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Home » Autonomous Zones, Cartography, Cultural Geography, Ethnicity, Historical Geography, Linguistic Geography, The Caucasus

The Turkic-Speaking Greek Community of Georgia—and Its Demise

Submitted by on January 19, 2012 – 4:46 pm 27 Comments |  
Map of the Former Greek Communities in Georgia, CaucasusReaders who have carefully examined the maps of the Caucasus posted recently in GeoCurrents may have noted an area marked “Greek” in south-central Georgia. This Greek zone appears on most but not all ethno-linguistic maps of the region, sometimes as a single area, and sometimes as two. Depicting Greek communities here is historically accurate but increasingly anachronistic. Since 1991, the Greek population of Georgia has plummeted from over 100,000 to less than 20,000, due largely to emigration to Greece. Many of the remaining Georgian Greeks are elderly, and a few locales are reported to have only a handful of remaining Greek residents, putting the survival of the community in some doubt

But regardless of the community’s future, its Greek nature raises some interesting issues about identity. Members of the group consider themselves Greek, generally belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and use the Greek script when writing their own language; they are also reckoned as Greeks by the Athens government. As a result, their homeland has been accurately mapped as “Greek” on ethnic maps. It is a different matter, however, when it comes to linguistic maps, as most of the Greeks of south-central Georgia speak a Turkic language called Urum. They are not unique in this regard. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Greeks expelled from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s were actually Turcophones. Today, the remaining Turkic-speaking Greek population is concentrated in three areas: south-central Georgia, the north Azov area of southern Russia, where the community was reported to be 60,000 strong in 1969, and in Donetsk Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, which Ethnologue claims contains 95,000 Urum speakers.*

Map showing the Empire of Trebizond circa 1235 CEThe Greek presence in the area that is now Georgia apparently dates to antiquity. The ancient Greeks were a maritime people who established outposts all along the shores of the Black Sea, many of which survived, in one form or another, into the modern era. The focus of this so-called Pontic Greek community was the coastal strip of what is now northeastern Turkey, an area that enjoyed its heyday from 1204-1461 as the Empire of Trebizond, a prosperous and highly cultured Byzantine successor state. After the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond in 1461, some of its Greek residents abandoned Greek for Turkic dialects while remaining Map of the Aborted Republic of PontusChristian and Greek-identified, others retained both Christianity and their distinctive Pontic Greek dialect (or language), others converted to Islam and adopted the Turkish language, and still others became Muslim while continuing to speak “Rumca,” the local term used to denote Pontic Greek.** Those who retained Greek identity tried to build a Republic of Pontus during the chaotic years from the end of World War I until the early 1920s, but were unsuccessful. After repelling the Greek invasion from the west in 1922, the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a firm hold over Anatolia. Turkish assaults at this time on the Greek community in the northeast have been deemed by some the “Pontic Genocide”; in the end, most of the Greeks of Turkey were expelled to Greece, just as the Turks of Greece were expelled to Turkey. Today, Trebizond is an ethnically Turkish area described by the BBC in 2007 as a football-mad hotbed of Turkish nationalism.

The Pontic Greeks were not limited to northeastern Anatolia, as hundreds of thousands lived in the coastal areas of what are now Georgia, Abkhazia, southern Russia, and Ukraine. These communities also suffered periodic bouts of persecution in the twentieth century. Under Stalin, as many as 100,000 Pontic Greeks were exiled to Central Asia in two waves, the first in the late 1930s and the second in the late 1940s. Even after Stalin’s death, Greeks in the Soviet Union faced discrimination. According to one source, “Under both the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, Greeks (with few exceptions) continued to occupy a disadvantaged position in Soviet society and were unable to obtain high positions in political, military, scientific, and academic hierarchies.” Ronald Suny, however, notes that Greek interests were accommodated in Georgia under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1970s and early 1980s (see The Making of the Georgian Nation, p. 313).

One of the main centers of Greek culture in the early Soviet Union was the city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, formerly part of the Georgian Soviet Republic and now a self-declared independent state aligned with Russia. Before World War II, Sukhumi’s Hellenic community of some 65,000 supported Greek schools, theaters, newspapers, and libraries. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Sukhumi still had some 17,000 Pontic Greeks. As Georgians, Abkhazians, and Russians began to struggle over the fate of Abkhazia in 1991, the local Greeks began to flee, even though “[they] were encouraged by both sides to remain in the area throughout the conflict, and were even offered high ministerial and administrative positions.” In 1993, the Athens government carried out “Operation Golden Fleece” to evacuate most of the remaining population from the conflict zone. By 2003, only around 2,000 Greeks still lived in Abkhazia.

