What do Greeks think of Russians?

Old gang: the Greeks and the Russians

Much Russian began in Greek: from a Greek empire in the Crimea, Kyrill and Method, the "converted" libertine Vladimir and Odessa as the birthplace of the Greek revolution.

When Napoleon called the double-faced Tsar Alexander I a "Greek", he did not mean it flatteringly. In Russia itself it used to be very honorable to be called “the Greek”. In some places they were called “sons of the wise”, or “the right hand of God”. Anyone who has seen the famous film by Andrei Tarkovsky, "Andrei Rublev", about the medieval icon painter, also knows about his great teacher, Theophanes the Greek, who can be seen as the first great artist in Russia. In the Cathedral of the Annunciation, one of the three Kremlin churches, there are still icons that he and his student Rublev are said to have painted. Theophanes did not come from what is now Greece, but from Constantinople, the long-standing capital of the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless he was a "Greek", as the Orthodox Church was often called the "Greek Church". In precisely this sense, Russia was also incredibly “Greek” for a long time: shaped by the Greek-influenced Byzantine culture. When Alexis Tsipras conjures up the Greco-Russian "spring" in Moscow, the head of government will shock many. The Russian-Greek bond is ancient.

The "Church Slavonic" from Greece

Religion was their glue. What would have happened if two linguistically gifted Greek monks from Thessaloniki, who had learned the dialect of the local Slavs in their childhood, had not been sent on a mission to the north in the ninth century? An incredible job they undertook: first they had to create a Slavic alphabet and then translate the scriptures into Slavic - the Macedonian dialect they knew - before they could begin their mission. This influenced Russian history like few and connected it to Greek history, although Cyril and Methodius were never on Russian soil.

The first mission team in Kiev, the center of what would later become the Russian Empire, did not fare well and was eliminated. But the Byzantine infiltration continued, in the tenth century Kiev had a church, regent Olga became a Christian and her grandson Vladimir married the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, (Orthodox) Christianity became the state religion. Before his marriage, Vladimir was still very unchristian, he was considered a libertine, had seven wives and allegedly 800 lovers.

Allegedly he chose the new religion carefully (Islam fell away for him, because "Rus is the friend of the drink, we cannot be without it"); in truth, Russia's Orthodox tradition is rather accidental, it arose from a just-in-time political deal with Byzantium. And so Vladimir let the magnificent statue of the god Perun with silver hair and a golden beard (a kind of Slavic Zeus), which he had erected in Kiev only eight years before his marriage, tumble down again from his hill (the people would not let themselves impress, Perun still revered it for centuries).

Byzantium provided Russia with a fully formed Christian doctrine (after many struggles) and at the same time a rich Christian civilization. Russian literature begins with translations from Greek, and the Russian metropolitans were usually Greeks in the first centuries - to this day, bishops are greeted with the Greek formula "eis polla eti, despota" ("For many years, O master"). Russians allowed themselves to be introduced to the monastic life there on Mount Athos, one of them, St. Anthony, then founded an important monastery in Kiev; his successor, St. Theodosius, was a kind of Russian Francis of Assisi, he preached a poor, humble Christianity that has become deeply rooted in Russian folk religion and resonates with writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Other Athos monks have also greatly influenced Russian piety, such as Nicodemos of Naxos; his writings, translated into Russian, were essential to the Russian religious renewal of the 19th century.

A Greek Empire in the Crimea

The Greeks settled many of their mythical heroes on what was later to be Russian soil - Medea, for example, on Colchis in what is now Georgia, the Amazons (according to Herodotus) in Sarmatia in what is now southern Russia and the Ukraine. The Crimea was called Tauris by the Greeks, and Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia is said to have been captured there. But real Greeks have also lived on later Russian soil since pre-Christian times - for example in the Bosporan Empire: This Hellenistic trading empire, which was the ancient one, was located on the very strait where Russia now wants to build a bridge between the Crimean peninsula and the Caucasus region Connected Greece with the Scythian territories. In the second millennium, Greeks formed respected minorities; they were deliberately settled in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, who was just as friendly to Greeks as Peter the Great was. Sevastopol, Nikolaev, Odessa - several cities in southern Russia got (pseudo-) Greek names under her.

Against the Ottomans - from Odessa

Odessa was also the birthplace of the Greek War of Independence - the revolution against the Ottomans, who were hostile to the Russians, was hatched by the Greeks there years before it began in 1821. (Half a century before that, the Russian-inspired Orlov revolt, named after a count and lover of Catherine, failed). In two world wars, Greeks and Russians fought on the same side; in the first, many Greeks from Asia Minor also fled from the Turks to Russia. Of course, they fared very badly there - they were persecuted under Stalin, but their culture, religion and language were also later suppressed by the communist regime. A bad chapter in Greek-Russian relations that Alexis Tsipras doesn't like to recall at the moment - as a former communist and current realpolitician.

("Die Presse", print edition, April 8th, 2015)