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It has been a long journey: our parents left the Pontos. We were born in Georgia. Thereafter we were deported to Kazakhstan and from there we left for Kirgizstan. More than ten years ago, we sold everything and came to Greece. This is where we are going to die. Now, we must adapt [...] The life of my children will be easier.” (Maria, Menidi, 2002).

1 In the past, various massive “return” migration flows have resulted from persecution and ethnic discrimination caused by geopolitical instability, particularly the end of empires, colonial regimes, and multi-confessional and multi-ethnic states (Brubaker, 1995 and 1998; Čapo-Žmegač, 2005). The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was followed by the departure of Christian populations of Anatolia and the repatriation of part of the Turks from the Middle East and the Balkans. In line with the Lausanne Treaty signed in 1923, which aimed to “settle” the question of minorities, an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey was carried out. Entire communities were forced to migrate to allow the formation of homogenous national territories (Hirsschon, 1998 and 2003; Pentzopoulos, 2002; Bruneau et al., 2007). After the fall of the empires, population groups that had been living in the former colonies for more or less long periods became perceived as ethnic minorities related to the former colonizing power, such as the Pieds-Noirs (French for “Black Feet”) in Algeria (Baussant, 2002). No longer benefiting from their former status as a privileged social group, they were encouraged, and in some cases forced, to “return” to their so-called “home country”.

2 More recently, the dissolution of Yugoslavia forced Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, and Albanians living outside their “national territory” to migrate (Čapo-Žmegač, 2005 and 2007; Čapo-Žmegač et al., 2010). The fall of the Soviet Union instigated “return” migration of ethnic Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, Jewish, and German populations from Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as ethnic Jews, Germans, Finns, and Greeks from Russia (Dietz, 2000; Tinguy, 2003; Münw and Ohliger, 2003; Kosmarskaya, 2006 and 2010; Voutira, 1991, 2006 and 2011; Tsuda, 2009; Pratsinakis, 2013 and 2014; Kaurinkoski, 2006, 2010 and 2018).

3 Thus, since the end of the 1980s, some 200,000 ethnic Greeks from the former Soviet Union [1] have entered Greece, mainly from Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but also from Ukraine, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizstan. This figure represents approximately half of the total number of Greeks living in the USSR according to the 1989 census [2] (Ypourgeio, 2000).

Table 1: The number of Greeks in the USSR According to the Soviet Census of 1989

Figure 0

Table 1: The number of Greeks in the USSR According to the Soviet Census of 1989

4 These post-Soviet return migrations have been motivated by a composition of social (questioning of social norms and status), economic (economic crisis), and political reasons (ethnic discrimination, indigenous nationalism, political instability). They took place at times where these countries underwent notable political, economic, and social changes, and where former social norms and values were questioned (Polian, 2001; Humphrey, 2002: 21). For many people belonging to diasporic communities, “looking backward” instead of “forward” appeared even more desirable when their “historical homeland”, like Greece, was a developed country (Tsuda, 2009; Kaurinkoski, 2018). This departure was part of the national order of things and went hand in hand with a diasporic perception of identity linked to the nation state and national territory (Malkki, 1992: 30).

5 In the imagined mother countries, the policies of welcoming co-ethnic populations from abroad and the rationale behind them were vastly different. In Germany and Finland, the suffering endured by diasporic populations because of the acts committed by these states during the Second World War have placed their leaders face to face with a moral responsibility that has guided their migration policy (Tinguy, 2003). In Greece and Israel, ethnic belonging has been the basis of migration policies and obtaining nationality, because members of diasporic communities are thought of as being part of the “imagined communities” (Anderson, 2002) that make up the nation. Their right to “return” is thus based on the principle of responsibility of states against “theirs”. In Israel, “the Law of Return” is the main law of the country and politicians must adhere to it. In Greece, Article 108 of the 1975 Constitution also introduces a principle of solidarity with the diaspora: “The state takes care of the lives of Greeks abroad and the preservation of their ties with the motherland. It is also concerned with education and social and professional advancement of Greeks living outside Greece’s territory” (Tinguy, 2003; Joppke, 2005; Tsuda, 2009; Voutira, 2011; Fialkova and Yelenevskaya, 2018).

6 The right to “return” reserved for members of the diaspora does not automatically go hand in hand with socio-economic integration and the social and cultural acceptance of migrants. The work of Tsuda (2009) has shown that the valorisation of migrants in the host countries depends largely on the “status of the exporting countries in the global hierarchy of nations”. The geopolitical and economic positions of exporting countries affect the political reception and the legal status of their migrants in other countries; they also influence the position of migrants in the labour market, as well as their cultural and social acceptability in the host countries. In some cases, social characteristics, such as race, gender, and national origin appear more significant than personal successes in determining whether overall mobility is a liberating fact or simply perpetuates and exacerbates pre-existing systems of subordination by reproducing them in multiple localities. It is often a combination between the quality of reception of the host country and the social and human capital of migrants that determines the socio-economic success and the level of cultural integration of migrants in the host country (Tsuda, 2009).

7 This article examines ethnic Greek migration from the former USSR to Greece and discusses the logics of belonging and differentiation within the migrant group, and between migrants and natives. It also examines Greek repatriation policy vis-à-vis its diaspora, and the scientific, official, and informal terminology used to address this specific phenomenon of “return” migration. How were the “Soviet Greeks” perceived and received in Greece? How do they identify themselves? What new identities are taking shape as an outcome of these migratory experiences?

8 The study is based on field research and semi-structured interviews conducted by the author with “Soviet Greeks”, representatives of migrant associations and authorities in Ukraine, Greece, and Cyprus between 2001 and 2015. [3] Interviews with Pontic Greeks were mainly carried out in the municipalities of Menidi [4] and Kallithea in greater Athens between 2001 and 2005, then between 2010 and 2015. Interviews with Mariupol Greeks took place in different neighbourhoods of Athens, in Ukraine (1997, 2003, 2009) and in Cyprus (2002, 2003, 2009).

