Scholars Share Ideas on 1821 Greek Revolution

by Elena Borzenkova


On Friday, October 20th, the NYU Jordan Center hosted a conference entitled, “1821: What Made It Greek And Revolutionary?”. The event was organized with the support of the Global Research Initiatives, Office of the Provost and was co-sponsored by The A.S. Onassis Program in Hellenic Studies at NYU. Yanni Kotsonis, Professor of History, Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU, introduced and moderated the workshop.

Since there was no formal “Greece” before 1821, but rather many people identifying as Greek living in larger empires, the conference was focused on the forming of the nation. Rather than look at the absence of a state as a limit, the speakers focused on how exactly Greeks swapped in their transimperial presence for the stability and legitimacy of a nation-state. Overall, the conference papers discussed the junctures of religion and secularism, Europe and Asia, cosmopolitanism and nationalism, and microhistory and macrohistory.

The first panel, “Ottoman Contexts”, brought together the works of Molly Greene from Princeton University, Tom Papademetriou from Stockton University and Viktor Taki from Concordia University of Edmonton. The speakers explored the shaping of Greek national identity in the late Ottoman Empire. In her talk, Greene focused on the common narrative of Balkan revolts in the late 18th to early 19th century in the Ottoman Empire and their role in 1821 events. The Greek Revolution, as well as separatist movements in the Balkans, are often attributed to the predominance of Christianity in the region. Greene argued that the separatist moods were provoked more by the sultan’s unpopular reforms, relationships between peasants and landlords, and the elites’ dynamics across the region. Papademetriou contributed to the debate with the idea of the Greek millet system as a cornerstone of modern Greek ethno-genesis, but noted that it was a very late creation. Nevertheless, when the millet-i Rum rose up against the Ottomans, it was the religious leader who paid with his life in spite of having opposed the rebellion. Taki demonstrated how the anti-Greek sentiments of Moldavian and Wallachian boyars were as much a consequence of the failure of the Etaireia uprising in the principalities as its cause. In conditions of the unfolding Greek War of Independence, the boyars seized the opportunity to denounce the Greek wrongdoings in the principalities to both the Russians and the Ottomans, thus restoring the “native” rule of the Moldavia and Wallachia.

The second panel, “Russian Contexts”, featured the papers of Ada Dialla of the Athens School of Fine Arts, Nikolaos Chrissidis of Southern Connecticut State University, and Lucien J. Frary of Rider University. The speakers focused on the international component of Greek identity building. Dialla explored how the Greek War of Independence contributed to the crystallization of the conceptual and ideological separation of the civilized Christian “Europe” vis-à-vis the barbaric Muslim Asia. Thus, the Greek Revolution meant renegotiating the European frontiers and the very notion of Europe, which now included another “East Christian Orthodox” nation in addition to the Russian one. Chrissidis investigated the extent to which imperial and nationalist identities and loyalties coexisted by focusing on the biography of the prominent activist named Varvakis, who made his fortune in Russian caviar. By combining many identities and by being a subject of two empires, Varvakis was an example of a rich cosmopolitan Greek diaspora merchant that stood out from the regular petty bourgeoisie makers of the Greek Revolution. Frary reviewed Russia’s reaction to the opening of the Greek revolt to better understand the political and social situation in the region. He concentrated on the diplomatic papers of the Russian mission in Constantinople. He brought new evidence of the myth that the rebels were fighting with Russian support, since the establishment of an independent Greek state would benefit Russia’s trade.

The final panel, “Local Conjunctures”, combined the works of Evdoxios Doxiadis of Simon Fraser University, Dean Kostantaras of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Konstantina Zanou of Columbia University. Doxiadis examined two trajectories on the question of identity and nationality that coexisted long after the Greek Revolution triumphed: popular understandings of identity based on religion and the legal constructs of nationality. The incorporation of Byzantium into the Greek national narrative resolved a tension that had existed between these two trajectories. Kostantaras distinguished peculiarities of the Greek revolution, such as the nationalist goals and high degrees of mass support. Viewed in this light, the story of the Peloponnesian primates belongs not only to Greek history, but is also relevant to the larger study of nations and nationalism and the manner in which these concepts became more fixed in the consciousness of the period. Zanou studied ordinary people’s lives through their letters in order to recover forgotten realities and details of the grander historical changes. In other words, her research combined microhistory with macrohistory so as to look at the big picture through the small details.

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