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Deportations of Pontian Greeks in 1942 and 1944: Examining the Causes, Scale, and Locations

Pontus is the region where the Pontic Greeks lived until the twentieth century (before deportations).

Pontus is the region where the Pontic Greeks lived until the twentieth century (before deportations).

The period of Stalin’s terror was marked by numerous acts of mass deportation of ethnic groups. One of the lesser-known, yet no less tragic events, was the forced deportation of Pontian Greeks, which occured in 1942 and 1944. During these two waves, Soviet authorities forcibly deported over 30,000 Greeks from Ukraine and the areas surrounding the Sea of Azov to Kazakhstan and other uninhabited regions of the Soviet Union. Despite the ongoing World War II, the Soviet leadership continued forced deportations, aiming to subjugate and ethnically cleanse of the territories, even targeting relatively small groups such as the Greeks. This article will discuss the background, causes, and consequences of this Soviet policy. 

The Greek ethnic group has resided in the territory of Ukraine since the 8th century B.C. The Black Sea Greek colonies, such as Olvia, Thyras, and Chersonesus, served as significant trade and cultural centres. Throughout Ukraine’s history, they maintained their status as port cities, facilitating contact with other cultures and ethnicities through the mediation of merchants and sailors. 

During the Soviet occupation of Ukrainian territories in the 1920s, the Soviet leadership initiated a policy of “korenizatsiya” (indigenization), aimed at involving native peoples in state development due to the existing inequality between Russian and non-Russian peoples in the country. Consequently, Greek schools were established, a Greek department was founded at the Mariupol Pedagogical College, the newspaper “Kolechtivistis” began publication, and Greek libraries and cultural centres were opened. On February 23, 1932, the first State Greek Theatre in the USSR was inaugurated in Mariupol. 

Thus, Greek education and culture in the Ukrainian SSR saw significant development but faced suppression in the subsequent years of Stalin’s terror.

With the establishment of Soviet rule, the Greeks, like many other groups, became subject to the policy of “dekulakization,” a strategy pursued in the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s to eliminate “kulaks”, or wealthy peasants, as a class. Traditionally involved in trade and agriculture, the Greek population possessed land and wealth; thus, transferring these assets to state ownership was not in their interest. Moreover, they insisted on maintaining their Greek nationality, rejecting Soviet citizenship. This resistance to Soviet policies provided the authorities with a formal pretext for mass arrests and subsequent deportations.

In 1931, nearly one-tenth of the Greek population in Ukraine underwent dekulakization and were deported to Kazakhstan. Between 1931–1932, Greek villages experienced a labor resource depletion ranging from 10 to 20% of their population [2, p. 162]. 

However, between 1935 and 1937, there was a significant escalation in the Soviet Union’s state policy regarding national relations, spurred by the implementation of agricultural collectivization. This initiative was not as successful as the propaganda machine portrayed it to be. Collectivization unfolded under challenging circumstances in the multinational and densely populated regions of the country, and resistance to it led to severe punishments from the government. Repressive measures were consistently applied, targeting not only to individuals and groups but entire nations. 

For example, the NKVD Directive No. 50215, issued on December 11, 1937, initiated the “Greek Operation”. The People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs of the USSR, N. Yezhov, rationalized the necessity for punitive actions against individuals of Greek nationality, accusing them of forming a network of nationalist, espionage-sabotage, and malicious organizations with the intention to destroy the Soviet system. 

Local NKVD offices were instructed by the People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR, I. Leplevskyi, to detain Greeks. This directive initiated a large-scale operation, resulting in an arrest of over 20,000 Greeks in the southern regions of Ukraine. To provide some context, the 1939 census reported a total of 286,444 Greeks living in the USSR [8, p. 220]. The “Greek operation” did not conclude the repressions; instead, they escalated with the advent of World War II. 

