Itinerant Suspicions: Russian Icon Traders in the Macedonian Hinterland Through the Eyes of Greek Consuls and Agents

15 December 2021

Author Tasos Kostopoulos, Institute for Mediterranean Studies, Rethymno

Itinerant Russian icon traders, colloquially known as afenya, one of the main channels through which various objects of Russian religious art found their way to the Ottoman-dominated Balkans, were seen by Greek nationalists during the late 19th century as the spearhead of a Panslavist thrust designed to hit Hellenism’s soft religious underbelly. Two sets of documents from Greek diplomats and their agents in the Macedonian hinterland, dealing with two emblematic incidents involving such Russian traders, shed light on this trade, its features and its reception by local communities at the era of Balkan national revivals.

Russian icon traders, Afenya, Macedonian Question, Voden (today Edessa), Florina

[1] Yuliana Boycheva, “The Transfer of Russian Icons in Greece (16th-19th Centuries) and the Example of Patmos,” in Yuliana Boycheva, ed., Routes of Russian Icons in the Balkans (16th - Early 20th Centuries) (Seyssel: La Pomme d’Or, 2016), 105-132, especially 120-122.

[2] Pavlos Tsamis, ΜακεδονικόςΑγών [Macedonian Struggle] (Thessaloniki: Society for Macedonian Studies, 1975), 25. The writer, a retired Greek Army brigadier and the nephew of a Greek agent murdered by IMRO in 1906, served as the head of the “Centre for Macedonians Abroad,” an agency established by the Greek Foreign Ministry in order to conduct state-sponsored propaganda among the Macedonian Diaspora, from the Centre’s inception in 1966 until his death in 1975. The publishing house has been the principal semi-official outlet for nationalist propaganda on the Macedonian Question since 1939.

[3] Serb nationalism was actually a newcomer in the field (from the 1880s onwards), as it lacked any institutional cover for its school networks before 1893 in the vilayet of Skopje and 1897 in those of Monastir and Salonica.

[4] For a comprehensive survey of the national party system and rivalry in late Ottoman Macedonia, see my PhD dissertation: Tasos Kostopoulos, “Εθνικά κόμματα και πρώιμος μακεδονισμός. Η πολιτική και κοινωνική διάσταση της εθνικής διαπάλης στην ύστερη οθωμανική Μακεδονία” [National Parties and Early Macedonism. The Political and Social  Dimension of National Strife in Late Ottoman Macedonia] (University of the Aegean, Mytilene, 2018).

[5] Kostopoulos, “Εθνικά,” 899-900, for a number of such incidents.

[6] On this perception, see Nicholaos Graikos, “Russian Icons in Churches in the Hellenic Area in the Late 18th - early 20th Centuries: Cultural and Iconographic Interpretations,” in Boycheva, ed., Routes, 176-189.

[7]Προκλαμάτσια να Ελληνομακεντόνσκη Κομιτέτ οτ Άτηνα Ζα νάσητε μπράτε Μακεντόντση [Proclamation by the Greek Macedonian Committee from Athens for Our Macedonian Brothers], s.l., s.n. [Salonica, 1905], 5. The pamphlet repeatedly equated Russians with Bulgarians, all of them allegedly “pig-faced and always drunken,” as Slavs and common enemies of the Greeks; England was, on the contrary, lauded as a protector of Hellenism. On its circulation in the hinterland of Salonica, see: A. Shopov to Gr. Natchovits, Salonica 24.4.1905, no. 787, in Velitchko Georgiev and Staiko Trifonov, eds., Гръцката и сръбската пропаганди в Македония (краят на XIX – началото на XX век) [The Greek and Serbian Propagandas in Macedonia (Late 19th – Early 20th Century)] (Sofia: Makedonski Nautchen Institut, 1995), 54.

[8] Syllogos pros Diadosin ton Ellenikon Grammaton [SDEG], Η δράσις του Συλλόγου κατά την πρώτην εκατονταετίαν [The Activity of the Association During Its First 100 Years] (Athens, 1969), 68-92; Lydia Papadakis, Teaching the Nation. Greek Nationalism and Education in Nineteenth Century Macedonia (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 2006); Sofia Vouri, Πηγές για την Ιστορία της Μακεδονίας. Πολιτική και εκπαίδευση, 1875-1907 [Sources on the History of Macedonia. Politics and Education, 1875-1907] (Athens: Paraskinio, 1994), 17-39.

[9] French translations of the 1870 firman in Victor Bérard, La Turquie et l’Hellénisme contemporain (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1893), 184-187, and Atanas Schopoff, Les réformes et la protection des Chrétiens en Turquie, 1673-1904 (Paris: Plon, 1904), 134-137.

[10] Kostopoulos, “Εθνικά,” 345-354.

[11] For an excellent analysis of the developments which led to the 1872 schism, see: Paraskevas Matalas, Έθνος και Ορθοδοξία. Από το “ελλαδικό” στο βουλγαρικό σχίσμα [Nation and Orthodox Christianity. From the “Hellenic” to the Bulgarian Schism] (Irekleio: Panepistimiakes Ekdoseis Kritis, 2002).

[12] Konstantinos Vatikiotis to SDEG, Thessaloniki, 21 April 1871, no. 304, f.E/7/485/962-963, SDEG Archive.