The “Return” Migration of Greeks from the Former USSR: a Complex Phenomenon

“Return” Migration and the Words Used to Refer to it in Scientific Literature

9 The scientific terminology used to describe the phenomenon of “return” is varied: “repatriation”, “return migration”, “ethnic migration”, “co-ethnic migration”, “ethnic return migration”, “ethnically privileged return migration”, “diasporic return migration”, “ancestral return migration” or “counter-diasporic return migration” (King, 2000; Tinguy, 2003; Münz and Ohliger, 2003; Voutira, 2004; Čapo-Žmegač et al., 2010; Tsuda, 2009; King and Christou, 2010; Pratsinakis, 2013 and 2014; Čapo, 2015). Generally, a distinction is made between two types of diasporic return migration: the migration of the first generation who return to their country of birth and migration of diasporic populations who return to their ancestral countries after having lived in other countries for generations. This second type of return migration has been referred to as “second-generation return”, “roots migration”, “ancestral return” and “diasporic homecoming” (King, 2000; King and Christou, 2010; Čapo, 2015). In the case of the Greeks from the former USSR, we are dealing with this second type of diasporic return, called ancestral, excepting the few thousand communist refugees from the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).

Pontic Greeks and Mariupol Greeks

10 The modern Greek diaspora, which numbered more than 5 million people in the mid-1990s, was structured in four stages, according to the periodization proposed by Chassiotis (1993). From the end of the 14th century until the founding of the modern Greek state in 1830, [5] Greek migrations were directed towards the Balkans, Europe as well as towards the south of Russia, particularly its ports and large commercial cities. Then, from 1830 until the Second World War, migratory flows increased and diversified with departures to the United States and the eastern Mediterranean, but also to Western Europe, as well as southern Russia and the Caucasus which had not lost their appeal. From the late 1940s through the 1970s, the United States, Canada, and Australia, as well as Western Europe, particularly the Federal Republic of Germany, became the main destinations for Greek migrants. The migratory dynamics reversed in the 1970s, when politically and socially diverse Greek populations began to return to Greece following the restoration of democracy in 1974. While living conditions in the home country improved, West European countries suspended immigration in the aftermath of the oil crisis. Greeks from Western Europe, Africa, the United States and Australia were the first to “return”. After 1974, Greece witnessed the “return” of political refugees [6] of the Greek Civil War, and since the end of the 1980s “Soviet and Albanian Greeks” (Chassiotis, 1993: 36-40).

11 Among the Greeks of the USSR, it is necessary to distinguish the Pontic Greeks, who represent the largest group both in the country of departure and in Greece, and the Mariupol Greeks. The Pontic Greeks are descendants of the Greeks of Pontos in the Black Sea (Pont-Euxin). [7] The majority of them settled in the Russian Empire between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 20th century, seeking refuge following the Russo-Turkish wars or attracted by benefits (land, exemption from taxes and military service) granted to “foreign settlers” (Bruneau et al., 2007). On the eve of the break-up of the Soviet Union, the two main Pontic Greek communities were in Georgia and Russia. Pontic Greeks also resided in Armenia and Ukraine, as well as in areas where they had been deported during the Stalinist period. Several of them had family members who had left for Greece in the context of earlier migration waves in the 20th century. Since 1990, Pontic Greeks have also headed towards Cyprus (Notaras, 1998; Voutira, 2011; Pratsinakis, 2013; Kaurinkoski, 2018). The reasons for their departure have been explained by identity, security, economic, and educational considerations (Sideri, 2006; Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018; Voutira, 1991 and 2011). But many came to Greece with family as part of a family reunification project (Voutira, 1991). According to Voutira (2011 and 2020), this migration is likened to an “affinal repatriation” characterised by a “return to each other” rather than “return to a place”.

12 The Mariupol Greeks, for their part, constitute the vast majority of Greeks from Ukraine. [8] They are considered descendants of the Crimean Greeks, whose origins date back to antiquity. Later they were joined by Greeks from Asia Minor and the Aegean (Kisilier, 2009: 9). At the end of the 18th century, as part of the Russian settlement policies, they were transferred from the Crimea to the shores of the Azov Sea in present-day Ukraine where they founded the city of Mariupol (Kaurinkoski, 2003). This group was well established on Russian and Ukrainian lands for centuries. From 1937, the year that marked the end of the indigenization policy (korenizaciâ) and the beginning of Stalinist repressions, and until the late 1980s its members had no contact with Greece. Their emigration to Greece and Cyprus started in 1990. Departures were often motivated by economic reasons and considered by migrants as temporary (Kaurinkoski, 2003, 2018 and 2019). However, the vast majority of Mariupol Greeks remained in Ukraine; the war ravaging in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 had not altered this situation (Kaurinkoski, 2018 and 2019). [9] Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, however, changed the situation, practically putting an end to Greek Mariupol — at least for the time being.

13 In the former Soviet republics, Russian was the main language spoken among Greek populations, especially in urban areas (Kaurinkoski, 2018). But in all groups, there are also speakers of Greek (Roum, Pontic) or Turkish (Ouroum) dialects. In many cases, it was only after their arrival in Greece that these populations encountered Modern Greek (Drettas, 1997; Pratsinakis, 2013; Kaurinkoski, 2018 and 2019).

Greek Identity at the Heart of Migration

14 Greece recognises jus sanguinis, and anyone who can prove his or her Greek origin by documents can be received there and become a citizen according to a privileged naturalisation procedure (Voutira, 2011; Christopoulos, 2012; Kaurinkoski, 2018 and 2019). Many Greeks from the former USSR have seized this opportunity. Being able to justify their ethnic identity, they decided to leave for Greece (Kaurinkoski, 2019). Ethnicity played a clear role, affecting the choice of destination more than the decision whether to leave or stay.

15 In line with the tsarist policy of categorizing the population according to ethnic criteria, Soviet policy of nationalities favored the survival of the “Greek feeling” among the Greeks of the USSR and gave them instruments to justify their Greek identity.

