The President of the Greek Community in Armenia, Maria Lazareva, spoke about her community and the war in Artsakh in an interview with Inga Abgarova to the Greek Russian-language newspaper Mir and Omonoia.
“When in 2014 I was packing my suitcase to go to the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone in Donbass (Russian-speaking region of eastern Ukraine), my friend wondered, “well, why do you need to go there, what have you forgotten there?!” – What, – I was indignant in response – our Greeks are there, there is a line of separation going through Greek villages!
These days, of course, I have to be in Artsakh because Greeks are there too. Not to mention the fact that I am half Armenian. You can talk a lot about historical justice and redistribution of borders, dig into textbooks and pick up old maps. You can shake your fists from the high stands and discreetly keep silent in the shade of the palm trees. But there are moments in life when the rumble of shells and the whisper of foresight overrides the quiet voice of blood. In this particular case, he is forever entwined with a different voice – faith. Common for both Armenians and Greeks. Because in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, only Greek and Armenian icons are opposite each other. And the inscriptions are in two languages, Greek and Armenian writing. This has been the case since the time the Savior came to our sinful world… And is it possible for earthly monsters to destroy this connection?!” – Inga Abgarova.
Maria Lazareva was born in the small town of Stepanavan to a family of teachers. Her father is Pontic Greek and her mother is Armenian. She began to study Greek in Sunday School of her hometown, and then, already studying at the Armenian State Pedagogical University, she continued to take private lessons. She had a chance to improve her language on special a scholarship in Greece in either Thessaloniki or Ioannina.
Today she teaches Greek herself at the community Sunday School, which she has led since 2019. Maria’s candidacy for this post was proposed by the then head of the Federation of Greeks of Armenia, Arkady Khitarov, who was able to see in his assistant for youth affairs the serious potential of the future leader.
Maria also worked with the magazine “Andin” and translated the poems of Constantine P. Cavafy into Armenian. She also writes her own poems, regularly appears with articles on various internet portals, and is engaged in social marketing.
We contacted Maria by phone and asked her to answer our questions.
Maria, we talk with you during very difficult days, not only for Armenia, but for the entire Christian world. It goes without saying that the Greeks of Armenia cannot stay away from the terrible events of recent weeks. Tell me about your Federation, how does it live, how does it breathe?
The Federation of Greek Communities of Armenia will soon turn 30 years old. In recent years, our federation has been renamed into the Union of Greek Communities of Armenia. Our Union includes Greek public organizations operating in Armenia and Artsakh, the main goal of which is to consolidate the Greek population of Armenia, spread Greek culture and the Greek language, etc.
There are now about a thousand Greeks living in Armenia. Unfortunately, due to migration which began at the end of the last century and at the beginning of the present century, the Greeks, along with many Armenians, left Armenia. The trouble was that among the migrants there were many young families of working and productive age. This, of course, led to the fact that our Greek community lost two or three generations of Greeks, and the compact Greek settlements in the villages of Madan, Yagdan and Hankavan gradually disappeared, taking with them most of the speakers of the Pontic dialect. That is why there are so few people in Armenia now who understand the Pontic dialect. There is no question of teaching Pontic: there are no teachers or textbooks. A new generation in Sunday schools is learning Modern Greek as a foreign language.
Maria, I know that you have always paid special attention to young people…
I have always believed and continue to believe that youth is the strength and tomorrow of our Greek community in Armenia. In general, we have excellent youth, some do not even bear Greek surnames, but “Hellenismos” and national identity are in everyone’s blood. They love Greece and its culture. We are the generation that once spent every summer in children’s camps in Greece. Unfortunately, recently such camps are no longer organized, and it is necessary to unite Greek children. That is why we organized last year a camp for children of Greek origin living in Armenia with the financial support of the Armenian government. The camp was attended by about 20 children from all Greek communities in Armenia. For two days we taught the children Greek dances, myths, greetings, the Greek anthem, etc. The feedback from the participants was only positive.
Maria, tell me how well the Greek community has established relations with the state bodies of Armenia?
Eleven national minorities live in Armenia, and all of them are full members of Armenian society. There is a Council for National Minorities, in which all eleven national minorities are represented.
