Photographs: Personal archive of T. Iossifidis
Edit: Ariadni Polychroniou
Translation: Gigi Papoulias
“Our ancestors were refugees”
Statements like these are repeated today to remind Greek society of its history, in an effort to establish a sense of connection to the current refugees who have arrived in Greece from Middle Eastern countries. The Greek social conscience is aware that in the past, many Greeks were refugees themselves – forced to flee Asia Minor by sea, making the crossing to Lesvos in boats, just like the refugees today.
However, in the history of Greek migration, there exists another page: after WWII, after the national resistance, Greece was in flames and Greeks were killing each other; some people guided by the ideals of communism – ideals which the leaders of Europe did not aspire to. These people, in order to save their lives without having to abandon their principles, were forced to flee Greece. They departed without knowing if they’d ever see their country again, but they left with a feeling of pride.
We spoke with Theodore Iosifidis, a descendant of Greek political refugees, recalling the events that occurred during that era in history. Mr. Iosifidis told me the story of his family, about the years they lived in the USSR, about their return to Greece and how they were treated – how they faced the same public opinion which had chased them out with bombs and fire.
Metaxas [Ioannis Metaxas, Greek general and dictator from 1936-41] came to power, then the war with the Italians, who were quickly pushed back into Albania, and then the Germans came. No one was able to stop them. The King and his army fled from Greece to Egypt. The Germans entered Greece within 2-3 weeks. Those who collaborated with the Germans were the fascists, and the others who did not, were the anti-fascists. By 1941-42, people gradually began to take to the mountains.
They were the partisans who were fighting against the Germans. Among the partisans there were communists, and some on the right and left – which today would be called “extremists”. During the German occupation, this group of people, these partisans, hid in the mountains to fight the Germans. At the end of the war, when the British arrived they said: “throw down your weapons, so we can have elections”. One of the communist leaders, Aris Velouchiotis, was not in support of holding elections, as he believed that they would not be fair elections and they would not uphold what they were promising.
However, the communists agreed to elections, and turned over their weapons. Indeed, they were betrayed and were rounded up and sent to jail. This was in 1944. Those who hadn’t turned in their weapons tried to “save” the situation by using gunfire. Even today, there are buildings in Athens that still have the holes on their facades – made by bullets fired from the guns of the outraged communists.
When did communism arise in Greece?
The Greek Communist Party was established in 1918. In those years, in Europe, it was an underground, “trendy” movement – one that naturally spread to Greece as well. After 1919 Pontic Greeks from tsarist Russia began to return to Greece. Half of them were supporters of the tsar, and the other half were communists who wanted to escape the civil war that was happening there.
“By 1930, the movement had taken off in Greece, and Metaxas began to imprison the communists. In 1940, my father, Fotios Iosifidis, was exiled to Lesvos. All of the communists who were sent there, wrote a letter to Metaxas, ensuring him that they were patriots. So in turn, Metaxas sent them all to the Italian front to fight.
After the war, the British didn’t hold elections, but they brought back the [Greek] King instead. And that’s when the gunfire began. These battles in Athens were called “the December uprising”. When the people from the provinces heard of the uprising, they took up their weapons once again and headed for the mountains.
My father’s brothers were among these people. From my mother’s side (Kleonikis family), her father and oldest brother left for the mountains as well. My mother hid in the mountains again, as she had done during the German occupation, and in the civil war afterwards – if she had not taken cover in the mountains, she would have been killed by the people in her village.
Those who collaborated with the Germans, later became partners with the British. By 1947 the leftists were fighting the British, but were unable to defeat them. In 1947, the Americans arrived and began to systematically use napalm gas against the communists, burning them out. Most of those people were from the northern part of Athens – and gradually they were forced further north by the fires. They burned forests and bombed them, causing the leftist Greeks to withdraw. The people were in a great state of panic not only because of the napalm gas and bombs, but because the Greek army was also in close pursuit.”
Were your parents among these people who were fleeing?
“My mother was. When most of the communists reached the region of Olympus, my mother suffered an injury to her leg. A neighbor, who himself had been injured in the arm, helped her. He put her on a donkey and they slowly but surely made it to the border of Yugoslavia. It was 1949 and my mother was 24 years old. Tito was accepting women, children and the severely injured, offering them asylum. The rest were sent off to fend for themselves.
My mother headed towards the border, near the Prespes region. She received medical care, and her leg, which was already infected with gangrene, was saved. Eventually my mother was sent to a detention center for refugees in Albania.”
How did they cross the lake there?