16 Since its introduction in 1932 and until the end of the USSR, the “nationality” [10] of each person was registered on their internal passport, in effect, an identity card. This supported positive discrimination policies but also ethnic repressions. Thus, internal passport data were used in the deportation of ethnic groups during the Stalinist period (Džuha, 2006: 396; 2008), and in the post-war period, informal quotas were used to limit the educational and professional mobility of Jews, Germans, Poles and Greeks (Arel, 2002: 224). In the USSR, nationality was therefore a compulsory and attributive legal category, but also a social, fundamental, and institutionalized category (Brubaker, 1994), which has profoundly shaped feelings of ethnicity.

17 Linked to the sustainability and recognition of Greek identity, the “return” migration of ethnic Greeks from the former USSR differs from the migration of large numbers of economic migrants of other origin (allogeneis) that arrived in Greece at the same time, mainly from the Balkans (Albania), post-socialist (Bulgaria, Romania) and post-Soviet (Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova) countries, making Greece the number one host country for migrants per capita in Europe in the early 2000s (Sintès, 2010). Foreign citizens then represented nearly 10% of Greece’s 11 million inhabitants and 9% to 11% of its declared workforce (Baldwin-Edwards, 2004). In the mid-2000s, Greece also received migrants from North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan (Fakiolas and Maratou-Alipranti, 2000; Baldwin-Edwards, 2002 and 2007).

Migration and “Return” Migration Policies in Greece

18 Migration and “return” migration policies in Greece have varied and continue to differ according to the period, Greek ancestry and the group in question.

Repatriating the Pontic Greeks (1924-1990)

19 As an extension of the Lausanne Treaty on the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, the Greek State has developed a repatriation policy for Pontic Greeks, especially Soviet Greeks. [11] This policy foresaw that the Orthodox Greeks who resided in a third country obtain the same right to Greek nationality as the exchanged population, provided they had not obtained the citizenship of the country where they had settled. The deadline for the application for Greek nationality was initially set for October 5, 1934, but was extended with Law 2280/1940 (Pentzopoulos, 2002).

20 In this context, a first wave of “return” migration from the USSR took place in the years 1920-1930. The contingent of migrants was however limited due to the reluctance of Greece to receive other migrants after the arrival of 1,3 million refugees from Turkey. The lack of means was coupled with the fear of communism (Zapantis, 1982). Between 1938 and 1941, the government of Ioannis Metaxas extended repatriation measures to people with relatives in Greece (Zapantis, 1982). In 1939, approximately 10,000 Greeks, mostly from Odessa, Krasnodar, and Georgia, left the Soviet Union through the ports of Odessa and Batumi (Džuha, 2008; Kataiftsis, 2014; Kaurinkoski, 2018).

21 Interrupted by the war, “return” migration resumed in 1965, when the USSR authorized a few departures, before stopping during the dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974). Then, in 1982, the Greek state launched through their embassy in Moscow an appeal for repatriation (epanapatrismos) aimed at people who had received a Greek passport after World War I, and in fact, political refugees from the Greek Civil War (Keramida, 2001; Tsekou, 2013).

Repatriate all “Soviet Greeks” (1990-2010)

22 The contours of the repatriation policy for Greeks from the USSR were modified at the end of the 1980s, when there was a relaxation of state control of international migration in the USSR. In 1987, to facilitate the “return” migrations, Greece introduced a “repatriation” visa (palinnostisi), intended for Pontic Greeks, before extending this system in 1990 to all “Soviet Greeks”, and particularly to the Mariupol Greeks (Vogli and Mylonas, 2009: 373). At the same time, the USSR decided to grant an increasing number of authorizations to emigrate to its nationals, making the migratory flows enormous (Tinguy, 2004).

23 The legislation governing the migration and reception of Greeks from the USSR has been altered several times. During the first phase, between 1987 and 1993, it was relatively easy to obtain a “repatriation” visa and Greek citizenship. In many cases, this process was accompanied by the change of surname: the Russified surname was then replaced by its Hellenic equivalent (Sideri, 2006: 189-190). During the second period, between 1993 and 2000, the Greek state set the goal of revitalizing the diaspora in places of origin by limiting departures to Greece (Voutira, 2003: 152; Venturas, 2009: 130). This change in policy was explained by the intensity of immigration flows in the 1990s, but also by geopolitical and economic considerations. Obtaining a “repatriation” visa and Greek citizenship became more complicated than previously (Kaurinkoski, 2010). The third period, which ran from 2000 to 2010, was linked to the adoption of the law 2790/2000 which replaced the “repatriation” visa with a visa for “permanent settlement” (monimi engkatastasi). With this law, candidates for settlement in Greece had to appear before a commission and undergo an interview, whose purpose was to assess their “Hellenic consciousness”. This law was the last one which specifically targeted acquisition of Greek citizenship by Greeks from the former USSR. The year 2010 marks the beginning of the fourth period: ever since, Greeks from the former USSR have been considered by the general legislation related to co-ethnic migrants or homogeneis (literally, people of same ethnic origin) as eligible for Greek citizenship (Christopoulos, 2012).

24 Thus, the policy of “repatriation” or “privileged migration” of ethnic Greeks from the former USSR functioned as an assumed migration policy. Backed by elaborate legislative measures, it contrasts with the lack of coherence in the migration policy aimed at migrants of other ethnic origin (allogeneis) which, as in other Mediterranean countries, has caused migrants to face hostility and suspicion, but also an administrative vacuum creating laissez-faire conditions (Fakiolas and Maratou-Alipranti, 2000; Baldwin-Edwards, 2002).

Terms that Refer to Migrants: “Repatriates”, “Migrants” or “Refugees”?

25 The terminology used to describe the Greeks from the former USSR in Greece is revealing of how Greek society and the state perceived and continue to perceive this group of migrants.

26 Between 1980 and 2010, “repatriates” (palinnostountes) was the term used by the Greek state to describe the Greeks from the former USSR in Greece (Argyros, 1996: 20). It corresponded to their legal “status”. Until 2000, it was indeed necessary to be in possession of a “repatriation” visa to be able to participate in settlement programmes and enjoy other privileges granted to “repatriates”. The term palinnostountes was used to designate people who came to Greece after the perestroika distinguishing them from the political refugees (politikoi prosfyges) of the Greek Civil War whose repatriation (epanapatrismos) began after the end of the dictatorship in Greece in 1974 (Voutira, 2011: 253).

