You’ve heard the story: Our protagonist sets off on an adventure, overcomes perilous challenges and returns home a wiser, braver and more principled person. In my Identities article, ‘On the value of failing and keeping a distance: narrating returns to post-dictatorship Greece’, I offer a very different story of antiheroes, ambivalent adventures and fraught returns. Our protagonists were young people fleeing Greece during the dictatorship and returning home a decade later to rebuild their country.
In the early hours of 21 April 1967, Athenians woke to soldiers and tanks in the streets and military music on the radio. The army had taken power overnight. Since the Greek civil war (1946–1949), left-wing Greeks lived under police surveillance, deprived of critical documents necessary for work and studies. With the new regime threatening incarceration of dissidents, our protagonists left for Canada. Some left urgently, others through prepared departures; some left with passports bought on the black market, others through ‘legitimate’ means; some jumped ship as young sailors at North American ports, others were sponsored by family members already living abroad.
In Toronto, our protagonists faced the usual challenges: the language, unfamiliar cultural codes, economic precarity and stereotypes. As young activists involved in the anti-junta movement abroad, their experience was additionally complex. On the one hand, they confronted surveillance and threats from the Greek Consulate and right-wing supports of the regime in their own diasporic ‘communities’. They were also placed under police surveillance by the Canadian state and they worried about how their political activities would compromise their own jobs in Canada and the safety of relatives in Greece. On the other hand, they enjoyed new opportunities: advanced university degrees and social connections with ‘important people’ like Andreas Papandreou, an exiled professor in Toronto who was becoming something of an icon of anti-junta resistance abroad.
When the dictatorship fell in 1974, our protagonists returned with aspirations of making their country a more democratic, inclusive space, especially for those on the left who had long been marginalised. They returned to an inverted political and cultural landscape, where ‘being left’ was cool and people traded resistance stories like they were ‘buying tomatoes at the market’. Andreas Papandreou returned from exile as the leader of the new Socialist Party (PASOK) and in 1981 became Prime Minister of Greece. Practically speaking, the relationships our protagonists had formed through their anti-junta activity abroad now translated into unprecedented opportunities for loans, privileges and the possibility of becoming ‘important people’ themselves. Clientelism took hold and jobs and opportunities were traded in exchange for PASOK support. Those who critiqued the new clientelism or those deemed too left-wing were removed from positions of power. Our protagonists looked on at this inverted world, where one pronouncement of ‘being left’ excluded others and where their visions of an inclusive society were eroded. They had a choice to make: some accepted the new deal and exploited their social networks; others withdrew into deep disappointment. When you ask them to tell you their story today, our protagonists speak of broken dreams, trust and friendships and of ‘failing’ in the ‘new Greece’ as a badge of honour.
Walking in the streets of Athens today, one finds abandoned PASOK offices littered with unopened mail, their facades stained with black soot from Molotov cocktails. On cement walls throughout the city, the disdain for the party reverberates. ‘Eat PASOK!’ cries one graffitied wall. ‘PASOK thieves!’ hails another. These are the material reminders of a party disgraced by enraged citizens who have lived through a decade of economic crisis. As aging leftists, my interlocutors look upon the wreckage and struggle to make sense of it.
Blog post by Katherine Pendakis, Memorial University, Canada
Read the full article: Pendakis, Katherine L. On the value of failing and keeping a distance: narrating returns to post-dictatorship Greece. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1299552