Although the Greek communities of the coastal zone are of long standing, those of interior Georgia date back only to the late eighteenth century. In 1763, Heraclius II, one of the last independent Georgian monarchs, enticed a sizable contingent of Pontic Greeks to settle in the area that now straddles the border of Georgia and Armenia, where he was developing silver and lead mines as part of an aborted modernization program. A second group fled the Ottoman Empire for Russian-ruled Georgia in 1829-1830, after the Greek War of Independence triggered the harassment of Anatolian Greeks. These refugees settled mostly in the Trialeti Plateau region of south-central Georgia, with the multi-lingual and now majority Armenian city of Tsalka forming their hub. Although these so-called Tsalka Urums were almost entirely Turkic-speaking—as the label “Urum” indicates—late Soviet ethnographic studies found that “36% of them considered Greek their mother tongue despite their lack of knowledge of that language, [and that] 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.”

With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia, the Tsalka Urums began to forsake Georgia for Greece. According some reports, the Greek community of south-central Georgia declined from 35,000 in 1989 to 3,000 in 2002, although the 2002 Georgian census still listed 7,415 “Greeks” in the Kvemo-Kartli administrative unit. The reasons for this precipitous decline are debatable. Some Greek sources claim that the Tsalka Urums were basically driven out by other ethnic groups. According to an April 2005 report in the Hellenic Resources Network, “Greek families have been massacred and others have been forced out of their villages, according to local ethnic Greek organizations.” Another report on the same site claims that internal migration within Georgia added to the community’s woes: “The remote Tsalka … became attractive for the Svanja, the domestic immigrants from western Georgia, and the Adjarians. … The squatters committed acts of violence … to force the ethnic Greeks to abandon their homeland.” The same sources, however, also mention an economic rationale for the migration, noting that retirees in the area receive pensions equivalent to twelve Euros a month, far less that what they are able to collect in Greece.

Maps showing ethnic changes in GeorgiaSeveral lessons can be drawn from the story of the Pontic Greeks of Georgia. The first is that ethnic mapping often fails to keep pace with events on the ground. Older maps depicted a substantial Greek population in south-central Georgia, as was indeed appropriate. More recent maps tend to copy from these sources, failing to capture such recent changes as the near disappearance of this Greek community. Recent maps also generally fail to note the disappearance of the southernmost area of Ossetian inhabitation in Georgia. I have accordingly changed one of the most widely used ethno-linguistic maps of the Caucasus, erasing the “Greek” and “Ossetian” areas from Georgia proper. I have also deleted the “Georgian” area from South Ossetia, as a significant degree of ethnic cleansing has occurred here as well.

A second lesson concerns the complex relationship between ethnic identity and language. One might assume that an area labeled “Greek” on an “ethno-linguistic map” would be Greek-speaking, but that is not the case in regard to Tsalka. Strictly speaking, such a designation is incorrect, as Urums are Greek only in the ethnic sense. Yet polling data from the late Soviet period indicated that many people here proclaimed a Greek linguistic identity even though they did not actually speak Greek, but merely hoped to learn it. Also important was their use of the Greek script to signal group membership.

Finally, the plight of the Georgian Greeks also speaks to the broader reduction of the Greek community abroad. The Greeks, like the Jews, the Armenians, and the Lebanese, are one of the great diasporic peoples of western Eurasia, their communities historically scattered over a vast territorial expanse. But ethnic persecution and economic hardship abroad, coupled with enticements from the national homeland, have reduced the extent of the Greek diaspora. In the process, the modern ethnic map of the Caucasus has become less intricate than that of the recent past.

In a similar process, many members of the Armenian community living in other parts of the Caucasus have relocated to Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh), a movement that has been going on for some time. Yet Armenia is now to sending many more migrants abroad than it takes in, thus perpetuating the Armenian diaspora in a different manner, as we shall see in a subsequent GeoCurrents post.

* The 2001 Ukrainian census lists 91,000 “Greeksfor the country as a wholewhereas the 1989 census counted 98,500 Ukrainian Greeks, only 14,286 named Greek as their native language. Whether the others are Turkic or Russian speakers was not mentioned.

* Some sources claim a few thousand Rumca speakers, many of them elderly, still live in northeastern Turkey, although the comprehensive Ethnologue has no information on the group.

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  • John Cowan

    Note that “Urum” is a variant of “Rum”, the historical word which Greeks have applied to themselves ever since the Roman Empire became Greek-speaking.  See this post about Mariupolitan Greeks and this one about Greek in the Soviet Union, both by Greek-Australian linguist Nick Nicholas.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Great point; ‘Urum” and “Rumca” both refer back to “Rome,” specifically the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire that Western Europeans dubbed “Byzantine.” Thanks for the links to the Nick Nicholas articles, but they seem to be broken (I can’t access them, at any rate). 