27 The verb palinnosto (to return, to repatriate) is composed of two parts, pali, which means “again” and nosto meaning “to return to one’s homeland”. The choice of this term by the Greek state was important for its political considerations. It was considered neutral enough to designate people who had left a communist country for a “free” country, integrated into Western structures (Voutira, 1998: 78-81). There was also a wish to emphasize the ethnic affinity between natives and migrants, and the ideological and ethnic links of these migrants with Greece (Kokkinos, 1991: 312). This word was finally supposed to point out that this was a voluntary return that did not necessarily take place under threat or danger (Argyros, 1996: 19).

28 The terms “repatriation” (palinnostisi) and “repatriates” (palinnostountes) have nevertheless been criticized by migrants, officials, and policy makers, because they are controversial and prove to be inaccurate insofar as the majority of Greeks from the former USSR were not born in Greece, and that there was no repatriation procedure by the Greek state, with a few exceptions: in 1993, in connection with the armed conflicts in the Caucasus, the Greek state organized two evacuation operations from Sukhumi and Yerevan (Voutira, 2011: 242).

29 In political discourse and the media, the “repatriates” have also been referred to as “refugees” (prosfyges), “new refugees” (neoprosfyges) or “Russian refugees” (rosoprosfyges). The term “refugee”, in its sociohistorical meaning, is a complex category that refers to people who have had to flee to survive, are uprooted and are often unprotected or stateless (Voutira and Dona, 2007: 163). In the Greek context, the term holds an honorary connotation which is explained by the collective perception of the successful integration and the contribution of Asia Minor refugees to the economic, social, and cultural development of Greece (Voutira, 2011).

30 By using the term “refugees”, some politicians, and representatives of Pontic associations wanted to express their wish that the “Soviet Greeks” benefit from comparable rights and financial compensation to those granted to the Asia Minor Greeks at the time of their settlement in Greece. [12] Others, referring to the United Nations definition [13] of the term “refugee” have, for their part, wanted to draw attention to the conditions in which the “repatriates” left the Soviet Union for Greece (Keramida, 2002: 247).

31 The terminology used to designate the Soviet Greeks was discussed again in the Greek Parliament during the vote of the law 2790/2000 on “the acquisition of Greek citizenship by the Greeks from the former Soviet Union”. But the law was approved unchanged, making use of the term “repatriates” (Keramida, 2002: 247-248). On the other hand, the Law 3838/2010 on “the modification of the Greek nationality code” as well as the Law 4251/2014 on “immigration, social integration and other regulations” refer to “people of same origin” or co-ethnics (omogeneis).

32 In parallel, in the media, there is also talk of “Greeks from the former Soviet Union” (Ellines tis Sovietikis Enosis), of “Pontic Greeks” (Pontioi Ellines) and “Mariupol Greeks” (Ellines tis Mariupolis). The Mariupol Greeks are sometimes referred to as Ukrainians. But in everyday speech, it is the terms Rosopontios (Russian Pontic) or Rosos (Russian) which dominate, referring to all Greeks from the former Soviet Union (Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018; Voutira, 2011; Pratsinakis, 2013 and 2014). This choice of terms is revealing of the general atmosphere and underlines the difference of the “Soviet Greeks” compared to Greeks without recent foreign ancestry (Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018). The situations are similar in Germany and Finland, thus highlighting the existence of a cultural barrier between migrants and the majority society. In Germany, Germans from the former USSR are officially qualified as (Spät-)Aussiedler but frequently referred to as “Soviet Germans” (Sowjetdeutsche) or “Russian Germans” (Russlanddeutschen). In Finland, ethnic Finns from the former USSR are referred to as “repatriates” (paluumuuttajat) and “Finnish people from Ingria” (inkeriläiset), but also as “Russian speakers” (venäjänkieliset) thus associating them with the larger group of migrants from the former USSR (Protasova, 2004; Pikkarainen and Protassova, 2015). Those who come from Estonia and know Estonian are sometimes associated with Estonians (Salonsaari, 2012).

A Reverse Diaspora?

33 After acquiring Greek citizenship, Greeks from the former USSR enjoy full political rights and constitute an important electoral force. In practice, the difficulties of their socio-professional and cultural integration have been notable. The formation of a “reverse diaspora” [14] characterizes part of these populations (Voutira, 2006 and 2011; Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018; Hess, 2014), a phenomenon that is particularly noticeable in the margins of large cities. Within this group, some are more or less integrated into the host society, while others negotiate their Greekness and claim an earlier Russian-speaking identity (Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018).

34 Their imported culture makes them different in the eyes of Greek society. This difference minorizes and produces relations of subordination (Guillaumin, 2022). While for the state the Greeks from the former USSR are Greek citizens, the society have perceived and treated them for a long time as foreigners. And it is their difference that justified and intensified their marginalization.

35 Various studies carried out in Greece also put forward the idea that the mechanisms for structuring collective representations of contemporary Greek identity ignore or reject them (Tsimbiridou, 2009; Tsitselikis, 2012; Georgalidou and Tsitselikis, 2016). In a certain way, this setting aside of the “national self” of the homogeneis, who do have the status of Greek citizens, shows similarities with the treatment of “other” ethnic or religious groups present on Greek territory (Nestoropoulou, 2008; Pratsinakis, 2013 and 2014).

36 This said, in comparison with the collective image of Muslim migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa perceived as a bothersome “other” posing a cultural threat (Tsitselikis, 2010: 243), and that of the Albanians in the 1990s and 2000s (Lazaridis and Poyago-Theotoky, 2002; Sintès, 2010), the image of Greek Orthodox migrants from the former Soviet Union was rather positive (Triandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002; Pratsinakis, 2013 and 2014; Kaurinkoski, 2018). [15] In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “reunion” with them was often hailed as the “rediscovery of lost brothers” (Voutira, 2006). Subsequently, the situation became normal, and the euphoria subsided. In official speeches and collective representations, the Greeks from the former USSR and in particular the Pontic Greeks have long been designated as “almost Greeks” (Nestoropoulou, 2008). This fact gave them an intermediary place in Greek society: neither inside nor outside or alternatively inside or outside depending on the situations and the needs of the host society (Nestoropoulou, 2008). On the one hand, emphasis was placed on the notion of “return” and the Greek origins of migrants, thus underlining the continuity and expansion of Hellenism in time and space. On the other hand, as soon as one dealt with poverty and difficulties related to integration, attitudes towards them varied between understanding, compassion or even indifference and ignorance. However, when a crime was committed by a “Soviet Greek”, his/her Greek origins were concealed. Identified as a “criminal” or “miserable”, the subject of the action was no longer recognized as Greek nor as Pontic Greek, but as Russian or Georgian to show that Greekness and criminality, or Greekness and poverty, could only be dissociated (Nestoropoulou, 2008; Kaurinkoski, 2018).

