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Mariupol: gateway to Europe

Frederick Lauritzen

29th April 2022

Mariupol is now (in)famous for its destruction. Few of us had heard of it before the 24th February 2022. We should have. The cultural question at the heart of the city is the very identity of Europe. There is a Greek speaking community in the city and area, which some quickly dismiss as being people brought by Catherine the Great (1762-1796) to settle the new city in 1778 (one of the Potëmkin villages). They had fled from Turkish controlled Crimea. These people to this day speak a dialect which is not like standard modern Greek and scholars disagree if it a descendant of what was spoken in northern Greece, or from the area of north-eastern Turkey, the Pontos. 

The Pontic dialect has many features derived from the ancient Greek spoken in the ionic colonies of the 6th – 5th century bc.  (for example  kepin = kipion showing no itacism, arguably characteristic of byzantine Greek).

If we say the Azov Greeks speak a language like the one spoken in Greece, we indicate they came from there. If we say they speak a Pontic dialect, we dismiss the link with continental Greece. It would mean that they were there before either the Turks or the Tatars arrived in the northern black sea. By the way ‘Crimea’ is the Tatar name for ancient Greek Tauris. It from the latter that the palace of Potëmkin takes its name in Saint Petersburg: the Taurid Palace begun in 1783, when Mariupol was founded. That was the year that Goethe wrote his Iphigeneia in Tauris, precisely about Crimea. With this background in mind, the Russian Duma has recently proposed to change the name of Crimea to Tavrida.

During soviet times a Cyrillic alphabet was devised for Mariupol Greek, and translations were made from Russian and Ukrainian literary works (The lay of Igor and the Kozbar of Taras Shevchenko). It would indicate that the dialect was one of the languages of the Soviet Union, regardless of the origin. 

Mariupol gives us three ways in which to look at Europe today: 1) connect it to a known present (Mariupol is a Modern Greek dialect) 2) connect to a distant past (Mariupol is historic remnant of displaced (?) ancient/byzantine communities 3) it is independent, and the past is irrelevant to the present. (Mariupol Greek is a minority language).
These three options are the ones which define the outlook for the future of Ukraine: 1) a western nation; 2) a historically western nation; 3) an eastern nation.

Mariupol Greek may be one of the oldest dialects of a European language since some say its presence on the Black Sea is 2500 years old. However, the city of Mariupol should not be relegated to academic footnotes but teach us that destroying such a city and heritage means amputating a limb of the European body.

Frederick Lauritzen, Method in Madness. : Geopolitics in a changing world. Analysis and predictions, Venice 2023. ISBN: 9781738456499

Kindle edition on amazon

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