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A ’different’ commemoration of Russia’s Victory Day: reporting from Thessaloniki, Greece (9 May 2015)

Does the ostentatious celebration of Russia's victory in the Great Patriotic War, which took place in Thessaloniki last week, tell us anything about the state of Russophilia in Greece?

Photo provided by author.The anniversary of Russia’s Victory Day (9 May) was celebrated with a massive and pompous military parade in Moscow.

Several journalists and political analysts interpreted the timing and the grandeur of this venue as an emphatic display of might on the Kremlin’s part. Nevertheless, smaller commemorative venues took place outside Russia in urban centres with a considerable Russian population.

Last Saturday, the author of this short piece was present at a commemorative event for Victory Day that was organized by the Russian consulate in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. This is Greece’s second largest city with the noticeable presence of a Russian-speaking community who started emigrating there since the early 1990s.

Moreover, the recent restoration of bilateral cooperation between Greece and Russia has encouraged local entrepreneurs to invest in Russia as a possible pathway out of the economic crisis. Thessaloniki’s Russian-speaking Greek community has functioned as an intermediate link of crucial importance in this process.

My focus in this brief commentary is cast on the following questions: How did the formal structure of this venue combine with the actual mood and practice among the participants? What implications does the atmosphere in this commemorative occasion leave about the alleged wave of political and public Russophilia in Greece?

The venue as such: Symbolism and formal structure

This celebration of the seventieth anniversary since ‘the end of the Great Patriotic War and the victory over Nazi Germany’ was organized jointly by the General Consulate of Russia and local entrepreneurs among the Russian-speaking community. The venue was advertised in bilingual Greek and Russian billboards throughout the city and in electronic mailing lists of Russian interest. The site chosen for the celebration was Aristotelous square, the most central spot in inner Thessaloniki.

As early as the morning hours of 9 May, the areas around Eleftherios Venizelos’ statue were adorned with the national flags of Greece and Russia as well as the orange-black Ribbon of Saint George. The latter is an easily recognizable military symbol in Russia, the use of which has become rather widespread lately. The celebration commenced at around 19:00. By that time, a crowd of approximately 500 to 600 participants had gathered on the upper side of Aristotelous square.

The Great Patriotic War against Fascism and its symbolism form a major component of nationalist imagery in contemporary Russia. The official portrayal of the Great Patriotic War retains much of its Soviet-era paraphernalia. Nevertheless, instead of being national in shape and Socialist in content, the image of the Great Patriotic War has been redefined and added a distinctly national (Russian) content.

In this light, Russia is being portrayed, almost a priori, as an anti-fascist force not on ideological but, mainly, on national grounds through references to the Russian nation’s war-effort against Nazi Germany. It is also on this basis that Russia’s perceived contenders in the ‘near abroad’ (e.g. the new political establishment in Kyiv and the Latvian/Estonian governments in the past) have been often denounced as ‘Fascists’ through complementary charges of collaboration during wartime.

The commemorative occasion in Aristotelous square comprised certain elements of the abovementioned narrative. A large screen beside the stage displayed footage from decisive battles in the Great Patriotic War (e.g. Stalingrad and Kharkov). Meanwhile, a religious choir consisting of children dressed as Soviet era pioneers narrated poetry and performed well-known Red Army marching anthems such as Proshchanie Slavianki (Farewell of Slavyanka). However, one might clearly detect a disproportional emphasis on the (Russian) national content to the detriment of the Soviet era shape.

In the course of the event, two speeches were delivered in the Greek and Russian languages; the one by a cultural attaché from the General Consulate of Russia and the other by the co-organizer Ioannis Kotanidis (a local entrepreneur of, Russian-speaking, Greek background). Both speeches underlined Greece’s and Russia’s vital contribution to resistance against the Axis. However, they also added much greater weight to the ‘shared Byzantine and Orthodox legacies that have cemented a cultural bridge between Greece and Russia through the ages’.