37 This “rejection” of the homogeneis from the former USSR by the host society has been explained by the “threat” they posed to the Greek cultural identity. The fact that these migrants claimed their acceptance as citizens on an equal footing with the natives, while being visibly and culturally different, has had an impact on the definitions of the “nation” and “Greekness”, long perceived as culturally and ethnically homogeneous (Tsoukala, 1999: 111; Pratsinakis, 2013 and 2014). At the same time, many metropolitan Greeks were ill-informed about the journey and living conditions of their homogeneis in the USSR and the plurality of reasons that led them to migrate. Conversely, many migrants did not have the necessary knowledge and were not prepared to start over their lives in a capitalist society (Hess, 2008). The resentment and jealousy of the natives because of the benefits that have been granted to the homogeneis by the Greek state in terms of housing and employment, more considerable in the north than in the south of the country, did not make things easier (Hess, 2008 and 2014; Pratsinakis, 2013; Kaurinkoski, 2018).

The Greeks from the Former USSR and their Auto-Identification

In Greece, Distinctions Persist between the “Soviet Greeks”

38 After arriving in Greece, ancient cultural and linguistic divisions were often maintained within the “Soviet” Greek population. The languages and dialects spoken, as well as the logics of oral and familial linguistic transmission were not the same according to the groups and place of residence (urban or rural) (Sideri, 2006; Voutira, 2011; Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2016). Thus, nationals from urban areas having university degrees adamantly display their difference from those coming from rural environments and did not study, often calling them “shepherds” (in Russian, pastuhi). These labels are often combined with elements of distinction linked to the time spent on Greek territory and the level of social, economic, and cultural integration in the new host country. The Greeks from the former Soviet Union are thus distinguished depending on the migratory wave they are part of.

39 Differentiation from local populations is coupled with a great heterogeneity within the migrant group, marked by the distinction between the Mariupol Greeks and the Pontic Greeks, whose identity varies according to the place of residence in the former Soviet Union and whether they were deported or migrated voluntarily. Among the latter, Greeks from the South Caucasus take pleasure in distinguishing themselves from Greeks from Central Asia. Among the Georgian Greeks, those from Batumi differ from those who come from Sukhumi. The former are known for their high level of education despite being poor, whereas the latter have the reputation of “villagers who have money”. For these last, Batumi Greeks are “fanciful and idealistic” (Kaurinkoski, 2016). [16] While these divisions are reminiscent of jokes circulating in informal settings, the distinction between Pontic and Mariupol Greeks is already sharper. The Pontic Greeks often blame the Mariupol Greeks for their allegedly shared loyalty to their country of origin, for being transnational and not Greek enough. The Greekness of the Mariupol Greeks is not directly contested: what matters is knowing “who is more Greek” (Kaurinkoski, 2016; Voutira, 2011). The divisions between different subgroups become evident especially when dealing with sociability practices and marriage strategies (Kaurinkoski, 2016 and 2018).

40 Other elements of distinction are at work within the Greek populations who have arrived from the former USSR. It is common to emphasize the fact that family members, often parents or grandparents, had a Greek passport already during the Soviet period, testifying to the fact that they were “true Greek patriots” and had long wanted to come to Greece, however, failed to obtain permission to leave the USSR. My interviewee, Aristotelis, tells me this:


My father had a great love for Greece. He called it fatherland (patrida). A good half of our Pontic Greeks in Kazakhstan had this feeling. In the Soviet Union, my father was a foreign citizen. He had a Greek passport. Therefore, he was never conscripted. In 1939, many of those who had Greek passports obtained the right to go to Greece. My mother had a Soviet passport, although she was Greek. In 1967, we finally managed to collect all the necessary documents in order to leave. That same year, my father died […].” (Interview, Menidi, 2002)

42 From then on, migrating to Greece became Aristotelis’ dream and a duty to be paid to the memory of his late father. In the 1990s, the entire family settled in Menidi. Among those with Soviet citizenship, some had “Greek” inscribed in their internal passport, others had opted for another nationality. People who have concluded mixed marriages, when one of the spouses was registered as Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, etc., constitute special cases.

Greeks from the Former USSR in their Own Words

43 The words used to designate the other are of particular importance. Aristotelis, who arrived in Greece in 1993 with his family, explains in Russian:


In the Soviet Union, we were Greeks (Greki). After we arrived in Greece, we became Pontics (Pontijcy). Here we are called Russian Pontics (Rosopontioi).” (Interview, Menidi, 2002)

45 The interviewee is a Pontic Greek from Georgia, who was deported to Kazakhstan in 1949 and who subsequently studied in Moscow where he settled. Russian was the language he spoke at home, with his wife and their children.

46 Generally, it was after their arrival in Greece that Greeks from the former USSR discovered the terms “Pontic” (Pontios), “Greek Pontic” (Ellinopontios) and Russian Pontic (Rosopontios) (Sideri, 2006; Voutira, 2011; Popov, 2010; Pratsinakis, 2013; Kaurinkoski, 2018). In Greece, the word “Pontic” has a negative connotation. In numerous jokes the “Pontic” is portrayed as a “naive and stupid” person. The name “Russian Pontic” (Rosopontios) is taken as an insult by most concerned. According to Pratsinakis, who conducted field research in the outskirts of Thessaloniki at the end of the 2000s, the term Rosopontios is used by the metropolitan Greeks in a derogatory way to emphasize the social, cultural, and ethnic inferiority of the group in question (Pratsinakis, 2013). Between them, the migrants continue to speak of “Greeks” (greki) and “ours” (naši). The Greeks of Greece are also referred to as “Hellenes” (Ellincy) or “locals” (mestnye).

