Helen’s Steakhouse—sorry, I mean Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος—is one of those blogs whose irregular schedule of publication always throws me for a loop. It’ll go for days and days without change, and I’ll get tired of clicking on it and ignore it for a week or so, and then I’ll go back and discover a spate of (invariably fascinating) posts, and I’ll have to drop everything and catch up. This is one of those times, and I really didn’t have the time to read all that, because I’m working against a tight deadline on a massive editing job, but it was such irresistible material that, well, I couldn’t resist. It’s actually a good thing that I let them pile up, because if I’d read them one at a time I’d have wanted to blog each one, and LH would have turned into a reprint service. As it is, all I can do is point you to them and tell you to go read the posts and the conversations that develop in the comment threads. So, in chronological order, here they are:

Soviet Orthography of Greek, about the spelling reform that took place in the USSR in 1925.

Demotic in the Soviet Union, about the two major groups of ethnic Greeks in the USSR—the Pontians who migrated to Russia and the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Mariupolitans, who originally lived in the Crimea—and the debate over what form of Greek to use as the official language of the Soviet Greek nationality.

Shevchenko in Mariupolitan and Urum, which presents translations of a famous Ukrainian poem into Mariupolitan Greek and Urum Greco-Tatar.

The status of Urum: “How it came to pass that a group of Christians spoke Tatar and followed Greek-speakers to the Ukraine is a question we’re not equipped to answer.” The question is, why didn’t they become a separate nationality during the Springtime of the Nationalities, which “was all about splittism, raising new national consciousness where there was none before”?

Mariupolitan transcribed through Russian ears, a rather technical post about the phonemes of that variety of Greek.

I won’t try to quote enticing bits from each, because I’d wind up reproducing reams of Nick’s prose; instead I’ll just tell you that if you’re at all interested in this stuff, you need to go over there and stay a while. The one bit I will quote is a question for which I too would like an answer:

Agtzidis’ article ends with a question: Soviet language policy was eager to split ethnicities within the USSR from their kin outside: Moldavian differentiated from Rumanian, Buryat from Mongolian. Why then did Moscow affirm Demotic in 1934, instead of encouraging local norms of Pontic and Mariupolitan—which would inevitably have separated the local Greeks from the Downlanders? I don’t know, and I’m curious if readers that know about the politics of the time have any opinion.

And I’ll pass along a passage from a powerfully written post, Greeks speaking the wrong language, from his other blog, opɯdʒɯlɯklɑr:

The Christians of the Ottoman Empire had to be taught they were Bulgarians, or Greeks, or Macedonians, or Albanians. What the people of village X thought they were 500 years ago is different to what they thought they were 100 years ago, and often what they think they are now. And the change was often enough initiated, because someone from Athens or Sofia came to town, and told them so; or because the local landlord made a choice, and his villagers followed suit.

But the question of what people “really” are, of how their language or quirks or DNA contradict their current self-identification, is pointless. If for whatever reason the villagers of X or Y now consider themselves Greek, well, they’re Greek; telling them a hundred years on they’ve been brainwashed means nothing. (The same goes for the search for Greeks in FYROM, it should be said: the Vlachs there in particular have changed their minds too.) Telling the Karamanlides they should have held on to a Turkish-speaking identity in Greece means even less. They suffered for being Christian in Turkey, they suffered for being aliens and speaking the wrong language when they fled to Greece: if they’ve come to hate their mother tongue, they aren’t obligated to hold on to it for my linguistic edification.

Finally, I’ll put in a plug for the one novel I know about the Soviet Greeks, The Proofreader, by Alexis Parnis.


  1. Fascinating posts. I will read them all. Until them I just want to point to another novel on Soviet Greeks, Lyudmila Ulickaya’s Medea and her children.

  2. LH, do you not use an RSS reader? It’s much easier to have the new posts brought to you than to fruitlessly check when there are no updates!

  3. I know, people keep telling me that, but I’m old-fashioned. I like to go visit.

  4. I do go visit, particularly because I often want to comment — but with an RSS reader (I like Google Reader because I don’t have to worry about which computer I’m using it on), I get to look at the calling cards on the table in my foyer to see who should be visited. (There, that should be old-fashioned enough even for His Hat.)

  5. +1 votes for RSS (Google Reader specifically). It’s gotten so [s]bad[/s] addictive that I don’t keep up with sites that don’t have RSS feeds. There’s a webcomic I enjoy that I haven’t read in, I think, 12 months, because he won’t get an RSS feed X D.

  6. The Crimean Goths were first Hellenized, then Turkified, according to Vasiliev, and probably eventually Rissuanzed. Part of the Crimea was called “Gothia” until 1786 by the Russian Orthodox Church.

  7. John Emerson says

    “Urum” in Greek-Tatar might be derived from “Rome”. The Byzantine Empire was called “Rome” in the East long after Latin ceased to be used.

