There is a myth among Greek leftists that Russia, whether as the Soviet Union, as Tsarist Russia, or present day Russia is the answer to the country’s problems.
The visit of Alexis Tsipras to Moscow and his meeting with Vladimir Putin pays homage to that notion. The comments coming from Nikos Kotzias, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, underscore the Greek left’s wishful thinking that if only Greece came under Russia’s protection, then it could abandon the harsh German-dominated EU.
There are historical ties that connect Hellenism and Orthodoxy, but not necessarily the Greek state to Russia. Zoe Palaiologina, aka Sophia Palaiologina, a Byzantine princess married Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow on November, 12 1472 and through that union Russian Tsars laid claim to Constantinople and dubbed Moscow as the Third Rome.
Zoe was the daughter of Thomas Palaiologos, Despot of Morea, and the brother of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor.
This dynastic marriage engendered the notion that the Russian Tsars were the successors of the Byzantine emperors and destined to one-day rule over a resurrected Eastern Orthodox Roman Empire from their seat in Constantinople.
As Russia expanded in the West and East, the appeal of taking Constantinople from the Ottomans, followed by a restoration of Byzantium, became ingrained in every tsar’s policy.
The Russians, beyond the goal of recreating the Byzantine Empire, wanted control of the Straits to end the bottleneck of their fleet in the Black Sea.
When the Greeks showed signs of restlessness, and began taking the first steps toward rebelling from the Ottoman Empire, Catherine the Great of Russia made a feeble attempt to intervene in Greece.
In 1770, Catherine sent four ships, containing a contingent of several hundred troops, to the Mediterranean in order to stimulate an uprising in the Peloponnese.
The Russian forces were just enough to encourage the Greeks to rebel but woefully insufficient to affect the rebellion’s success. Shortly thereafter, the Ottomans defeated the Greek and Russian forces and exacted brutal reprisals against the population.
In the early 19th Century, Greek trade links to Russia were extensive and it was the Philiki Etairia in Odessa that served as the financial headquarters of the Greek revolutionaries and, in time, provided some of its leaders.
The court of Alexander I was also a haven for Greeks who had sought their future in Russia. John Capodistrias was an Ioanian Greek who served as the Tsars joint secretary of state and Alexander Ypsilantis, the Tsar’s adjutant, led the first attempt to liberate the Greeks from the Ottomans but failed.
Ypsilantis, as well as many in the Philiki Etairia had assumed that Tsar Alexander I, would intervene on behalf of the Greeks, but the Russian monarch was opposed to revolution and committed to a conservative European solidarity – even if it mean tolerating the Ottoman Sultan.
Later in the 19th century, the Russians, although still committed to taking Constantinople, abandoned the policy of Pan-Orthodoxy and embraced the concept of Pan-Slavism.
Britain and the Royal Navy, meanwhile, determined Greece’s fate. The Russians lost interest in Greece and, if anything, became an obstacle to Greek interests in the Balkans and Asia Minor. Until the Bolshevik Revolution, the government in Saint Petersburg believed that they had to stymie Greek ambitions in the Ottoman Empire in order to secure Constantinople for themselves.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), Russia’s new revolutionary government did little to alter the country’s policies with respect to Greece.
The Soviets in 1921 betrayed Greek interests by supplying the forces of Mustapha Kemal with gold, which made it possible for the Turks to defeat the Greeks in 1922. Indeed, the USSR was the second state to recognize Kemal’s revolutionary government.
During the Second World War, the Greek communists tried in vain to achieve contact with Moscow. When the Greek communists finally did in 1944, Moscow informed them that they had to join the Greek Government of National Unity as junior partners and permit the landing of British troops.
In October 1944, Stalin and Churchill concluded the Percentages Agreement in which the Soviets agreed that Greece would come under Britain’s sphere of influence.
The Soviets had little compunction in abandoning the Greek left during the December Uprising in 1944, and even ordered the Bulgarians not to accept any Greek communist refugees.
Stalin begrudgingly supported the Greek communists during the Greek Civil War, refusing to recognize their provisional government or offer any direct assistance. After the defeat of the communist forces in 1949 he provided shelter for the survivors, but only as stateless persons in the USSR.
The lesson for Mr. Tsipras and Syriza is that Stalin had only marginal interest in Greece. The Soviet dictator believed that the British and later the American fleets represented too strong an influence in the Mediterranean, and that the Soviets lacked the means to intervene.
Putin is in a similar dilemma. He wants to change the Montreaux Convention to allow Russian Warships out of the Black Sea in peace and in war.
In addition, a naval base in Greece would extend Russian power to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, but like Stalin Putin lacks the resources to intervene. Even if the Russians could support Greece in exchange for naval rights, would the Greeks accept to leave NATO and the EU?
André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.