47 In Russian, my, naši, svoi (we, ours, those from our people) oppose to vy, vaši (you, your people) or even to drugie, čužie, ne svoi (others, foreigners, those who are not ours). As Yurchak (2014) explains, the terms svoj, svoi refer to a particular type of sociality that took shape towards the end of the Soviet period. It is a shared feeling of entente that comes from understanding the conditions that serve as living environment; in other words, of belonging to a group that shares common practices and references. The emblematic expression in Russian “svoj čelovek” thus means “a person like us”, meaning, “who can understand us” (Yurchak, 2014: 296).

48 In the Soviet Union, the terms my, naši, svoi first applied to members of the ethnic group on a local, regional, or national level, then to members of the republic of residence and finally to Soviet citizens more generally. In Menidi, Pontic Greeks from the former USSR use these terms to designate the members of the group, and in the first place the Pontic Greeks, then the Mariupol Greeks (Mariupolcy), but also to speak of fellow Soviet citizens. They do, however, make a distinction between those who arrived in Greece in the first half of the 20th century, those who arrived in the 1960s and those who came after perestroika.

49 Migrants of the 1960s take pleasure in remembering Greek society as they knew it when they arrived. Sofia, who came from Kazakhstan in 1966, says:


Back then, everyone was Greek. Fifteen years ago, we started making distinctions: between Pontics and locals, between old and new, between Greeks and immigrants.” (Interview, Menidi, 2004)

51 Back then, the expression “Russian Pontics” was not used.

52 The Mariupol Greeks, for their part, whose contacts were very limited with Greece and the Greeks of Greece before the end of the USSR, have revealed the history and the traditions of their group, still little known in Greece. Their aim was to demonstrate that they are neither Ukrainians nor Rosopontioi, but Mariupol Greeks with their own language(s), their own culture, and their own history (Kaurinkoski, 2003 and 2018).

53 In fact, unlike the Greek state, the Greeks from the former USSR do not use the terms “repatriation” or “return”. Moreover, they rarely use the words “emigration” or “immigration”, because, for many former Soviet nationals, these terms have kept the stigma of past times when emigration was perceived as “betrayal of the fatherland” (Markowitz, 1993; Yelenevskaya and Fialkova, 2002). In their own words, they “left” the Soviet Union, Russia, Kazakhstan, or Georgia and “arrived” in Greece (Kaurinkoski, 2006: 296-297). As a result, in the 2000s, they generally preferred to use the expression “new arrivals” (priehavšie) to self-identify.

Unequal Integration into Greek Society

54 After arriving in their “historic homeland”, ethnic Greek migrants have discovered a reality often different from their expectations. Thinking that their social integration would be facilitated by their ethnic affinity, they are often side-lined, because of their cultural and linguistic differences, so that they commonly appear as foreigners (Čapo, 2015; Kaurinkoksi, 2018).

55 However, this social exclusion usually goes hand in hand with marginalization and professional disqualification. Thus, acculturation appears more difficult than expected, sometimes accompanied by misunderstandings, tensions and even conflicts with local populations (Hirschon, 1998; King, 2000; Čapo-Žmegač, 2005 and 2007; Capo, 2015; Fialkova and Yelenevskaya, 2018). By many aspects, diasporic migrants are not much different from other immigrants. Often, they too live in transnational communities and develop hybrid identities, distinct from host populations (Hirschon, 1998; Baussant, 2002; Čapo-Žmegač, 2005 and 2007; Voutira, 2011; Pratsinakis, 2013; Fialkova and Yelenevskaya, 2013, 2016 and 2018; Hess, 2014; Kaurinkoski, 2016 and 2018).

56 Among the new arrivals, not everyone has been able to appropriate a new culture, while others did not want to forget their culture of origin. Nostalgia for the Russian language and culture is a common phenomenon (Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018). A good number of migrants who came to Greece after perestroika are making special efforts to ensure that their children born in Greece, apart from Greek language included in the usual school curriculum, also learn Russian. This was not the case for the Pontic Greeks who came to Greece in the 1960s-1970s, when Russian speakers in Greece were few and dispersed, and the Greek society of an apparent homogeneity. In these families, the Pontic Greek dialect was often spoken at home, and has been passed on to the second generation, born in Greece.

57 Unlike the migrants of the 1960s and 1970s, those who came after perestroika are numerous and well organized. In fact, some of them do not want to integrate into the host society; others are integrated, but do not wish to assimilate (Voutira, 2011; Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018). The formation of reverse diaspora in the outskirts of large cities, where Russian language, and values of the past occupy an important place, is an illustration of this (Kaurinkoski, 2010 and 2018; Pratsinakis, 2013). Having endured forced migrations [17] and political repressions without losing their cultural identity (Džuha, 2008), part of the Pontic Greeks today claim recognition of their specific identity and strive to attain more visibility. Here we come to the notion of “dissimilation” introduced by Fitzgerald (2014) which emphasizes cultural differences of different populations according to their place of socialization. In the case of Pontic Greeks, it must also be seen as an attempt to strengthen their position in the host society as a group and to derive political benefit from it (Chadigeorgiou, 2009: 300-301; Kaurinkoski, 2018).


58 Thirty years after their “return”, many ethnic Greeks, who came to Greece after the end of the Cold War from the USSR and the independent states that emerged after its demise, have found their place in the host society. Those who have internalized the language and standards of the host society are respected. Overall, their integration remains segmented. The formation of associative networks and reverse diaspora is a striking phenomenon of this “return”.

59 Both on the side of migrants and of the host society, expectations were unrealistic, and disappointment was mutual. In Greece, a large majority of people were waiting for the “return” of the “Argonauts” but had to welcome linguistically and culturally Russified people (Sideri, 2006). Conversely, many migrants were poorly informed about the socio-economic situation in Greece and lacked the skills to live in a capitalist country. The cultural barrier was more difficult to cross than expected.

