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Ukraine War Poses Existential Threat to Mariupol Greeks, Ukrainian Linguist Says at Harvard Weatherhead Talk

Linguist Tetiana V. Liubchenko delivered a lecture about the displacement of Ukraine's Mariupol Greek population at the Knafel Building.
Linguist Tetiana V. Liubchenko delivered a lecture about the displacement of Ukraine's Mariupol Greek population at the Knafel Building. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Anna R. Gamburd and Benjamin Isaac, Contributing Writers

Tetiana V. Liubchenko, an associate professor of Greek linguistics at Kyiv National Linguistic University, discussed the displacement of Ukraine’s Mariupol Greek population since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, during a lecture on Tuesday.

The event, hosted by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, was part of a series of seminars within the center on cultural politics.

Liubchenko, who is herself Mariupol Greek, presented the ethnic group’s distinct linguistic and cultural heritage in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

Russian forces have controlled Ukraine’s southeastern city of Mariupol since May 2022, just three months after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion. Most ethnic Greeks lived in the city of Mariupol, but some have died and many were displaced by Russia’s constant bombardment.

Liubchenko said ethnic Greeks have lived in what is now modern Ukraine for thousands of years.

“We know Greeks have been living in the territory of Crimea since the sixth century B.C.E.,” Liubchenko said.

She added that in 1778, there was a resettlement of Crimean Greeks to what later became Mariupol.

Liubchenko said that the Mariupol Greeks have lived in and around the city since then, despite historical obstacles. In particular, she described the oppression of the Mariupol Greek population under the Soviet Union.

“It was forbidden to speak Greek, ” Liubchenko said. “You couldn’t enter university if you were Greek.”

She added that “all Greeks in the territory became dangerous and were labeled as ‘fifth column.’” Mariupol Greeks were also accused of espionage and sabotage by Soviet authorities.

According to Liubchenko, nearly 5,000 Mariupol Greeks were arrested between 1934 and 1939. Among those arrested, 85 percent were executed, and 10 percent were sent to corrective labor camps.

Liubchenko said the Soviet oppression impacted her family personally.

“My father, for example, was born in ’47, and in ’48 they came to take him to send to Siberia as a baby because he was of Greek origin,” she said.

During the event, Liubchenko also discussed the place of Mariupol Greeks in modern Ukrainian society.

She said Ukraine made progress in its cultural recognition and embrace of Mariupol Greeks since the fall of the Soviet Union. Liubchenko pointed to recent research expeditions by professors from Kiev University, an anthology of Mariupol Greek folk music, and stamps newly dedicated to Ukraine’s Greek population.

But Liubchenko said this fledgling cultural revival was at risk of being extinguished by the war in Ukraine and Mariupol’s occupation.

Liubchenko said her family were among those hit by Russia’s invasion and read excerpts from her family members’ wartime diaries during the seminar.

“The house is gone. The russian dropped a bomb,” one read. “The worst thing is that I no longer have a past, no photos of my family, of my child.”

“There are more and more neighbors’ graves in the yard,” another entry recounted. “We bury them ourselves.”

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