“They crossed in boats that were sent by Tito. He helped a lot, as did the Albanians and Stalin. In Albania at the detention center, my mother didn’t find any of her friends or relatives. The group that she was in, they were preparing to send them to Poland, but my mother – she was crazy – she left and tried to make it to another detention center, 60 kilometers away on foot, because she learned that her relatives were being held at that center.
The group of refugees there, were not injured or scarred. They were being sent to the Soviet Union. My mother’s father ended up being sent to Poland; her brother, who had lost his eye to an injury, was sent to Czechoslovakia. No one could choose the country they wanted to go to. The refugees were dispersed among the various socialist countries, and you knew that it was difficult in every country – WWII had left destruction in its wake everywhere.
The healthiest and strongest were sent to the USSR, to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Stalin transported them there in the holds of Soviet cargo ships: from Albania to Cairo (not through Turkey because they were allied with the West), afterwards to Batumi, Georgia then to Baku, Azerbaijan. And from there by train – Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Twelve thousand Greek communists reached Tashkent and they built the entire country. The Greeks were very knowledgeable about construction.”
Before you tell me about their lives in the USSR, can you tell me more about why your relatives fled Greece?
“During the German occupation, the Germans treated the locals quite well. They did not interfere in their affairs. The bad things were done by the Greeks themselves – the rightists. They killed the Greek communists. My mother left Greece in 1949 and in 1952 in her village, some bastard tried to shoot her cousin. He would sit in the coffeehouse and proudly report how he shot “that bitch.” My grandmother remained in jail until 1956, because her family – her husband, son, daughter – were communists. All of the families of the communists were either imprisoned or exiled.”
Tell me about your parents, which region of Greece did they come from?
“My mother comes from Katerini. In 1912, Pontic Greeks established this region. At that time, some parts of Greece were still under Turkish occupation. In 1914, after the Balkan War, Pontic Greeks from tsarist Russia and Greeks from Asia Minor started coming to this region. My ancestors were political refugees, they left Turkey to go to Russia (during the war between the two countries), after the revolution they left Russia for Greece, and after the civil war they fled Greece and returned to Russia. We came back to Greece during the 1970s. We have been refugees for four generations.
My mother was born in Greece in 1924. Her parents came from Sukhumi, [a city on the Black Sea coast], which was part of Russia then; my mother’s parents ended up there because of a population exchange. My father was born in Sochi, Russia and came to Greece in 1933. His parents migrated to Sochi around the 1870’s after the first Balkan Wars.
My father’s family came to Greece in 1933, during the time when Stalin had begun to expel the most ardent Pontic Greeks – however, the persecutions had not yet begun. One of my father’s older brothers was most likely an anarchist, or a thief – the family never spoke of him – and it was because of him that the entire family had to flee to Greece.
My father was a communist, a true supporter of the ideology. He lived in Greece for 16 years, and for 9 of those years he fought in wars. In 1940 he battled the Italians, then after that, the Germans and then the civil war.”
How long did it take for refugees to get out of Greece?
“It took them 6 months to reach the borders. From the 100,000 people who began the treacherous journey, all of them communists, only 20,000 of them made it. Many died on the way, but most of them decided to return to their homes; the had to give up their ideals in order to return home, as this was the agreement that the government obliged them to make. But still, they were not safe – if they suspected that you were a communist sympathizer they would put you in jail.”
When the Greek political refugees made it to the USSR, how did they establish themselves in their new lives?
“During the war, in Tashkent – many factories were transferred there. Many professors, teachers. Uzbekistan had a great need for a strong labor force and in general, the country needed laborers, as most of the men had died in the war and life somehow had to move forward.
Stalin had sent the Greeks to Tashkent – the way of life there was similar to Greece. He also knew the history of Alexander the Great, whose empire had spread through the region 2,500 years ago. In Tashkent, Stalin established the area into 12 districts – and the Greeks were the ones to build the first two-story apartment buildings there, they did everything.
My father spoke Russian, he was a core leader of the communists, so he became a sort of “contractor” or “consultant” – mediating between the authorities in Tashkent and the Greek community. Most Greeks didn’t speak Russian, only the Pontic Greeks did (those who had migrated to Greece in the early part of the century). Amongst themselves, they spoke Greek.
When they arrived in Tashkent, at first they worked in factories and gradually they were hired in other fields, depending on their skills and abilities. Everyone was poor then, and they worked a lot. It wasn’t until 1961, that my father purchased his first home, and he spent many years afterwards completing its construction.”
He managed to buy a house after 11-12 years?
