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Monday, 19 February 2018

Contesting Greekness: Soviet Greek migrants and the Pontic identity

At a seminar on February 14th, 2018, Manolis Pratsinakis (Onassis Foundation Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, St Antony’s College, Oxford) presented his forthcoming paper titled ‘Contesting Greekness: Soviet Greek migrants and the Pontic identity’. The event was chaired by Othon Anastasakis (Director of SEESOX, St Antony’s College, Oxford).

How do minority groups shape their identity and make claims for national belongingness in an attempt to strive for national recognition? Dr. Pratsinakis started his presentation by critically engaging with the existing literature and overcoming the essentialism of classical assimilation, cultural pluralism, and integration theories, as well as the barriers of the constructivism of transnationalism and hybridity theories. Building on the literature on everyday nationalism and on ethnicity and categorization, he explained that migrant groups reconstruct their identity through the negation of externally determined ethnic labels and through the selective redefinition of others in an attempt to gain national acceptance and to prove their belongingness in the nation.

Drawing on rich data that derive from his ethnographic research conducted in Nikopoli, a working-class neighborhood in Thessaloniki where the author lived for 14 months (2007-2009), Pratsinakis’ research aims to throw light on immigrant-native relations, putting emphasis on processes of identification. While focusing on the case of the Greeks from the former Soviet Union (FSU), Pratsinakis explained the reasons why and the processes through which FSU Greeks became ‘Pontians’ by altering their self-identification following their immigration to their perceived national home.

Although Pontos was not a marker of identification for FSU Greeks, given the fact that they departed from different post-Soviet republics as Greeks, most of them introduced themselves to native Greeks as ‘Pontians’. According to Pratsinakis, there are two reasons for the aforementioned alteration of their sense of belonging. The first involves the perception of this action as a response to the stigmatising labelling as ‘the Russo-Pontics’ and Russians as it was expressed by the native Greeks. The second is that this alteration was a way for the FSU Greeks to distinguish themselves from the native Greek population. As it was explained, the Pontic identity, having a dynamic nature, can be concurrently seen as an experience of otherness that expresses feelings of separation, loss, and social marginality and as a means of negotiating national belonging in the Greek nation and society.

Pratsinakis concluded his presentation by underlining the discursive and performative limitations of the identification process. As he further explained, identification is a dynamic interplay between internal and external definitions. In this light, the content of such identifications is shaped by an ongoing process of reconstruction and redefinition and carries particular meanings and legacies; as he pointed out, ethnic labels are not empty vessels to which one can freely attribute any content at all. Lastly, he stressed that claiming an identity is not enough. People should perform it and its performance should be recognised by others.

In the subsequent discussion, many points were raised, covering a range of issues from the explanatory value of an economic perspective and political identification to the internal stratification of generations and the gender perspective. Specifically, Anastasakis compared the case of FSU Greeks to similar minority groups, such as the refugees from the Asia Minor Catastrophe, noting that once those refugees arrived they were instantly discriminated against by the native population. In addition, acknowledging the importance of an identity-based explanation, he underlined the importance of the economic factors that influence the process of identification. Going beyond the uniqueness of the case of FSU Greeks, Blanco Sio-Lopezimplied the analytical value of the author’s identification framework with regard the role of the European element, as an idea of mutually enriching and complementing identities. In this context, Duvell and Nicolaidis made a question of generationability by asking what is specific and what is generalisable in the case of FSU Greeks. Overall, this was an enlightening presentation on the significance of the Pontic identity in the national inclusion of FSU Greeks, which was highly praised by the audience for its contribution to immigrant-native relations and to processes of identification.

Marilena Anastasopoulou (SEESOX, St Antony's College, Oxford)

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