The Russian speaker expressed his deep satisfaction with the, allegedly, remarkable interest of young Thessalonians in learning the Russian language and becoming acquainted with Russian culture. He also stressed that Greece can always rely on political and economic cooperation with Russia during the hard times that the country is going through. Furthermore, throughout the venue, loudspeakers were blasting Russian pop-songs with a ‘patriotic’ content. Some of these songs praised the separatist forces in Donetsk and elsewhere in the self-proclaimed entity of Novorossiya.

Signs of discontinuity: Formal structure versus actual practice

From the coordinators’ angle, the venue had been structured in accordance with the dominant narrative about the Great Patriotic War in Russia and the redefinition of its symbolism. Nevertheless, one might discern a noticeable cleavage between the formal structure of the venue and the way(s) that the audience perceived it.

With regard to the celebration’s ‘demographic’ aspects, the main component consisted of Russian-speaking Greeks from the former Soviet Union and a smaller number of ethnic Russians. The former are ethnic Greeks who started migrating to their kin-state in the early 1990s. They usually originate from areas such as Southern Russia, Southeast Ukraine (e.g. Mariupol and Odessa), Georgia (e.g. Abkhazia) or other parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia (e.g. Kazakhstan).

As consequence of their historical experience, especially the older Russian-speaking Greeks did not undergo the nationalizing processes inside the Modern Greek nation-state. In the long term, quite a few of them managed to take advantage of social mobility and evolve into key actors in Thessaloniki’s business circles (e.g. FC PAOK Thessaloniki’s largest shareholder, Ivan Savvidis). Nevertheless, the trajectory to social acceptance and integration was rather complicated for this community. Local Thessalonians often tended to look down on Russian-speaking Greeks as ‘Russians’ (ρωσοπόντιοι) and express suspicions over their involvement in criminal and/or semi-legal activities.

As result of this hybrid collective experience, the older Russian-speaking Greeks in Thessaloniki and elsewhere have developed a, peculiarly postmodern, ‘Soviet’ identity. They often speak Russian among themselves, they follow the Russian press and they watch Russian television. In this light, last Saturday’s commemorative event provided the proper platform for Thessaloniki’s Russian-speaking Greeks to publicly proclaim and communicate their ‘Soviet’ identity. Even if the organizing committee of the venue had not paid sufficient attention to the Soviet dimension and its paraphernalia, the same thing cannot be said about a considerable percentage of the participants.

As a matter of fact, Soviet flags, red stars, hammers & sickles and other such ornaments were anything but rare among the audience. On the one hand, an external observer might argue that one of the main motives among the organizers was to highlight, if only subtly, Russia’s dynamic emergence as a regional and global actor. However, on the other hand, many of the participants seemed keener on publicly asserting a group identity that forms part of contemporary Thessaloniki’s mosaic of cultures. This indicated a conspicuous discrepancy between the formal structure of the venue and the actual practice among the participants.

The ‘local’ Thessalonians: A state of indifference?

Since the advent of the financial crisis, quite a few actors across Greece’s political spectrum have called for a more active partnership with Russia. The more nationalist segment (e.g. Independent Greeks/ANEL and the extremist Golden Dawn) have continuously stressed the ‘age-old bonds between Greece and Russia’ and they have praised Vladimir Putin’s charismatic leadership.

Moreover, Greek nationalists have opted for Russia as a more reliable political and economic partner in comparison to ‘hegemonic and corrupt Germany’. Russia’s image has been equally positive among Greece’s so-called ‘patriotic left’ who have moved en masse to SYRIZA lately. Meanwhile, several initiatives among the far left have displayed pro-Russian tendencies ‘by default’ largely on grounds of their opposition to Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Thessaloniki has not remained untouched by this countrywide emergence of public and political Russophilia. Nevertheless, one could not detect any organized political presence in the venue either on the part of the Greek nationalist right or the broader/far left. It would not be an exaggeration to contend that the participation of ‘local’ Thessalonians as a whole was very limited with the mere exception of curious and passive bystanders.

Despite its formal arrangement, the celebration of the seventieth anniversary since the end of the Great Patriotic War mainly provided a big public occasion for the city’s Russian-speaking community. This empirical finding adds one more, however small, contribution to the author’s previous observations over the feeble foundations of public Russophilia in Greek society.      

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About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.

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