For those who were members of the party, after a certain time they’d be given an apartment. My father left the party in 1956, after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party when Khruschev denounced Stalin. Some of the Greek communists supported the new party line, but the more fervent communists, the Stalinists, along with their leader Nikos Zachariadis, considered it a betrayal and left the party. They became Maoists, because Mao, the leader of the communist party in China, didn’t agree with Khruschev, and stated that he’d continue the party line supported by Stalin. In Taskent, two Greeks (among the political refugees), managed to migrate to China, but Mao had them imprisoned. Later, in 1981, one of those men returned to Greece.
What kind of papers/passports did the Greek communists in Russia have?
Since Greece had stripped them of their Greek citizenship, in Russia they had a special blue passport as political refugees and we, the children of political refugees, had green passports as “persons without citizenship”. There was also another condition – if you were to leave the city limits of Tashkent at a distance greater than 40 kilometers, you had to inform the authorities. But in essence this rule never worked, as they didn’t enforce it.
Were the Greeks of Tashkent a close-knit community?
Yes and no. In each district of Tashkent where Greeks lived, there were clubs – Greeks would socialize there, celebrate holidays – such as the 25th of March, [Independence Day] for example. The clubs had teams, we’d play football, have competitions, there were musical bands.
There was also a main Greek communist club, where we’d all meet and get together for concerts, events, and discos. We were all usually together, but gradually as the years went on, disagreements between groups created distance among members. Most of them though, returned to the party because it was necessary if you wanted to belong to society, to get a state apartment and acquire other rights. About 10% of those who were Stalinists never returned to the Soviet communist party – my father was one of them.
My father remained “party-less” until his death, but the party always wanted him back. He was an honorable man, industrious, he spoke Russian very well, and all of the bureaucrats loved him. When my father died in 1970, many people came to his funeral. He was very well-respected. The others, the careerists, hated him for his integrity. Literally.
When he left the party, the only reason why he was not immediately exiled is because he broke his leg the very next day, on the job at a construction site. An accident. He was lucky though, because other outraged Greek leaders were sent to Siberia.
People always came to my father for help – he knew many of the Greek refugees and could help them with bureaucratic and organizational issues. There were however, “agents” among these people who would whisper to the authorities that our house was a “den” – but in the end the police left us alone.
What I’m trying to say is, I think there are very few people in this world who believe in their ideals and uphold them until the end. It is understandable, human – but very few of us are “clean”.
Which language did you speak at home?
We spoke the Pontic dialect and Greek – amongst ourselves, our allies and countrymen. We had a house with a yard, where all the Greeks would gather to discuss news and events from Greece.
Did you expect things in Greece to change?
We were always waiting to hear news from Greece. In 1974, when we learned that the junta had fallen, almost everyone wanted to leave right away and go to Greece, they couldn’t think of anything else. When the communist party was re-established and legalized in Greece, we were all very enthusiastic. Everyone began preparing for a return to Greece. However, some, like my father – who died in Tashkent – never laid eyes on Greece again. Those few, who didn’t leave with the rest (for personal reasons), continued to have a strong bond with Greece.
What was the repatriation procedure like?
In our family, we waited for my brother to finish his studies at the university. I didn’t attend university, I was the youngest and we would have had to wait five more years and I couldn’t wait. University? What university? We returned to Greece in 1977. The entire process was overseen by the Red Cross, the international organization which the USSR accepted. Each family member received 250 USD, and all of our paperwork was done via the Red Cross.
Once you’d submit your paperwork for repatriation, in 3-6 months you could leave. We didn’t face any obstacles. However, Customs was not ready to handle such a large wave of people and items. We took a large container with us, to transport everything we had. My mother sold the house and other things and we bought various things – a piano, a samovar, matryoshka dolls – foolishness. Thirty years later we returned triple in number. (from 1949, until after 1975).
Did your family own any property in Greece?
In Greece, everyone made a living as best they could. Some had relatives and owned property. Some, like my father’s family, who had a brick factory – had sold everything. So when we returned, we had nothing here. Nothing was left of my father’s share of that property. They had been one of the wealthiest families in the village, but when we returned, somehow things were different.
It was a personal issue for each family – if there was still a good relationship within the extended family, those who returned to Greece were given something from their family inheritance. However, if the relationship was strained – those who returned to Greece didn’t receive anything from their extended families and were robbed of their inheritance because they were leftists. In the beginning when the Greek communists returned to their villages in Greece, there was tension in the air: the rightists hated the leftists – each side hated the other.
Did the Greek state help in any way?
The Greek state didn’t help in any way. In Greece, each person forged their own road. The Greek Communist Party (KKE), helped in the usual way – some people found jobs through the party. But back then in Greece jobs were plentiful, finding a job wasn’t a problem.