60 The terminology used in Greece to refer to Greeks from the former USSR illustrates the specific relationship, which took shape through language, between metropolitan Greeks and “Soviet Greeks”. To the expressions “Pontic repatriates” (Pontioi palinnostountes) and “Pontic Greeks” (Ellines pontioi), used by the Greek state, Greek society prefers the expression “Russian Pontic” (Rosopontios), thus emphasizing the cultural difference of the “Soviet Greeks” from the Greeks without recent foreign ancestry.

61 Some of the Pontic Greeks do not wish to be equated with the host society and claim recognition of their identity and visibility. The Pontic Greeks are indeed a transnational diasporic group who have suffered forced migrations and uprooting on several occasions during the 20th century and who are internationally known for their militant activism for the recognition of the “Pontic genocide”. [18] This phenomenon is less marked in the second generation, in whom we note the formation of hybrid, bicultural and globalized identities.

62 The case of the Greeks from the former Soviet Union, both Pontic and Mariupol Greeks, reminds that the notions of deterritorialization and identity are strongly linked to one another: “Diasporas always leave a trail of collective memory about another place and time and create new maps of desire and attachment” (Breckenridge and Appadurai, 1989). It also highlights the multiplicity of attachments that people form and maintain with different places, inhabiting them, remembering them, and imagining them (Malkki, 1992).

I wish to thank Jasna Čapo, Julien Thorez, Katerina Seraïdari, and the two anonymous evaluators for their critical remarks and constructive suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper. Special thanks to Maria Yelenevskaya for attentively proofreading the English translation.


  • [1]
    Between 1987 and 2000, 155,319 ethnic Greeks from the FSU “repatriated” in Greece: 97,133 came with a “repatriation” visa and 58,156 with a tourist visa. By 2004, approximately 180,000 had already received Greek citizenship (Christopoulos, 2004: 104; Kaurinkoski, 2018: 286).
  • [2]
    According to the last Soviet census (1989), there were 358,068 ethnic Greeks in the Soviet Union. Unofficially, the number of Greeks was estimated at about 500,000, and sometimes, at 1 million which, however, seems an exaggeration (see Table 1).
  • [3]
    Field research in Greece, Cyprus and Ukraine was carried out in the framework of the French School of Athens and its programs (2002-2004, 2009, 2011). Additionally, the research grants from the Alexander Onassis, Niilo Helander, and Christine and Göran Schildt Foundations also allowed me to pursue my research.
  • [4]
    Menidi (Acharnes) is a municipality in greater Athens where large numbers of Pontic Greeks from the former Soviet Union have resided since the 1960s.
  • [5]
    Proclaimed on January 15, 1822, the independence of Greece was recognised at the end of the war against the Ottoman Empire in February 1830 by the London Protocol. Its territory (“old Greece”) was then small, and limited to the Peloponnese, the Cyclades, and Central Greece. The Ionian Islands were attached to Greece in 1864, Thessaly in 1881, Epirus, Central and Western Macedonia in 1912, Eastern Macedonia, Crete, and the Eastern Aegean in 1913, Western Thrace in 1919 and the Dodecanese in 1947.
  • [6]
    In the USSR, political refugees of the Greek Civil War formed a vibrant community in Tashkent. They numbered 11,997 people in 1949 and 16,200 in 1974. With the help of the Red Crescent, a limited number of them left the USSR for Greece in the 1950s and 1960s. The flow intensified after the fall of the Colonels' regime in 1974, with 11,300 people returning to Greece. After the 1982 amnesty, others settled in Australia, the United States or Canada. On political refugees from the Greek Civil War in Eastern Europe, see Tsekou (2013), Zei (1992) and Lampropoulos (2014).
  • [7]
    The region called Pontos is generally defined as extending from Sinope, in Turkey, to historic Colchis, in Georgia. Hellenic colonies were established in this coastal region as early as the 8th century B.C. In addition to its Greek inhabitants called Romioi, Pontos counted until the 20th century Armenians, Jews, Kurds, Turks, Georgians, Lazes, and people of other ethnic origin.
  • [8]
    According to the Ukrainian census of 2001, there were 91,500 Greeks in Ukraine, out of which 77,500 resided in the region of Donetsk.
  • [9]
    By December 2019, this hybrid war had left more than 13,000 dead and 1,5 million internally displaced persons; many people were also welcomed in neighbouring countries, notably in Russia. In Greece, no significant numbers of arrivals or asylum applications had been observed (Kaurinkoski, 2018 and 2019).
  • [10]
    In the Soviet Union, “nationality” (nacional’nost’) and citizenship were distinct. “Nationality” was determined by the ethnic origin of parents and citizenship by birth on the Soviet soil.
  • [11]
    By virtue of this treaty, all Greek Orthodox nationals established in Turkish territory except for Istanbul, Bozcaada, and Imroz (since July 29, 1970, Gökçeada), and all Muslim nationals established in Greek territory except for Western Thrace were to be exchanged. The criterion chosen for the compulsory resettlement was exclusively that of religion, in the tradition of the Ottoman system of millet. A total of 1,300,000 Orthodox Greeks were expelled from Turkey to Greece and about 500,000 Muslims were moved from Greece to Turkey. However, some Pontic Greeks living in Turkey preferred to settle in the USSR rather than in Greece, because of family networks.
  • [12]
    According to the Lausanne Treaty (article 14), refugees from Asia Minor and Pontos had the right to claim rehabilitation and compensation from the Greek state for their confiscated properties. However, a distinction was made between the compensation due to refugees by the Greek state for their lost property (apozimiosi) and the credit granted by the Greek state which had to be repaid (apokatastasi). The Greeks who left Pontos for the Caucasus did not receive any compensation for their material losses (Voutira, 2011: 117), a decision they tried to challenge.
  • [13]
    Since the end of the Cold War, around the world, the number of people who have obtained permanent refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Convention has greatly diminished, while the number of those granted temporary protection has increased (Voutira and Doná, 2007: 163).
  • [14]
    Initially, the expression reverse diaspora was used in an article about Jews from the Soviet Union in Israel, published in TIME magazine on February 5, 1973. Trier (1996) then appropriated the expression in his article on the Soviet Jews of the 1990s in Israel, and others have followed his example. Today, it applies more widely to Jewish, German, Greek and Finnish populations who left the USSR or its successor countries. Within these groups, many people nurture a sense of disillusionment with their new country of residence, whether it is the ancestral country or another host country, due to negative or unexpected first experiences after their settlement and a feeling of uprooting which is often the result of the experienced or perceived hostility on the part of the host population. The consolidation of a collective memory and the mythification of the native country or another earlier country of residence appear as outstanding effects. Consequently, these communities are often characterized by a hybrid group consciousness marked by a strong solidarity with former compatriots and the maintenance of ties with their native country which can lead to circulatory migrations and temporary or even permanent returns to their country of birth (Kaurinkoski, 2018; Hess, 2014).
  • [15]
    In fact, Albanians are sometimes better accepted than Soviet Greeks. Given the hostile attitudes towards them, many Albanians have made considerable efforts to learn Greek and assimilate. In contrast, the Soviet Greeks, who have been recognized as homogeneis and granted citizenship by the Greek state, often seek to maintain their distinctive identities, and continue to speak Russian in public, a behaviour which disturbs many metropolitan Greeks. See Pratsinakis (2013 and 2014) and Kaurinkoski (2018).
  • [16]
    Interviews with Pontic Greeks in Menidi, 2002-2004.
  • [17]
    Voutira (1991: 406) highlights five cases of mostly, forced displacement of Pontic Greeks during the 20th century. On Stalinist repressions and deportations of Greeks in the Soviet Union, see, for example, Voutira (1991) and Džuha (2006, 2008 and 2009).
  • [18]
    The Greek Parliament recognized the Pontic Greek genocide in 1994 (Law 2193/1994) and May 19 was established as a day of remembrance of the genocide of the Greeks of Pontos; the Pontic genocide has also been recognized by Sweden, Armenia, and Cyprus among others. The use of the term genocide to describe the massacres of Pontic Greeks by Turkish nationalists during and after World War I have been criticized internationally and even within Greece.