[13] Konstantinos Vatikiotis to SDEG, Thessaloniki, 5 May 1871, no. 356, f.E/7/485/964-965, SDEG Archive.

[14] Konstantinos Vatikiotis to MFA, Thessaloniki, 16 May 1876, no. 458, 1876/99.1/3440-3459, ΙΑΥΕ, and to the Greek Embassy in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, May 18 and 22, 1876, nos. 474 and 494; Edessaios, “Έδεσσα (τέως Βοδενά)” [Edessa (Formerly Voden], Μακεδονικόν Ημερολόγιον 1 (1908): 220; Vouli ton Ellinon, Μητρώο βουλευτών και γερουσιαστών, 1822-1935 [Inventory of Members of Parliament and Senators, 1822-1935] (Athens: Greek Parliament, 1986), 159.

[15] “Bulgarisers” (βουλγαρισταί) was a termed coined by the Greek nationalist terminology of those years, in order to denote the activists or supporters of the Bulgarian national movement among the Slav-speaking Christian Macedonians; their counterparts on the Greek side were usually called just “ours” (ημέτεροι). On the diachronic evolution of this terminology, see Tasos Kostopoulos, “Naming the Other: from ‘Greek Bulgarians’ to ‘Local Macedonians’,” in Alexandra Ioannidou and Christian Voss, eds., Spotlights of Russian and Balkan Slavic Cultural History (München, Berlin: Verlag Otto Sagner, 2009), 97-120.

[16] After a number of futile attempts to occupy the local church of Agioi Anargyroi / Sveti Vratch, the Bulgarian party of Voden established, in late March 1871, the town’s first Exarchist chapel in the premises of a silk factory run by its leader, Georgi Gogov (Titos Karantzalis and Dimitrios Gonis, Κώδιξ της αλληλογραφίας του Βοδενών Αγαθάγγελου [Codex of the Correspondence of Agathangelos, Metropolitan of Voden] (Thessaloniki: Society for Macedonian Studies, 1975), 105-106; Ep. Sakellaropoulos to Vatikiotis, Voden, 5 May 1871, 1871/76.1/351, IAYE). The coveted church was finally occupied by the Bulgarian party in July 1872 ([Ep. Sakellaropoulos to Vatikiotis], Voden, 9 July 1872, 1872/76.1/854-861, IAYE) and kept by it until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 (E. Stougiannakis to St. Dragoumis, Edessa, August 1, 1913, no. 32, fol. 120, Stefanos Drafoumis Archives).

[17] Ep. Sakellaropoulos to Vatikiotis, Voden, April 25, 1871, f.E/7/485/966-971, SDEG Archive.

[18] For a detailed narrative of the Exarchate during those years from a Bulgarian nationalist point of view, see: Kiril Patriarch Bâlgarski, Българската Екзархия в Одринско и Македония след освободитьелната война 1877-1878 [The Bulgarian Exarchate in the Region of Andrinople and Macedonia after the Liberation War of 1877-1878] (Sofia: Sinodalno Izdatelstvo, 1969-1970). For assessments of the situation in Macedonia by leading figures of Greek nationalism during the same period, see: Vouri, Πηγές, 36-121; Christos Kardaras, ΙωακείμΓ΄ - Χαρ. Τρικούπης. Η αντιπαράθεση [Ioakeim III – Charilaos Trikoupis. The Confrontation] (Athens: Trohalia, 1997); Spyros Karavas, Μακάριοι οι κατέχοντες την γην”. Γαιοκτητικοί σχεδιασμοί προς απαλλοτρίωση συνειδήσεων στη Μακεδονία [“Blessed are the Possessors of the Earth.” Real Estate Planning in Search of Soul-Buying in Macedonia] (Athens: Vivliorama, 2010), 38-134 and 249-296.

[19] K. Panourgias to the Greek MFA, Bitola, 13 August 1885, no. 478, 1885/ΑΑΚ/ΙΒ/32-35, ΙΑΥΕ.

[20] Kostopoulos, “Εθνικά,” 928-936.

[21] K. Panourgias to the Greek MFA, Bitola, 25 June 1885, no. 311, 1885/ΑΑΚ/ΙΒ/131-133, ΙΑΥΕ Archive.

[22] K. Panourgias to the Greek MFA, Bitola, 10 September 1885, no. 523, 1885/ΑΑΚ/ΙΒ/36-37, ΙΑΥΕ Archive.

[23] See, for example, the reports of Catholic missionaries established at that time in Macedonia or elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire: Annales de la Congrégation de la Mission 30 (1865): 20; 49 (1884): 62, 64, 76, 77, 82, 167, 182, 193 and 239; 50 (1885): 31, 69 and 380.

[24] Nayden Gerov to Count Ignatiev, Philippopolis, 1 February 1871, in M. Popruzhenko, ed., Архив на Найден Геров 1856-1876 [Archive of Naiden Gerov, 1856-1876], vol. II (Sofia: Dărzhavna Petsatnitsa, 1932), 4-5. The source has been tracked down by Angel Nikolov, in the framework of his research for the RICONTRANS Project.

[25] SDEG President K. Paparrigopoulos and secretary I. Zolotas to MFA A. Kontostavlos, Athens, October 27, 1884, No. 1512, 1885/B1/262-263, IAYE.