Assyrians in Russia

A once mighty people struggle to retain their identity and faith in 20th-century Russia.

text by Sergei Mikhailov
translated by Felix Corley
photographs by Elena Bit-Sargis

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The 2,800-year-old remains of the powerful Assyrian Empire lie buried beneath the dust of Mesopotamia. Dispersed throughout the globe, however, are more than one million people – natives of northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey – who call themselves Assyrians. These include an estimated 10,000 people scattered throughout European Russia.

This diaspora proudly bears the name Assyrian, although besides sharing a form of the Assyrian language they hold little in common with their forebears. Modem Assyrians are staunch Christians who belong to a myriad number of churches, most of which stem from the early Christian communities founded by St. Thomas the Apostle.

The historic church of the Assyrian people, the Church of the East, developed independently from the rest of Christendom, sending its missionaries to China, southern India and Mongolia. Presently, however, the majority of Assyrian Christians belong to the Chaldean Church, which shares the ancient rites and traditions of the Church of the East while in full communion with the Church of Rome.

Most of Russia’s tiny Assyrian minority are descendants of refugees who fled the Ottoman Empire during World War I. During the conflict, the Assyrians had turned on their Turkish rulers, siding with the Allied “Christian” powers of Britain, France and Imperial Russia. They had been influenced by American and European Christian missionaries who, since the 19th century, had worked among them. These missionaries urged the Assyrians to support the Allies – their fellow Christians – insinuating, as a reward for their support, the establishment of an Assyrian homeland carved from the Turkish empire.

The Turks and their Kurdish allies responded violently, murdering tens of thousands of Assyrian men, women and children. The Catholicos-Patriarch, Mar Simon XIX Benjamin, six Assyrian bishops, four Chaldean bishops and hundreds of clergy also perished. Some observers claim that more than one third of the Assyrian population was killed between 1914 and 1918. Of those who survived, most lost their ancestral lands, settling in British-controlled refugee camps in Iraq or in southern Russia.

Yet even before this wholesale Assyrian massacre, thousands of Assyrians had been absorbed into Imperial Russia as it swallowed more territory in the Caucasus, particularly Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Assyrian seasonal workers, primarily agricultural laborers, emigrated from areas located in modem Iran and Turkey, settling in the Caucasus in search of work.

Eventually, many Assyrians moved further north, into southern Russia. In 1924, in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, Assyrians founded a village and named it after Urmiya, an important Assyrian center in Iran. This village, which has survived famine, the excesses of totalitarianism, World War II and the unraveling of the Soviet Union, remains the only exclusively Assyrian settlement in Russia.

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Assyrian Church Assimilation Church of the East