools. Some of the most important among them are the leading 19th-century historian Konstandinos Paparrigopoulos, the famous poet and polymath Alexandros Rizos Rangavis, the popular author and first IOC president Dimitrios Vikelas, as well as Iannis Psicharis, born in Odessa, who played a major role in the renewal of the Greek language. Interestingly, the Greek press in Odessa received an impetus only from the 1890s, but then they published five Greek daily newspapers and several journals until as long as 1919.

Grigorios Maraslis (1831–1907)
The Greeks played a role in the public life of the city which was appropriate to their economic weight and cultural importance. Between 1796 and 1879 Odessa had six Greek mayors. The most important of them was the last, Grigorios Maraslis, who held this position for 17 years, from 1878 to 1895. During his tenure the city developed rapidly, and was enriched with a number of impressive public buildings (Opera, libraries, home for elderly people, etc.), some of them founded from the mayor’s own wealth. His name is preserved by the Marazlivska Street, not far from the Bulvarny district, once inhabited by the Greeks.

The Greeks lived almost everywhere in Odessa, but most of them in the Bulvarny (today Primorsky) district. Here was also the “Greek market”, while the Greek Street running through the district still preserves the memory of its former residents.

The Greek Street seen from Richelieu Street in the early twentieth century

The prosperity of the Odessan Greeks was ended by the Bolshevik revolution and the intervention following it. In early 1919, a a Greek army also landed with the intervention troops, and the majority of the Greek population, which had few sympathy for the Bolsheviks, enthusiastically welcomed them. However, the fortunes of war turned, and the intervention forces retreated. They were followed by nine-tenth of the Greek population of Odessa and its surroundings, ca. 28,000 people. The survivors tried to adapt themselves to the new circumstances: the Girls Education Institute now housed the Greek Workers’ School, and some other schools and clubs were also allowed to operate. In 1937, however, the Greek communities were declared “capitalistic elements”, their institutions closed, and thousands of them deportated to Central Asia. This was the fate of the Odessan Greeks as well. Some of the survivors could settle back to their former place of residence only at the time of Khrushchev’s “thaw”.

Maria Karavia’s Οδησσός, η λησμονημένη πατρίδα (Odessa, the forgotten homeland, 1999) is a comprehensive book on the former Greek Odessa

In Odessa still there live some Greeks who are descendants of the old settlers, although we have no exact data on their number (according to unconfirmed press information, they might be about a thousand). Since 1988, they have also run a Greek club. Not far from the city, the inhabitants of a small village, Sverdlovo (Maly Buyalyk) are also descendants of the Greeks settled two hundred years ago. About a quarter of the inhabitants speak the language of their ancestors, and recently they have made serious efforts to preserve their dialect and culture.

Greek peasants of Sverdlovo in the early twentieth century

6 comentarios:

MOCKBA dijo...

Of course no discussion of the Greek Odessa would be complete without Bagritsky's legendary verse, a song it's become, "The Smugglers"

Lady Stardust dijo...

A sufficient mosaic of history and memory, a moving post...

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks a lot! Don’t you want to translate it to Greek? It could be published as a somewhat belated festive post both on your blog and ours.

MOCKBA dijo...

And in Crimea? Supposedly all Crimean Creeks descended from the 1790's Arnaut / Arvanite military settlers to Balaklava?

Studiolum dijo...

I don’t think so. Greeks did survive since the Byzantine times, even under the Khazars and Tatars. The official language of the Gothic Kingdom was also Greek, and the southern shore, not necessary for the Tartars, was dotted well into the 19th century by Greek and Armenian fishermen’s settlements. Think about Ulitskaya’s Medea.

MOCKBA dijo...

Yes, I see, the Balaklava settlers must have been the most famous Greek population group in Crimea, and the one with long history, but probably far from the only one.

Incidentally my 1790s date was at least 2 decades off. Wikipedia states that Balaklava Greeks joined Russian service during Orlov's Aegean Naval Expedition in the 1760s, and were granted lands in Crimea in the 1770s. The commander of the Balaklava Battalion was Stefan Mavromichalis, one of leaders of Morean rebels and an uncle of the future President of the 1st Hellenic Republic, Petro-Bey Mavromichalis