On Nationality and the Pontic Greeks

I am utterly fascinated by the abstract concepts of nationality, state, and ethnicity, which do so much to shape our lives.

I first started thinking about this after reading Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies: a book which tells the stories of disappeared states from Alt Clud (Strathclyde) to Éire (Ireland), via my personal favourite: the Kingdom of Burgundy. Burgundy ended up, yes, in the South of France, but that’s not where it started. It appears to have migrated slowly south-west across Europe over a thousand or more years, starting out in the Baltic or possibly Poland. (And, if the film Passport to Pimlico is to be believed, Burgundy’s borders once included a small patch of London on the north bank of the Thames).

I’m currently reading Black Sea by Neal Ascherson. The area it covers — including parts of modern-day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia — has been a theatre for the ebb and flow of diverse cultures since the birth of civilisation (it is also the area from which we get the term “barbarian”).

Of particular interest to me is the story of the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Pontic Greeks. Their bloodline connection to the geographical area we now call Greece is tenuous, but they have clung on to their Greek heritage for over 3000 years. The genocide which accompanied the formation of the modern Turkish state, followed by Stalin’s purges of the 20s and 30s, forced them north and then eastward until they found themselves stranded in villages in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. But since 1991 they have returned to Greece, where their 3000-year diverged language and culture confuses and bemuses their old-new compatriots. Estranged from their “homeland” far longer than the Jewish diaspora, still they cling tightly to Greek identity.

Culture is weird.