      • Anonymous
      • Jake Turk

        Hi. The links seem to work if you delete everything prior to the second “http.” Great post and blog in general. This disconnect between linguistic and ethnic identities (and its subsequent effect on “identity politics”) is a fascinating topic in itself. 

        If I could be pardoned for suggesting a future post/topic along those same lines, another corner of the ex-USSR with a similar dynamic is Bashkortostan, a republic in European Russia’s Middle Volga region. Ethnic Bashkorts (or Bashkirs, the Russophone version which is still more common) are only in demographic third place in their own republic behind Russians and Tatars. The Tatar and Bashkort languages are both on the Kypchak (northwestern) branch of the Turkic family (so closer to Kazakh than to Turkish or Urum) and already quite similar to each other, but here’s where things get weird…

        Bashkort has the usual “dialect continuum”, and the literary standard set during early Soviet times was based on the most distinct forms spoken down in the southern end of the republic. Up in the northwestern corner (the part closest to neighboring Tatarstan), the local dialect of Bashkort is actually much closer to literary Tatar than to literary Bashkort with its southern skew. It’s worth mentioning that Tatar is a much more populous, more widely dispersed, and arguably more prestigious language within the Russian/Soviet milieu than Bashkort. 

        I think it was the ’37 Soviet census when ethnic and linguistic identification were finally split (please fact-check me there), but whenever it was, something unexpected happened in northern Bashkortostan. Many people claimed Tatar as their linguistic identity but Bashkort as their ethnic identity. The advantage to this was two-fold: a less provincial linguistic identity that also more closely matched what they actually spoke, and the titular ethnic status of the republic in which they lived. Of course it was more of a petty detail under Stalin, but it’s become a huge political issue since independence, with local Tatar and Bashkort civic organizations claiming different numbers for each community based on different methods of reckoning who’s who.

        Thanks again. Really enjoying the Ossetian series too.

        • Martin W. Lewis

          Many thanks for the fascinating comments, which fit perfectly with the larger issues under consideration. We will probably examine Bashkortostan some time in the future, as the Central Volga region is another important and often overlooked area. We should also explore the phenomenon of the “dialect continuum” in more detail.   

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            I agree on the Central Volga region and the notion of “dialect continuum” being excellent topics we should dedicate more time too in the future. And I too find Jake Turk’s comments fascinating and very informative!

      • John Cowan

        Yes, apparently typing HTML into your comment box doesn’t quite work.  I’ll use explicit URLs from now on.  Nick’s home page is .

  • Peter Rosa

    Now that things aren’t looking too good in Greece the remaining Georgian Greeks probably aren’t likely to emigrate, so the community may have gotten a new lease of life, so to speak.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I was wondering about that… Also, some of the older (early to mid-1990s) materials on the Circassian diaspora mention them returning to the Caucasus — I’ve been wondering if that’s really happening anymore, given how bad things got there in/since the late 1990s… (we’ll have some posts dedicated to Circassians in the coming week)

      • Martin W. Lewis

        Interesting point from Peter Rosa, as conditions have changed in Greece. In regard to the the Circassians, many are trying to return to “Circassia,” but Russia has imposed strict limits. The Circassian community in Syria is quite nervous about its political future, and hence many are talking about the possibility of re-migration.  I will write on these topics later this week. 

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          There may actually be some pronounced differences between Circassian diasporic communities in different countries. After all migration is always a matter of weighing the pros and cons in both the origin and destination…

    • Stéphane Voell

      Thank you for this interesting article.

      The economic crises in Greece might have some effects in Kvemo Kartli. I conducted in this region an anthropological field research in 2009 and 2010. This research was not focused on Greeks, but on Svans. Many Svans did resettle to Kvemo Kartli and some of them are now living in former Greek villages. The Greeks left the region in some waves in the last 20 years and sold their houses. Many houses were sold after the Greek were already gone. Some Svans are waiting to pay for the houses which they occupy (with or without the agreement of the original Greek owners …). Svans in these villages and also members of the administration told me that apparently some Greeks stopped to sell their houses in Kvemo Kartli because of the economic crises. This does not mean that they are coming back, but maybe they want to keep a food in the door.

      For the Greeks in the Caucasus see the interesting article: Popov, Anton 2007. Are Greeks Caucasian? The Multiple Boundaries of Pontic Greek Life in Southern Russia. In: Bruce Grant & Lale Yalçın-Heckmann (ed.): Caucasus Paradigms: Anthropologies, Histories and the Making of a World Area (Halle Studies in Anthropology of Eurasia, 13). Berlin: Lit: 219-245.

