The Republic of Pontus was a proposed state that kinda-sorta existed in fact from 1916 to 1919 and hung around in name for another three years. It was (in its dreams, at least) comprised of the Ottoman vilayets of Samsun (Janik) and Trabzon (Trebizond) on the south-eastern coast of the Black Sea. Its purpose was to serve as a homeland for Pontic Greeks. Pontus has been the colloquial Greek name for the Black Sea since antiquity.

The Players

The population of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century was officially arranged into three neat demographic categories: Turks, Greeks, and Armenians. This disregarded Arab and Kurdish populations, as well as all those awkward little minorities for which no spreadsheet was wide enough until the advent of Lotus 1-2-3. Similarly, according to the Armenian patriarchate, which manufactured its own numbers, no populations were relevant but Turks, Armenians, and Kurds. And of course each census counted whatever and whomever the hell it wanted to count. This was the case until around 1915, when as far as the Turks were concerned two demographic categories were enough and what the Armenians thought their population ought to be was no longer relevant or accurate.

For at least ten years before World War I there had been some agitation among a certain Pontic Greek intelligentsia, both local and in the diaspora with Marseilles as its headquarters, towards pursuing either independence or a union with the Greek state, which had spent the last hundred years expanding at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and which was a major cause of the "Sick Man of Europe's" malaise. There was even a precedent for a Greek state in that area. The Empire of Trebizond, though its name was grander than its reach, had actually outlived the Byzantine Empire by eight years.

Let me clarify the whole Pontic Greek thing. By the 20th century distance and isolation had resulted in a fair amount of difference among the various Greek populations of the Empire, which in what is today Turkey were concentrated in Istanbul and European Turkey, along the Pontus, and in Asia Minor around Izmir. In the case of the Pontians, they spoke a dialect that had been diverging from the rest since before the fall of Constantinople and was all but unintelligible to most contemporary Greeks. The main criterion for considering them to be as Greek as the rest was their shared Byzantine heritage and Orthodox religion, including their allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Greeks, though they had their tribulations and regular pogroms, were not always an oppressed minority. Pogroms were just as likely as not a means of keeping their rising power in check. Two thirds of businesses in Samsun were Greek. Four of five banks in Trebizond were Greek. Greek kids went to school in every village and learned about the Argonauts and Xenophon. Trabzon itself had perhaps a thousand male students in Greek secondary and postsecondary schools and about a quarter as many female students. In the absence of a noteworthy Jewish presence the Greeks were the merchant class in any district in which they had a significant footprint. They had economic clout and in fact for centuries supplied the Empire with trade goods and bureaucrats. Which is why they got away with as much as they did.

You see, apart from being unrepentant giaours, Ottoman Greeks were also a trojan horse for any Christian foreign power. Very specifically and even more than the Greek state itself, the Pontians were Russophiles. And given the state of affairs between the Russian and Ottoman Empires throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no more certain way of pissing off the Sultan than allying yourself with the Russians. Never mind that not five years earlier the Greeks of Samsun had offered 12000 pounds sterling to the Greek navy for the Balkan Wars. Loyal citizens of the Empire they were not.

The Game

Just as was the case a hundred years later, World War I in the Middle East was a fantastic free-for-all for anyone who wasn't cannon fodder or slave labour and wanted a piece of someone else. The Russians did far better here in the south than they did on their western front. They made the most of poor Ottoman leadership, allied themselves with Persia and pretty much any Turk-hating entity in the region (and there were many) and found themselves in charge of Erzurum and approaching Trabzon by April 1916.

Seeing the Cyrillic writing on the wall the local vali, a certain Cemal Azmi (a.k.a. the Butcher of Trabzon), called over his buddy the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Chrysanthos, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and put him in charge of Turks and Greeks alike (he didn't have to worry about Armenians since he'd solved that question personally, hence the mean moniker). Then he got out as fast as the piles of Armenian loot would let him because he didn't really feel like getting too close to a bunch of rather angry Russian-Armenian soldiers.

This was the yee-haw moment for the Pontic Greeks. Out of nowhere they appeared to be on the verge of autonomy and perhaps even a state, even if it was just a Russian protectorate. Chrysanthos, only appointed to his see in 1914, by all accounts had done his best to protect the Armenians of Trabzon, had managed to spare most of his people from the labour details that no one came home from, and all in all appeared to be an able governor. He guaranteed equal protection to Turks and Greeks, coordinated care for refugees and orphans of all creeds, and persuaded the Russians to cough up some cash for the cause. The Russians and other foreign consuls had no problems leaving him in charge and indeed were confident enough to use him as an intermediary for peace proposals in 1917. A conference of Russian Greeks met in Tanganrog in July 1917 and decided that it was a good time to proclaim a republic with a provisional capital-in-exile of nearby Rostov. The Republic of Pontus looked like it was almost a going concern.