On April 4, 1942, L. Beria signed Directive No. 157, mandating the NKVD Administration in the Krasnodar Krai and Kerch to “immediately commence the cleansing of areas including Novorossiysk, Temryuk and Kerch, as well as settlements on the Taman Peninsula and the city of Tuapse, targeting anti-Soviet foreign and suspicious elements…” This group encompassed individuals identified as Germans, Romanians, Crimean Tatars and Greeks. 

At the end of May 1942, the State Defense Committee (GKO) adopted Resolution No. 1828ss, It mandated that, “In addition to the previously mentioned areas, within a two-week period, state-dangerous individuals from the Armavir, Maikop, Kropotkin, Lebedinskaya, Petrovskaya, Krymskaya, Timashevskaya, Kushchevskaya, Defanovskaya stanitsas and the Rostov region and the adjacent districts of Azov, Batay, Aleksandrovsky should be deported in the same manner…” 

Among the reasons for the deportation of the Pontian Greeks, the following can be highlighted:

The Soviet Union endeavored to artificially create an ideal citizen, one devoid of a distinct national and ethnic-cultural identity. This policy resulted in numerous arrests, baseless accusations, and severe sentences. Consequently, the USSR actively worked to eliminate “unreliable” elements, specifically individuals who refused to renounce their own national, cultural, and ethnic roots. 

In addition, a significant factor in the Soviet Union’s forced deportations of ethnic Greeks was the fact that about 20% of Greeks residing in Crimea retained Greek citizenship, either alongside or in place of Soviet citizenship. Consequently, based on the 1937 laws, they were regarded as foreign citizens, mandated to be expelled from the USSR or relocated deep within its territory to undergo complete “assimilation.”

Another underlying cause originated from the practices of the GUTAB (or GULAG). The state leveraged labor camp prisoners as a source of inexpensive labor, a demand that surged exponentially during the World War II due to the escalated need for workers in the military industry. The Greeks who were arrested and deported to the Far Eastern regions of the USSR –, where many military-industrial complexes were also transferred – were intended to be utilized as laborers.

Another reason for the forced deportations of the Greek population was Joseph Stalin’s personal vendetta stemming from failures in Greece. On the eve of World War II, the leader sought to establish a foothold in Greece to facilitate the spread of the communist regime. However, the plan was thwarted by the reinstatement of the monarchical regime under Metaxas on August 4, 1936 [7, p. 19]. 

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    By May 1942, 1,402 ethnic Greeks had been deported from the Krasnodar Territory and Rostov Region. Furthermore, Greeks were expelled from Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea coastlines of Georgia and Abkhazia, bringing the total number of individuals forcibly deported to 16,376 [6, p. 26]. 

    People were given only a few hours to gather their belongings. While some managed to harvest vegetables from their gardens for the journey, others could only muster the time to pack essential clothing. 

    In 1942, the designated relocation destinations were either Kazakhstan or the Krasnoyarsk Territory, with around 100-150 families being sent to Kyrgyzstan [5]. The travel time varied significantly; for instance, Greeks from Baku endured a 58-day trip to the “Trudovik” collective farm in the Petropavlovsk region, while the transit from Sochi to the Karaganda region lasted 67 days. Throughout these extended travels, they lacked facilities to maintain hygiene, arriving at their destinations in ill health [5]. 

    During stops while waiting for the next train, people slept under the open sky, grappling with persistent shortages of water, food, and firewood. To secure provisions, Greeks resorted to bartering their clothing and jewelry with locals at the temporary stops. 

    In April 1942, Greeks from Tuapse and other areas in the Krasnodar Territory were transported in regular passenger railcars, a strategy presumed to deter  German pilots from bombing what appeared to be civilian trains. However, once clear of the war zone, the Greeks were transferred to freight cars. 

    Simela Kochelidi, who survived deportation at the age of 12, recalled the journey this way: “A transfer in Stalingrad. There are already passenger cars. The Germans are bombing. We are leaving. We are already travelling through Kazakhstan. We stopped at a halfway station. Several people got off, including me and my uncle Kolya. We drank fresh water from a puddle [4].” 