When we returned, some people were afraid of us – as communists and as people from the USSR. We were different from them – we were used to reacting to insults with physical force. If someone said to me “you’re a bastard communist”, I’d punch him in the nose. That’s how it was in the beginning.
But most people in Greece were not at all negative towards us. Back then everyone called us “the Russians” and my pals in Exarchia called me “Theodor the Russian”. Even our ancestors who returned to Greece in 1919 were called “the Russians”.
Did you speak Greek when you returned?
More or less, we all knew some Greek. In Tashkent, we were taught Greek in school. When the other children had English lessons or Uzbek language lessons – the Greek kids did Greek lessons; language, Greek history, philosophy, literature. In the USSR, we were considered a privileged class, we were communist brothers who helped in fighting the great enemy. In truth, no one in Europe besides the Greeks, Serbs and some of the Italians – resisted against Hitler.
Does it seem unfair to you that today, the victims of exile from Asia Minor are remembered, while no one talks about the Greek refugees who were killed because they had different political beliefs?
They don’t remember anything anymore. Yes, maybe they remember the Asia Minor refugees a bit. Today, perhaps a very small circle of intellectuals would know certain things about that era in Greek history – but they are few. Hardly anyone knows certain things about the civil war and the political refugees.
Indeed, for the 100 years of the Greek revolution, everyone in Greece was a refugee. They fled from places of war to find peace. The Greek refugee was a natural phenomenon for many decades. That’s why we weren’t anything special – however we were the last to come full circle and end this “habit” in Greece.
Today, the communists have their own party (KKE); there are members of Parliament from KKE. In other words, the battle was not lost. The communists were not asking for pity. When we came to Greece, Andreas Papandreou [Prime Minister, 1981-89 & 1993-96] created an agreement with the USSR, for compensation to be given to the Greek communists who worked for so many years in the Soviet Union and helped build so many things there. The USSR gave us a very agreeable compensation, and the Greek state gave us pensions and let’s say certain allowances from that compensation deal. In other words, we did not return to Greece stripped bare and starving – we were proud.
In the beginning though we felt a lot of hatred and animosity from the rightists, they couldn’t stand us. As soon as we got here, we were summoned to the police station: “you certainly don’t want to go into the army, right?” Of course we didn’t want to. A communist from the Soviet Union in the Greek army?! They didn’t want us anywhere near them. How could we have gone into that army? Would your captain be the one who shot your parents?
And so we were fine with being distanced. During the PASOK years, [Panhellenic Socialist Movement party, Andreas Papandreou] from 1980 on, things started to get better, the past gradually faded and by 2000 it was completely forgotten. Most of us integrated with society just fine.
Did your mother also forget about the past?
She remembers. She’s still alive – very few from that generation are living today; 100, maybe 200 people. They will never forget. But hatred doesn’t exist anymore. They curse, (just like everyone else) each of the parties in power.
In which language does your mother speak to you? Greek?
Yes. We speak to each other in Greek. She never learned Russian well and by now she has forgotten the little that she knew.
How quickly did they give you back your citizenship?
In four months my mother got her citizenship back and three months later we (her children) got our IDs back too. They gave us about 5,000 drachmas each. Back then, a daily wage doing construction work was about 500 drachmas. We saved money and within a year we were able to buy our first apartment in Tavros [area of Athens]. I was making 2,500 drachmas a week. I’d save a bit for the weekend so I could go out with friends or buy a record. A record cost 500 drachmas.
How did the West seem to you?
For the first two months we were like crazy people – wandering the streets of the city just to observe daily life. There wasn’t any graffiti back then, everything was bright, beautiful, the shop windows were incredible – we enjoyed every minute of the world around us. We acted like idiots! We’d go see porn movies, to brothels – out of curiosity more than anything. All of it was new and interesting. But after a few months we realized that just gawking at shop windows wasn’t enough. We needed money to buy all the things in this capitalistic paradise.
And so, for a time, we fell into this trap. We had come from the Iron Curtain and we wanted to try everything. I wrote to my friends back in the USSR: Here, the mushrooms sprout on trees, in the streets, and no one eats them! See what civilized people the local Greeks are?! And once I’d dared to eat one of those mushrooms, my disappointment was great. Very ridiculous!
Have you ever felt disappointed because you were not born in Greece but elsewhere, a child of refugees?
The whole planet – we’re all immigrants and refugees, that’s why there’s progress and development on earth. However, no one wants to become a refugee – but in general it is good for humanity.