Alas, all this changed in February of 1918. Given that the Russians became somewhat preoccupied with domestic affairs, controlling marginally relevant portions of the Black Sea coast became a bit of an afterthought. The Russians signed a series of armistices in December 1917, left quietly to fight each other, and the Young Turks marched in two months later. Meet the Young Turk, same as the Old and twice as angry and motivated. The Young Turk movement actually included quite a few Arabs, Albanians, Jews, and all sort of other non-Turks in its ranks. But Greeks were not mentioned. Indeed, many Greeks thought it better to follow the troops into civil-war Russia than to stick around and deal with the Young Turks.

Aware of their suddenly precarious position, the Pontians tried enlisting everything and everyone in their cause. Having been darlings of Czarist Russia, they now made overtures to the Bolsheviks. A message from the first Pontic Conference, which was held in Marseille in 1918 as though nothing else was going on in the world, asked for comrade Trotsky's help in establishing a state that would stretch from Sinope in the west to the Russian border. Meanwhile, they thought they had assurances of unlimited support from the Greek government after Pontic leader Constantine Konstantinidis met with Greek PM Venizelos in nearby Nice. The Allies were sent regular memoranda and updates while propaganda was printed for the French public to see.

The end of World War I, with the Empire on the losing end, gave the Pontians even more hope. The Paris Peace Conference was happening and they thought that perhaps they could get in on some of that hot self-determination action that President Wilson was going on about. Apparently Wilson himself thought that an independent Pontus was a great idea. The Pontians figured that #12 of the Fourteen Points was as applicable to them as it was to the Turks.

The Unravelling

They were mistaken. After all, Wilson was a great dreamer and personality but inadequate as a diplomat. Like most of his successors to this day, he had no real understanding of the sectarianism underlying European and Middle Eastern politics. The Pontians were about to get a dose of Realpolitik from all quarters.

Meanwhile, back home the fiction of a law-abiding, civil republic came to an abrupt and all too familar end: the British showed up. Which in that part of the world was rarely good news even when they were not themselves being heavy-handed, bumbling colonial-tards. So the Brits sailed into Samsun harbour and the locals, who were not quite as discplined as the Trabzon crowd, thought it fit to celebrate their arrival with a little bloodbath of their Turkish neighbours. Which they might have gotten away with except for a fundamental problem which they had until then managed to work around: they were not the majority. And massacres conducted by minorities have a habit of blowing up in their faces, particularly when conducted in front of the representatives of nations whose support they really, really want.

There's no telling how much in the minority the Greeks were. Even if they were not outnumbered 7:1 in the two provinces like the official numbers said they were—if urban Trebizond was anything to go by it was probably half that—they had absolutely no chance, by force or persuasion, of creating a homogenous nation-state. They may have been an elite but they were not a convincing majority. Which ultimately is why they got sold down the river by the Greek state. Greece was already pursuing an extremely ill-advised campaign in Asia Minor and had absolutely no capacity for supporting a Pontic minority state. Union was not on the table because of geographical and linguistic differences. Venizelos did what even the most half-witted of statesmen would have done and cut loose.

Chrysanthos spent much of 1919 in Paris pressing his cause but the Pontians were considered for everything but independence by the Allies. The best they were offered was a federation or union with Armenia before even that came off the table as Mustafa Kemal's modern Turkish movement was in the ascendancy. A reinvigorated nationalist force gave the Allies and the Treaty of Sèvres which was supposed to partition the Empire a big middle finger and reasserted its dominance over the territory of what is now Turkey.

The whole pipe dream came to a formal end in 1922 when Metropolitan Chrysanthos, already condemned by the Turks in absentia, was forced to vacate Istanbul as the Allies abandoned its post-war occupation. He later became Archbishop of Athens. Everyone who had not already fled to Russia, Georgia, Armenia, or Greece was either massacred in situ or shown the door with the population exchange of the Treaty of Lausanne as two and half millennia of Pontic Greek history came to an end.

The Republic of the Pontus was little more than a sideshow to the mass insanity of the Great War and no more than an appendix to the epic clusterfuck that was the Greek involvement in the War and its aftermath. Everyone wanted a piece of the "Sick Man of Europe's" estate (not that there was much European about it east of Istanbul and Izmir) and hopelessly misjudged the fact that the Turkish populace was far more resilient and willing to fight than its government. In the end it was just another poorly thought-out venture that contributed to massive suffering during the first quarter of the 20th century.

This nonexistent state brought to you by NowhereQuest 2014