Some minorities have their own representatives in the People’s Assembly. We – Greeks do not have our own deputy in Parliament because we are few and already have a state, while Assyrians, Kurds and Yezidis do not, so they have been given the highest tribune of the country to voice their problems, and not only their own. I say “not only”, because in July, when the topic of Hagia Sophia arose, we, the Greeks of Armenia, asked one deputy, a Yezidi by nationality, to read from the rostrum of the Armenian People’s Assembly our call to condemn Erdogan’s act at the state level. This is just one example of our cooperation with the government. At the beginning, I spoke about the state funding of our Greek camp. Many state projects have been implemented to preserve national identity. Armenia is a democratic country, they love us here, respect our culture.
I cannot but ask you about the Greek community of Artsakh…
Greeks appeared in Artsakh two-three centuries ago, as did the Greeks in Armenia. There they worked in copper mines. The village of Mehmana in Artsakh was once inhabited exclusively by Greeks.
Of course, over the years, the number of Greeks in Artsakh has also decreased, now there are about 40 Greeks from mixed families. These days we are in daily contact with the chairman of the Greek community of Artsakh. Most of the women of the community are in Armenia with their children and the men defend their homeland.
How do the Greeks of Armenia react to what is happening in Artsakh?
The Greeks of Armenia are citizens despite many having a second citizenship – Greek. We were born, raised, educated here, our native language is Armenian, no matter how strange it sounds. Our men serve in the Armed Forces of Armenia, like all citizens of the country. From time immemorial, the Greeks lived side by side with the Armenians, sharing their fate and pain with them. This means that at present not only the homeland of the Armenians is in trouble, but also the homeland of the Greeks in Armenia and Artsakh. We, like the entire Armenian people, want and demand peace, we want to live peacefully in our homeland, in our homes. But now it is simply impossible because if our soldiers lay down their arms, it will be another genocide. For us, this war is not over some piece of land, it is a holy war for survival, as we call it in Armenian “goyapaykar” – a struggle for survival.
Tell me, what is being done to inform, in particular, the public in Greece about the events in Artsakh?
– From the first day of the war, all official information about military events has been translated into Greek in Armenia. Personally, I had a number of interviews with Greek websites, TV and radio channels about the war in Artsakh.
In Greece, they are well aware of what is happening here and, fortunately, most Greeks do not succumb to Turkish and Azerbaijani propaganda. The Greeks know well the Armenians, whom they consider their “aderfia/αδερφια” – “brothers,” and the Turks with their brothers – the Azerbaijanis, who have already gotten used to falsifying their history.
The Armenians have no doubts about the unconditional support of the Greek people. One of the proofs of this is the visit of the Greek Foreign Minister to Yerevan…
It should be noted that until today, Foreign Minister Minister Nikos Dendias was the only foreign minister who did not confine himself to calls for a ceasefire by telephone, but flew in to familiarize himself with the situation.
Of course, I do not have all the details about the meeting Dendias had with our politicians, but summarizing what the press writes about this meeting, I can say that in the current difficult situation, Greece supports the Armenian people, condemning the foreign intervention that provoked hostilities.
In this sense, Armenians and Greeks should be united and support each other, because having a Turk as a neighbor means always being on alert. How many proverbs Armenians and Greeks have about the Turks. What are all these proverbs talking about !?
Can we talk about the support of the Greeks of Armenia and, in particular, Artsakh, in the current situation from the periphery of other Greek diasporas in the world?
From the very beginning of hostilities, we diligently follow all the initiatives from the Greeks of Greece and the diaspora. The Pontians of Greece, Australia, the USA support us not only morally, but also financially. It means a lot to us. We have never even met some of them, but they consider us brothers. A Greek for them remains a Greek, regardless of whether he lives in an internationally recognized state or not. Every day I receive calls and letters from Greeks asking how to come here and fight side by side with us. Of course, at the moment the Armenian troops do not need external military support, but all this is very touching. Thanks everyone.
Maria, praying to the Almighty for peace, I want to ask, what, in your opinion, is the forecast for the development of the situation?
Do you know the expression “They tried to bury us, but did not know that we were seeds”? This is said about the Armenians. There have been more difficult times in the history of the Armenian people, but these people survived and conquered death because they are invincible.