    Based on researchers’ estimates, the 1942 deportations saw around 8,000 Greeks being expelled to regions such as Almaty, Karaganda, and Pavlodar in Kazakhstan, as well as the Krasnoyarsk Territory. A few families were sent to Mozdok (North Ossetia), Buinaksk (Dagestan), and several villages in the Stavropol Territory [5]. Special settlements were established for the Greeks, essentially consisting of dugouts in the steppe assigned serial numbers, and some were accommodated in prisoner barracks. Forced to abandon all their posessions, the Greeks had to rebuild their lives from scratch in places devoid of food and basic living amenities. 

    In 1944, the second wave of deportations unfolded. In May of that year, L. Beria presented a memorandum to Stalin advocating for the deportations of Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians from Crimea. He accused the Tatars of undermining the Soviet partisan movement in the Nazi-occupied peninsula and supporting the fascist occupation regime.  Regarding the Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians, L. Beria noted: “In the territory of Crimea, the current population includes 12,075 Bulgarians, 14,300 Greeks, and 9,919 Armenians…. The Greek population resides in most regions of Crimea. A considerable number of Greeks, particularly in the coastal cities, engaged in trade and small-scale industry following the arrival of occupiers. The German authorities facilitated Greek endeavors in trade, goods transportation, etc. The NKVD deems it necessary to deport all Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians from the territory of Crimea” [8, p. 221]. 

    This memorandum indicates that there were no verified instances of active collaboration with the Nazis among the Greeks, nor were there substantial grounds for such suspicions. Despite the significant participation of Greeks in the Soviet partisan groups active in the peninsula, working against  the Nazi occupation forces, this contribution was overlooked during the deportation process. According to Beria, the Greeks warranted deportation due to their involvement it “trade and small industry,” activities such as tailoring and fish selling.

    On August 18, 1944, the People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs of the Kazakh SSR, M.K. Bogdanov, informed the Special Settlements Department of the NKVD of the USSR that Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Gypsies, Tatars, and Karaites had been deported on ethnic grounds from the Crimean ASSR tothe Guriev region of the Kazakh SSR  in July 1944[6, p. 128]. Throughout that year, the NKVD deported them to special settlements in the Molotov, Sverdlovsk, and Kemerovo regions and the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. This involved a total of 37,455 people, comprising 16,006 Greeks, 9,821 Armenians, and 12,628 Bulgarians [3, p. 164]. 

    In contrast to the 1942 deportations where Greeks were partially transported in passenger cars, the 1944 operations faced no threat from German aviation. Crimean convoys accommodated about 2,000 people. For example, the final two convoys, predominantly consisting of Greeks, carried 2,256 and 1,950 individuals, respectively [5]. 

    Pavlo Angelidi, a Greek deportee from Pryazovia, recounted: “In September 1944, the convoy reached Stalinsk. People were housed in tents. The taiga was all around, and they were cutting down the forest because barracks needed to be built urgently; winter was approaching, and the frosts reached 50 degrees in those regions. Once they erected the barracks, families were segregated using sheets or sackcloth as dividers” [4]. 

    Therefore, the deportation of Greeks, akin to many other ethnic groups of Crimea and the Caucasus, was not a state act of retribution or an endeavor to forcibly address intricate interethnic issues. No conceivable justification, be it mass desertion, collaboration, or any other purported reason, can validate the forced removal of people from their ancestral lands. Settlements that had been home to Greek communities for centuries stood empty. Greeks residing in Ukraine andthe surrounding areas of the Sea of Azov were uprooted from their historical homelands, losing the roots and the way of life cultivated over generations. They found themselves in inhospitable places with no prospect of returning home. These mass deportations stand as yet another crime perpetrated by a totalitarian regime against its citizens, a testament to the ambitions of the Soviet empire that sacrificed the lives and futures of its people.

     

    Anastasiia Saenko, author
    Oleksii Havryliuk & Maksym Sushchuk, editors

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