Why do so many places in Ukraine and Crimea sound a bit Greek?

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: In the newsroom this week, we've been talking about Ukraine and Crimea and someone asked the question "Why do all these places end in -opol? Like Simferopol and Mariupol? Is it Greek or something, like Polis? And if so, why?" Well, it turns out, of course, that The World's history guy, Chris Woolf, has the answers. Chris, is it all Greek to you?

Chris Woolf: Mostly Aaron, yes. Sevastopol is literally "venerable city" in Greek. Simferopol means "city of common good," Mariupol "City of Mary," after the saint. My favorite is Melitopol, which is a grim industrial city, which means "City of honey."

Schachter: Oh, that's lovely. Why do these places have Greek names? Are there lots of Greeks there?

Woolf: Not now, but there used to be, but we're talking 2,000 - 3,000 years ago, the time of Jason and the Argonauts and the ancient Greeks, when some colonies were founded around the Black Sea. For example, Odessos and Chersonesos were two and they have become, or at least their names, have become used in the modern names of Odessa and Kherson, big cities in Ukraine.

Schachter: So thousands of years ago, a massive Greek empire. Why would the Russian empire want to make the connection to those ancient Greeks?

Woolf: Well, it's deliberate. Most of these places were founded around the Black Sea in the quarter century after 1774, which was the year that Russia crushed the Turks and conquered that whole swath of what's now southern and eastern Ukraine and annexed it into the Russian empire. There was a deliberate policy that followed as they continued to expand, to erase the Turkish identity that was there before and to establish a new one with more solid European connections.

Schachter: Why Greek? They had their own language, no?

Woolf: Right, but the reason you want to connect with the Greeks is A) you're reaffirming that ancient presence there that the Greeks used to have and you've got to remember that Greeks and Russians often felt like a common interest, or at least the Russians did, because they're co-religionists, they're all eastern orthodox. The Russians always wanted to identify with Greek and Greek things because that gave an ancient validity to their territorial claims. That was why Prince Potemkin went around renaming all these Turkish places with new names. Sevastopol used to be the Turkish city of Aqyar; Simferopol was Aqmescit, meaning "The White Mosque."

Schachter: Wait a minute, Prince Potemkin, we know his name from Potemkin village fame, that's not exactly a great memorial to that Prince.

Woolf: Well, he was a great Russian statesmen, he was a great military commander and he was the lover of Catherine the Great, of Russia, and was rewarded with becoming governor of this entire new territory. So he established a state within a state and it was his job to found all these cities, bring in immigrants and make it look prosperous and wealthy, so that's actually where the term comes from. When Catherine came to visit her new lands, which were conveniently called New Russia. It's actually something that President Putin referenced yesterday, this whole region used to be New Russia, not Ukraine at all, it was added to Ukraine in 1922. He would allegedly build these villages to make the place look more prosperous and successful than it actually was, at least according to an Austrian writer who was not a friend of Potemkin.

Schachter: So that is where the term "Potemkin village" comes from? Essentially a fake place?

Woolf: Yes. A fake thing to try and make somebody look good.

Schachter: The World's resident history buff, Chris Woolf. Thanks as always.

Woolf: You're welcome.