      Here is interesting quote in relation to Greek language: “In Greek cultural revivalist discourse in southern Russia, Pontic Greeks are seen as the descendants of the legendary Argonauts who came to the Caucasus for the ‘golden fleece’.” p. 226 and “the distinctiveness of the Pontic Greek dialect, which is incomprehensible to speakers of Modern Greek, is interpreted by informants as an archaic relic of the Ancient (meaning ‘proper’) Greek language.” p. 226

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Thank you for this very interesting information, Stephane! And for the references. We might look into the differences between Pontic and “regular” Modern Greek in a later post, perhaps.

        • Mihalis Pasenidis

          If you need some help contact me. I am speaking both Urum language and Pontic Greek. And of course I speak standart Greek.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thank you for your offer, Mihalis! I am no longer writing for GeoCurrents, but I might do a post on this topic on my blog: — stay tuned!

      • Martin W. Lewis

        Many thanks for the additional information and sources. The only sources that I found on the movement of Svans to Kvemo Kartli were quite anti-Georgian, so it is very good to get a broader perspective. The Argonaut angle is fascinating as well — thanks for sharing this. 

  • Anthony_A

    There’s quite a significant Greek diaspora in Canada, the U.S., and Australia, as well, though I suspect that for ethnic Greeks in the Soviet Union, emigration to Greece will be easier than emigration to the English-speaking countries, as immigration restrictions in the English-speaking countries will be a barrier, and not having strong links to Greeks in Greece or in the Anglosphere will make it hard to get sponsors, etc.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is a good point, Anthony, thanks!

      • HoundsTooth

        …and there’s so much more! I’ll add if/when I remember…

  • Dan

    in 1978, as a young college student of Soviet topics, i traveled to the old Soviet Union, to include Georgia. traveling there, i decided to collect info on the Greek and Osset communities to the south of the Kura River (south central Georgia). the Greek community, no matter how small and out of the way, spoke “urum” if they spoke anything but Russian or Georgian. the thing was, they “urum” was just bad Greek, good enough for me with my broken Greek (learned in school in upstate New York) to be able to understand and communicate with them. there was nothing Turkic about their “urum” which they quickly mentioned it meant that of Rhum/Rum/Rumelia/Greek/Roman Anatolia.

    if there ever was a turkic “urum” language, the Georgian Greeks did NOT speak it, although they admitted they had come/thought they had come, from Anatolia/Rum!


  • HoundsTooth

    I’m very late to this discussion, but here goes…

    Both my parents are Pontian Greek; both my dad’s parent’s are from Istanbul and my mum’s mum is from there too. My mum’s dad, however, was born and raised in what my mum says her father called ‘vatoo’ or ‘vakoo’, which confuses me no end. My mother says that it was then Russia (pre-soviet) and in the days of the end of the Ottoman Empire, which means it could be Batumi (Georgia) or Baku (Azerbaijan). My mum also says that her dad’s dad (my great grandfather) worked on an oil rig at the turn of the century. All of this info is 3rd and 4th hand, which makes it unreliable. Is there any data on Pontian Greeks in Azerbaijan?

    All my grandparents were part of the ethnic cleansing, and both my mum and dad tell me stories their parents told them of being evacuated and basically settling in the easternmost part of what was then Greece. I didn’t get to know my grandparents well, but all my uncles and aunties carry on the traditions as they were taught. The food, by and large, is Turkish. Pishia, Perishkia, ImamBaldi, tursi, yachni etc…

    Also, there is a lot of Turkish in the Pontian Greek lexicon. I grew up speaking what I thought was Greek only to have other Greeks laugh at the words I used! I then found out much of the vocab was based on Turkish with some Russian loan words also interspersed…

    I really wish I knew more about all of this, especially their expulsion from the Caucasus and Turkey…

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing your family story—it’s always fascinating to know of real people whose lives have been touched by these events.

    • Mihalis Pasenidis

      As i found there is an archiveby a demography of Russian Empire wich became in 1914. Thene Azerbaijan was divided in two diferent governorates, in Baku governorate (Eastern Azerbaijan) and in Elisabethpol (Today Ganja) governorate (Western Azerbaijan). In 1914 in Baku gov. were living 1500 Greeks and in Elisabethpol gov. 661, wich means total 2161 Greeks. Of course the number would have been much bigger after the genocide.

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  • Mihalis Pasenidis

    We ,Caucasian Turcophone Greeks, are calling our language “bizim dil”, which means “our language”, or “Musulmanca”, wich means “Muslim language”, or “Turkca”, which means “Turkish”. We have never called our language “Urum” or “Urumca” in Turkish. “Urumca(Urum language)” in our language means “Greek”. And when we say “Urum” we mean all the Greeks and not only us. That happens because we speak a mix of Erzurum/Kars Turkish dialect (the regions from where the most of us came, with expection of 8 villages which came from Gumushane and Trabzon regions) in which dialect when a word starts from the letter “r” it’s added an “u” in front of it etc. “Rus” (Russian) becomes “Urus”, “Rum” “Greek” becomes “Urum.