URSABLOG: Freedom or Death

Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia this week made a powerful statement to the west. Despite hopes that President Xi would nominate himself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine following his largely pointless peace plan, it became quickly clear that he is tying Russia closer to China’s contra-containment strategy. It is perhaps ironic that although one of the stated aims of the invasion of Ukraine was to reinstate Russia as a great power, it is evident that Russia is now subordinate to China, very much the junior partner. In striving to forcibly bring Ukraine under its influence Russia has put itself firmly under the thumb of China. One good thing about all of this however is that China has firmly said that atomic weapons are not to be used under any circumstances.


However relieving this may be to us it is probably not much comfort to those in Ukraine who have lost their loved ones, their homes and to those forced to live abroad, not to speak of the families of those estimated 60-70,000 troops who have lost their lives fighting for Russia. It is sobering to think that there have been more Russian troops killed in the last year than in all the wars that Russia has fought since the second world war, four times as many as in Afghanistan.


I was sitting on my balcony this morning, enjoying the beautiful weather with my coffee, when the quiet was shattered as a fly past of fighter jets supported by helicopters made its way in formation towards Syntagma square to celebrate the victory of Greece in the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. It was impressive, as usual, enhanced by the clear blue skies of a warm spring day.


The second wave came back as I was on the street on my way back from buying cigarettes, and the noise at ground level, reverberating between the concrete apartment buildings of central Athens was more ominous, especially the massive Chinook helicopters, whoomphing past, reminiscent of the opening titles of Apocalypse Now. I looked up and in my imagination I felt for a second how it might feel to be under attack rather than celebrating freedom from centuries of oppression.


One of the bloodiest moments of the War of Independence was the massacre of Psara. Following the invasion of Chios in April 1824, where 30,000 inhabitants were killed and a further 50,000 sold as slaves in Istanbul and Izmir, many refugees moved across to Psara. Hundreds of Greek troops, together with many women and children had taken refuge in the old fort on the Μαύρη Ράχη (literally the black ridge) when 2,000 Ottoman troops attacked it. As the soldiers approached the refugees threw a white flag with the words “Ελευθερία ή θάνατος” – Freedom or Death” – over the walls of the fort. Then, as soon as the attackers entered the fort, the local Antonios Vratsanos lit a fuse to the gunpowder stock. This explosion – according to contemporary observers like the eruption of Vesuvius – killed both the inhabitants of the fort and their enemies.


The invasion of Psara left the island deserted after 17,000 were either killed or sold into slavery. It remained in Ottoman hands until 1912 when it was recaptured by the Greek navy in the First Balkan War. It has been repopulated since then, although nowhere near peak figures. There are now around 500 permanent residents there; I intend to visit them and the island at some point this summer.


The explosion on Psara – however extraordinary it may seen – was repeated later in Crete during the 1866 revolt against the Turks who still occupied the island. (It should be noted that Greece’s current territorial boundaries were not set in their current position until 1947 when the Dodecanese islands were formally handed back from Italy.) Hundreds of people were blown up in the Arkadi monastery after the abbot ordered the ignition of barrels of gunpowder rather than surrender. The cry of ‘Freedom or Death’ from Psara must surely have been heard in Arkadi too, and inspired them.


This rallying cry, or statement of intent, has always affected me, and has been reproduced in countless memes and posts since then, particularly around this time of the year. But as a recent visit to the Mani reminded me there are different versions of the same theme. The Mani, famously never properly occupied – and certainly never controlled – by the Ottomans, was so lawless that they were largely left to their own devices. The castle at Kelefa, near to Oitylo, is a neat example of prevailing conditions down there. It was built in 1679 by the Ottomans, in order to keep the Maniots under some kind of order. However by 1685 the Maniots were already besieging the castle and sent emissaries to Venice for support. The Venetians – at war with the Ottomans at the time – were only to glad to help, and sent a fleet in aid. Apparently it only took the sight of the flag of Saint Mark for the Ottomans to surrender. Despite the Ottomans returning a year later with a stronger force they were driven back, and the castle remained in Venetian hands for another thirty years until the Ottomans recaptured the whole of the Peloponnese in 1715, including the castle. But in 1780 they gave up, and abandoned the castle which has remained derelict ever since.


The rallying cry for the Mani was “Νίκη η Θάνατος” – Victory or Death – which is apt for their uncompromising attitude. But I have noticed in the last year or two that this meme has been more prevalent than the Psarian one, maybe reflecting the more confrontational times. Instimctively I prefer the idea of freedom to victory, maybe because I find freedom a precious ideal, whereas victory is momentary and fleeting. To live a life free is surely more desirable than living one constantly victorious. But still, history is said to be written by the victorious, and as freedom is a hard-won victory, it should be treasured and protected.


I have promised myself this year to finally prepare for – and pass – the exams needed to apply for Greek citizenship. I have lived here – on and off – for almost fourteen years, the last ten with Ursa Shipbrokers. I have gone from being besotted with Greece and Greeks to developing a more mature appreciation of the country and its people, its culture and its history. My application for citizenship is less of an attempt at getting an EU passport (although that in itself is desirable) and more – much more – of a statement of commitment and intent to my adopted country. It is where I wish to live the rest of my life.


But I am frustrated by my inability to master the Greek language properly – I am ashamed that I am so inept despite being here so long – and this frustration and shame is amplified by the knowledge that I cannot engage and appreciate fully on the country’s own terms. (If anyone knows of a Greek teacher who is willing to give me regular – preferably daily – online tuition in the early morning please let me know. It is the only way I can learn.)


Because true freedom means not being trapped by a failure to communicate – to say and listen, write and read – and build on an understanding of the world around us. True freedom also means being able to do so, and not being prevented to read, write, say and listen to what we want. This freedom will not by itself resolve all the ills in the world, but I believe it is a necessary pre-condition. A celebration of freedom – victory for freedom – should be accompanied by an appreciation of the sacrifices made to achieve it and to maintain it as well as an understanding of how important it is to protect it.


The sound of aircraft over my flat this morning was a poignant reminder of how precarious the freedom I have and how precious life itself is. Freedom or death is indeed a question worthy of serious consideration.


Best wishes,

Simon Ward