  8. tangentially related to the question of Greek in Russia:

  9. Neal Ascherson’s “The Black Sea” is an excellent introduction to the fascinating ethnic variety of the region. It seems to also have a new, perhaps modified edition.

  10. Yes, that’s a wonderful book. If it really has been revised, I may have to read the new edition.

  11. Another recommendation for Google Reader. But if you want a slicker interface, may I suggest ? It looks like a magazine, it suggests related sites, and it has two-way synchronization with Google Reader.
    You need a Firefox or Chrome extension, so there’s a bit of a hassle on each new computer, but you can always read through Google Reader whenever you’re at someone’s house.

  12. Regarding not splitting Pontic Greek from Demotic:
    Could it be that Moscow’s objective was to forestall irredentism, which while a possible problem with the bordering nationalities (Romanians, Mongolians, etc.), was pretty unlikely for the Soviet Greeks, being so territorially distant from metropolitan Greece?

  13. That’s certainly a possibility, but while it explains why they wouldn’t have been paranoid about Demotic, it doesn’t explain why they would have insisted on it rather than the language Soviet Greeks actually spoke.

  14. Could it have been due to chance? If the Russian Greeks weren’t very high on the radar at the time, unlike some of the more “threatening” nationalities, then purely personal factors in the language bureaucracy might have played a role. What if a sympathiser for Demotic over local dialects presented a few arguments along the lines of “Demotic Greek is iconaclastic and progressive, and represents a rejection of the cultural dominance of Classical Greek” — that might have been enough to carry the day for the rest of the panel. It might be useful to find out who the actual decision-makers were and their backgrounds. (Just a suggestion — this is totally outside my field.)

  15. Actually, that makes a lot of sense and is probably right, though as you say one would like to know about the specific decision-makers.

  16. I too would recommend the Google reader. It does have some idiosyncrasies, for instance if the comments are embedded it may not display them on your reader, also if there a a lot of comments, like a several hundred a day for one website, not all of them may get processed–it seems it can only handle so many, or so many per hour–so you still have to visit the blog to read the comments. Also on some of the older posts, any corrections may not come through for hours or even longer.
    But for stuff like following political coverage, where some days you just feel like skimming a large number of articles at once to get an overview of what people are saying, the feedreader is perfect. It can also be used to organize the feeds by content, so you can put all the feeds for one country or geographical area together. Also you can use it to click through to the blogs you want to read more in depth. For me it’s more convenient and easier to maintain than using bookmarks, just drag and drop. It’s probably something like the difference between reading a real book and reading online. The aesthetic experience is different, but it’s still useful.

  17. Bathrobe: it’s what I suspect as well, FWIW—that not everything had to come straight from the Politburo, since they weren’t on the radar. (The guys advocating a Greek autonomous republic in Southern Russia were still the first up against the wall in the Purge, but by then everyone was up against the wall.) Solidarity with communists in Greece would have been a compelling factor.

  18. Update on RSS readers: I did go with Google Reader and loved it; then the bastards at Google got rid of it and I switched to Inoreader, which I find satisfactory.

  19. then the bastards at Google got rid of it

    It was resurrected almost immediately as The Old Reader. Works just like google reader used to. I’ve been using it since 2013.

    The Old Reader has a wikipedia entry which discusses the drama surrounding the resurrection.

  20. Huh, interesting. If I weren’t so used to Inoreader, I might check it out. But this bothers me: “as of 17 March 2015 the service includes ‘sponsored posts’ inline with aggregated content.”

  21. “as of 17 March 2015 the service includes ‘sponsored posts’ inline with aggregated content.”

    Never actually seen any myself. But I just use it as a plain vanilla aggregator. I ignore their community functions.

  22. Generalizations about Soviet language policy usually turn out to be wrong, because it was opportunistic, changed all the time and hardly any single policy can be detected.

    Case in point – Karelians who actually speak at least three separate language varieties were simply told to study standard Finnish in school. And they didn’t even bother to develop Cyrillic script for it – Finnish Latin script was used (with standard Finnish orthography).

  23. David Marjanović says

    There is a Cyrillic script for some kind of Karelian, with the unimaginative extra letters ӓ, ӧ, ӱ. Length was indicated by double letters as in Standard Finnish, too.

    I don’t think either that or Latin was used much in Soviet times.

  24. John Cowan says

    Karelian orthography was a mess until 2007, when the current alphabet, which is Finnish with the additions of č, š, ž, and an apostrophe for palatalized consonants, was adopted. Before that there were various pre-1917 Cyrillic systems, one of which used yat for ä, a Soviet Cyrillic system used in 1937-40; an Olonetsian Cyrillic system created in 1989 and a Tver Latin system used from 1930-37 and 1941 onwards. The letter c is used mostly in loanwords and is the same sound as ts, whereas in Finnish it is either /k/ or /s/ depending on the pronunciation in the source language.

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