The question of the “return” of the Greeks from the former Soviet Union stems from the conception of the Greek nation, but it was also motivated by geopolitical, economic, and demographic considerations. In Greece, these migrants have endured professional marginalisation and social and cultural divisions. The establishment of migrants’ associations and the formation of reverse diaspora namely at the edge of big cities are the visible consequences of this “return”. This article discusses the logics of belonging and differentiation within the migrant group, and between migrants and the natives. It also examines Greek repatriation policy vis-à-vis its’ diaspora, and the scientific, official, and informal terminology used to address this specific phenomenon of “return migration”. How have the Soviet Greeks been perceived and received in Greece, and how do they identify themselves and others? What are the new identities that are created by the migration experience? The article is based on field research and interviews conducted by the author with Greeks from the former Soviet Union, representatives of migrants’ associations, and authorities in Ukraine, Greece, and Cyprus between 2001 and 2015.

  • return migration
  • Greek diaspora
  • reverse diaspora
  • Greeks from FSU
  • collective identities

La migration de retour des Grecs d’ex-Union soviétique en Grèce. Réflexions sur les logiques diasporiques d’exclusion et d’appartenance

La question du « retour » des Grecs d’ex-Union soviétique découle de la conception de la nation grecque, mais elle était également motivée par des considérations économiques, géopolitiques et démographiques. En Grèce, ces migrants ont subi une marginalisation professionnelle et des clivages sociaux et culturels. L’établissement des réseaux associatifs et la formation des diasporas reversées notamment en marge des grandes villes sont des effets notables de ce « retour ». Cet article propose une réflexion sur les logiques d’appartenance et de différenciation au sein du groupe migrant. Il revient en particulier sur la politique migratoire grecque face à sa diaspora, ainsi que sur la terminologie, scientifique, officielle et d’usage quotidien, qui est utilisée pour décrire ce phénomène de « retour ». Comment les Grecs soviétiques ont-ils été perçus et reçus en Grèce, et comment est-ce qu’ils s’auto-identifient ? Quelles sont les nouvelles identités qui prennent forme à l’issue de l’expérience migratoire ? L’article repose sur des enquêtes de terrain conduites auprès des Grecs d’ex-URSS, des représentants des associations de migrants et des autorités en Ukraine, en Grèce et à Chypre entre 2001 et 2015.

  • migration de retour
  • diaspora grecque
  • diaspora reversée
  • Grecs d’URSS
  • identités collectives

La migración de regreso de los griegos de la ex-Unión Soviética. Reflexiones sobre las lógicas de diáspora de exclusión y de pertenencia

La cuestión del regreso de los griegos de la ex-Unión Soviética tiene que ver con el concepto de la nación griega, así como con consideraciones geopolíticas, económicas y demográficas. En Grecia, los migrantes han estado expuestos a la marginación profesional, social y a divisiones culturales. El establecimiento de asociaciones de migrantes y la formación de una diáspora reversa particularmente al margen de grandes ciudades son una consecuencia visible de este regreso. Este artículo aborda las lógicas de pertenencia y de diferenciación dentro del grupo de migrantes, y entre los migrantes y los nativos. Igualmente, examina la política de repatriación griega frente a su diáspora, así como la terminología científica, oficial e informal utilizada en cuanto a este fenómeno especifico de «migración de regreso». ¿Cómo se ha recibido y percibido a los griegos soviéticos en Grecia, y cómo se identifican ellos a sí mismos y a otros? ¿Cuáles son las nuevas identidades creadas por la experiencia migratoria? Este artículo está basado en investigaciones de campo y entrevistas realizadas por la autora con griegos soviéticos, con representantes de asociaciones de migrantes y con autoridades llevadas a cabo en Ucrania, Grecia y Chipre entre 2001 y 2015.

  • migración de regreso
  • diáspora griega
  • diáspora reversa
  • griegos de la ex-Unión Soviética
  • identidades colectivas
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Kira Kaurinkoski
Anthropologist, Research partner at IDEMEC (UMR 7307), Aix-Marseille University, MMSH, 5 rue du Château de l’Horloge, BP 647, 13094 Aix-en-Provence Cedex 2; kaurinkoski[at]
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