DONETSK, Ukraine — Galina Chumak is proud to be Greek, however foolish she knows that pride may be. It wasn’t anything she did, she points out, just the circumstance of birth into what may be Ukraine’s oldest existing ethnic group.
The Greeks arrived in present-day Ukraine before the Tatars, before the Russians, before the Jews, possibly even before the Ukrainians themselves.
They were settlers from the civilization that we think of today as ancient Greece. They came to the Crimea — a dramatically mountainous peninsula that juts into the Black Sea — in the fifth century B.C., or maybe even the seventh, or just possibly, says Chumak, who once worked on archeological digs there, the ninth.
There are about 91,000 Greeks in Ukraine, according to the last census, but they don’t live in the Crimea anymore. That fact lies at the heart of one of those arguments that Ukrainian Greeks love to bat around, and have been doing so ever since they left there in 1778: Can their Greek heritage survive the modern era?
The Crimean Greeks lived for about 300 years under the rule of the Muslim Khanate, and when imperial Russia made a move to conquer the Crimea they asked Catherine the Great, fellow Orthodox Christian, to offer them her protection.
Sure, she said (or words to that effect). You’ll be best off if you leave your homes of the past two millenniums and set up shop in this other land I’ve just acquired, far to the east.
‘‘She awarded lands to the Greeks,’’ exclaimed Yelena Prodan, head of the Donetsk Greek Society, at a board meeting one night recently. ‘‘Orthodox Greeks were rescued from the Muslims.’’
“We were deported,” Chumak replied. ‘‘People died from the cold, the lack of shelter.’’
Starting on the shores of the Sea of Azov, the Greeks settled in villages on the steppe. They were exempt from conscription, which was a plus, and they prospered. When the city of Donetsk was founded in 1869 by the Welshman John Hughes, as a coal center, they began migrating into town.
They kept their native language — or, actually, languages. Those whose families came from the coastal towns of the Crimea spoke a Greek that was heavily influenced by the Turkic language of the Khans. Those whose roots were in the remote mountains spoke a language that’s descended directly from ancient Greek — closer to it, probably, than you would hear in Athens today.
In the 1920s, in the first blush of the proletarian revolution, the early Soviet Union strongly encouraged the development of ethnic cultures, a sort of de-Russification after czarist rule. Here, a Greek theater opened, as did Greek schools and Greek newspapers. Greek poets flourished.
Then in 1937, Joseph Stalin decided that this was, in fact, criminal behavior. About 20,000 Greeks were executed, Prodan said, others deported to Kazakhstan or Siberia.
‘‘After 1937, people were afraid of saying they were Greeks,’’ Prodan said. But deep in the villages, within their own homes, families kept the old memories, and the old languages, alive.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, suddenly all the walls were down. Schools opened to teach Greek to a younger generation — but they teach modern Greek, to foster ties to the people of the ancient homeland.
Museums and cultural festivals have sprung up to revivify Greek identity here — yet there’s a real danger that in the slowly dying villages, the indigenous Greek dialects, with centuries of history behind them, could wither away to nothing.