Saturday, June 17, 2017


It is often the case that when businessmen of Greek descent who reside outside of Greece reach a certain level of success, they determine that it becomes appropriate for them to concern themselves with the state of Modern Greece, either via investment or engagement with the Greek political process, such that it is. Georgian-born Ivan Savvidis, a very wealthy and very powerful Russian-Greek parliamentarian and businessman is a case in point. The majority shareholder of Donskoy Tabak, the largest Russian tobacco company, owner of the Rostov-on-Don Football team and appointed Orthodox Knight of the Holy Sepulchre by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he also owns within Greece, along with great swathes of real estate, the Greek football team PAOK and his reputed close links with Russian President Vladimir Putin grant his investment endeavours within Greece, along with his public pronouncements in that country, a level of notoriety. 

It was one of Savvidis’ recent pronouncements that caused the ire of many Greeks recently, not because of its content, which was no more or less contentious than any other pronouncement made by a football team owner of his ilk, but rather, because he had the temerity to deliver his speech in Russian, enlisting the assistance of an interpreter in order to make himself understood to his Greek audience. Howls of derision ensued, with some journalists, among them practitioners who have lived and worked in the Diaspora, deriding him firstly for speaking Russian and secondly, for his poor knowledge of Greek. “How dare does this person,” one journalist wrote “not speak Greek when he has been living and investing in Greece for the past six years?” Of course, Savvidis’ background, growing up without Greek language education in the Soviet Union, is completely ignored.
Exploiting a person’s poor knowledge of the Greek language as a means to put them down is a common Greek trait. From time to time, the media loves to pillory Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for his appalling misuse of the Greek tongue. Owing to the fact that former PM George Papandreou's mother is American, his use of the Greek language was constantly lampooned, as a method of delegitimising him as a worthy leader of the Greek people. Moreover, using a lack of knowledge of the Greek tongue in order to exclude others, has deep historical roots as far as Herodotus, who recorded that all those who do not speak Greek are barbarians. 
We have seen this in our own community, where second-generation would-be participants in organized community affairs historically had their lack of fluency in Greek turned against them by vicious first generation players, in order to portray them as inept, marginalize them and ultimately ensure their exit from a gladiatorial arena maintained exclusively, as it turned out for the first generation. It is only now, that the first generation has entered its terminal decline and English speakers have, in many significant areas, taken control of the Greek-Australian community narrative, that this custom is starting to become obsolete, though it is still prevalent among the suburban brotherhoods, many of which exist cocooned in the omphalocentricity of their leaders’ bile, blissfully unaware of the social developments of the past twenty years. This approach of exclusivity is a mortally sad one, for the manner in which the Greek of our Greek-Australian politicians has improved markedly over the years of their engagement with the Greek community suggests that interaction on the basis of mutual respect does indeed pay linguistic dividends.
I have witnessed the Hellenic “you don’t speak Greek” put down being administered to some august personages. One of these was the late Andrew Athens, the US businessman who was the driving force behind the creation of the Council of Greeks Abroad (SAE). I remember the sniggers of smug Greek public servants every time he opened his mouth to make a speech at sundry SAE conferences. While accompanying him on a fact finding trip to Albania, in order to ascertain the condition of the Greeks of Northern Epirus, he remarked famously at the village of Dervitsiani: «Dεν ήrθαμε να σας υποσχεθούμε πολλά πrάγματα αλλά αν μποrούμε να σας κάνουμε πrάγματα, θα σας κάνουμε τα πrάγματα.» The villagers, who had just spent forty years being persecuted because of their ethnicity and language, were stunned and were barely able to stifle their laughter. The medical clinics, bridges and schools built for the Greek community in Albania as a result of Andrew Athens’ efforts almost twenty years on, places those sniggers in a completely different context.
When I took Andrew Athens aside and asked him whether he felt that his lack of Greek precluded Helladics from taking him seriously, he originally brushed off my question. When prodded however, he remarked characteristically after giving me a brief description of the America he grew up in: “Let them think what they want. I need to get this job done.” From his perspective, his lack of Greek did not preclude him from feeling Greek or acting in what he believed to be the best interests of Hellenism as a whole, a concept which he pioneered in modern times, as transcending the borders of the Hellenic Republic, but which is generally not shared among the inhabitants of that state.
This is interesting, because monolingualism in Greek, and the idea that language is a determinative of identity, as it pertains to Greece is a historical aberration. A multiplicity of languages was spoken in Greece up until modern times, with Arvanite forming a significant and often dominant linguistic bloc in some islands such as Hydra, Corinth and Attica. No one thought to tell Arvanite speaking hero of the Revolution Andreas Miaoulis or those of the Souliotes who were Arvanite speaking that they were lesser Greeks. Similarly, no one thought to tell the Aromanian speaking Vlachs such as Rigas Feraios, who envisaged a free and enlightened Greece, or Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Kolettis, that they were lesser Greeks. Similarly, Kapetan Kotas, the Macedonomach did not speak Greek at all and at his execution, he cried out “Long Live Greece!” in the only language that he knew, the Slavic idiom spoken in Macedonia. Further, when the Greco-Albanian border was delineated, the official Greek policy was that individual consciousness and not language spoken was the primary factor determining ethnic identity because it was correctly understood that a number of factors, including culture, education, religion and association forms one’s understanding of their own affiliations. Modern Greek snobbery against Savvidis language skills and those like him is thus anachronistic as it is nonsensical, yet many of us have been its victims. Dr Vasso Apostolopoulos, who consciously chose to work in Greece in order to lend her expertise to her place of origin is one example that springs to mind.
A Greek-Australian close to Savvidis places another gloss upon language as a means for exclusion in the creation of the modern Greek identity: “Years of insufferable patronizing from the Greeks of Greece has led me to becoming very bitter with them. Even if your Greek is exceptional, at best you will be acknowledged as a very apt imitator, but not as a Greek. If you say quiet and throw money their way, you are an esteemed Greek of the diaspora who is ‘more Greek than the Greeks.’ Have a difference of opinion and power, then you are a pretender who has no idea what he is doing by overstepping the boundaries set up by the keepers of Hellenism. They are the arbiters of how much of a Greek you are. And we are conditioned to seek their approval, even if it causes feelings of self-loathing, that we are second class, wannabe Greeks. I look forward to the day when they can look past the frivolity of an accent and judge a person based on his deeds and commitment.”
The argument that language determines ethnic affiliation is of course farcical and incoherent given that there now exist a multitude of migrants or children of migrants to Greece whose facility in Greek is perfect and who are not accepted as being Greeks by the Greeks of Greece and the diaspora, whose Hellenism these migrants seem to impugn. Perhaps what we are observing then, is the emergence of two separate strands of the Greek identity, one that has its roots in the state of Greece and is BOTH racially and linguistically based and one that has its roots in the diaspora and is also racially but also subjectively based, though for the moment is still psychologically tied to the country of Greece. It will be fascinating to see how this identity will evolve into the future, in the face of the huge social and demographic changes affecting the region.
Being the ethnic exception that proves the linguistic rule, however is this assertion, from a Savvidis insider: “He has stated that the day he learns to speak Greek like the Greeks of Greece, is the day he runs for Greek parliament.” You have been warned oracles of Hellenism. Now burn those dictionaries.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 June 2017