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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

160 Years Later, Georgian Greeks Call It a Day

IMERA, Georgia -- The landscape of green lush wooded hills is Alpine, but the country is Georgia. The language being spoken is Turkish, but the villagers here are all Greek. The cluster of villagers chattering in the muddy street of Imera said they were residents of a forgotten place. Their ancestors were deported from Turkey to the Russian empire and as a result they speak the language of both their former masters, but not that of their ancestors. "Those Tatars did not love us," said Maria Matsukatava, repeating the folklore that has handed down through the generations of how they lost the Greek language. "They said -- either you lose your language or you lose your religion. We kept our faith." Only because of the name of the village -- Imera means "day" in Greek -- and because of the surnames they carried and the church on the hillside, could the inhabitants go on calling themselves Greek. Now suddenly that has become important again. In the last few years Greece has offered citizenship and right of abode to anyone who can prove they are of Greek descent, however distant. The result has been a flood of emigrants from the former Soviet Union. More than 100,000 Greeks have left including around a third of Georgia's estimated Greek population of 95,000. For the inhabitants of Imera, a Georgian farming community on the edge of destitution, emigration holds out the prospect of a better life, and an escape from the turbulence of modern-day Georgia. "My daughter, my wife and my son are all in Thessaloniki," said Pantelei Tumbulov, 66, a grizzled farmer in mud-spattered boots. "We may go hungry this autumn," Tumbulov said. The last shop had closed down in the village two years ago, he said, and the village had only a few cattle to support them. Around 50 of the village's 130 "courtyards" are deserted and many more villagers are seasonal migrants, returning home only in the summer from Greece or Russia. But the migration has become so huge that it is getting harder and harder to go to Greece. Katerina Matsukatava said the Greek authorities were now charging $75 for visas, which could be given out only in Moscow. How could she get $75 on a Georgian wage? It was a way of keeping them out. Greeks from the plain of Tsalka date their presence there from the 1820s, the time of the Russo-Turkish wars. About 30 Greek villages in the Pontus region of Turkey were deported wholesale and resettled in what was then a remote and virtually empty corner of the Russian empire. In this century Stalin closed down the Greek schools in his drive against national minorities and deported thousands of Greeks to Central Asia. But the close-knit communities survived. A room in the former local party headquarters in Tsalka, a quiet two-street town, is a center for the local Greeks, proudly decorated with a Greek flag, a map of the Acropolis, icons and posters. After much lobbying one of the town's two main streets, Lenin Street, was renamed after Aristotle. The other one, Stalin Street remains the same. But now emigration appears to be doing what the Turks and Stalin never achieved and the villagers are dispersing. "We don't have weddings any more. The young people have gone," said Kiriak Fotiades, a doctor. Fotiades said he was reluctantly thinking of emigrating from the place he loved because there was no life for his children left in Tsalka. Two of his three children had left for Greece and his wife was visiting to decide if they should go too. Only the old people were left in his village. What was hard, though, was breaking up the villages, which had lived together for generations both here and in Turkey. Fotiades' village, Neon Kharaba, is one of only three that kept the Pontic Greek dialect. For 160 years, he said, his villagers had lived three kilometers from their Turkish-speaking neighbors and each had kept their language and distinct way of life. The answer, he said, should be the kind of mass resettlement the Russians undertook, only this time back to Greece.