Utopia in Exile

by Margaret E. Kenna

The community of exiles on the island of Anafi during the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1941) were able to set up an isolated microcosm of the kind of society that their political views advocated


Panorama of the celebration in the village square on 25th March 1941 (before the Italian Occupation of the island) Photo by Takis Kouroros

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Images courtesy of the writer and the publication Social Organization of Exile: Greek Political Detainees in the 1930s by Margaret E. Kenna, Publisher: Harwood Academic Pub, UK, USA, 2001

From the earliest times for which records of Anafi exist, there were two types of visitor to the island – those who came voluntarily and those who were forced to go to the island. Voluntary visitors in ancient times included pilgrims to the temple of Apollo, pirates in search of plunder, and, in the past four hundred years, pilgrims to the shrine of Panayia Kalamiotissa. Explorers and researchers have also chosen to visit Anafi: botanists such as Pitton de Tournefort (18th century) and archaeologists/ epigraphers such as Hiller von Gaertringen (19th century) and Angelos Matthaiou (20th and 21st century). Post WWII travellers came to the island in small numbers, but after 1974, when an electricity generator was built, many more tourists and travellers arrived, and the island migrants who had left for the city returned to take advantage of this new economic opportunity. Further developments, such as the construction of a more sheltered harbour where ferries could dock and off-load passengers and motor vehicles, increased tourist access. Later still, the building of paved and unpaved roads leading to almost all parts of the island helped islanders to reach neglected agricultural land by car, truck, mini-tractors, quad bikes, motor bikes and scooters, and to renovate and rebuild old properties and to build new ones. The roads and cleared paths have also helped hikers and explorers to discover previously inaccessible areas of the island.
While most tourists visit the island in High Season (July and August), there are others who come in May for the spring flowers or in September for the migrating birds. Those who visit at the start or the end of the season may well experience early spring or autumn storms, and get a glimpse of the physical difficulties of living at a time of strong winds, rough seas, cancelled ferries, food shortages, power cuts, and other privations. Few of them stay through the months of November to February on the island, so the months from October to the following spring can only be imagined – wind, cold, sometimes snow, delayed letters, but also clear crisp days with wonderful cloud formations and sparkling seas.
The other category of visitor – those forced to go to the island – existed from Roman times onwards; people sent into exile to keep them out of public life and to punish them. In modern times (from the 1920s onwards), categories of people who were thought to be ‘public dangers’ were sent into exile. These categories included those convicted either for their life-style (such as animal thieves, bandits and drug addicts, musicians who played rebetika – ‘the Greek blues’, regarded as a degenerate form of music by the authorities – and hash smokers) or for their opinions (political dissidents). Several waves of people exiled for political reasons came to Anafi over five decades, with the last few living on the island during the Junta (1967-1974).
For one set of exiles on Anafi particularly rich written and visual materials exist to allow an insight into their lives in the form of handwritten newspapers and glass negatives. These were people sent to the island by the ‘Regime of the Fourth of August’ (the Metaxas Dictatorship of 1936-1941). Men, and a few women, who were members or officials of trades unions, as well as the members and adherents of any organisation deemed to hold anti-government views (usually left-wing but also including Old Calendrists) were defined as dangers to the body politic. Many were ‘administratively deported’ (i.e. without a trial which could be reported and give the opportunity for speeches denouncing the regime). These exiles were more or less left to their own devices, as indeed were the other categories of exiles. They had to find their own accommodation, food, etc. The political exiles set up a commune of the type which some of them had experienced in prison, usually organised by the Communists there, a commune which any ‘political’ exile was free to join. The idea that all exiles were Communists is incorrect – the majority of them were not – but it was the Communists among them who had the training to set up prison collectives and exile communes which then organised almost every aspect of daily life.
The commune rented houses in the village (many had been left empty by migrant islanders) as dormitories, rented agricultural land, and arranged work groups for farming work, building furniture, repairing and making shoes and clothes, and for baking and cooking. With the money derived from members and other sources, they were able to order bulk supplies of dried foodstuffs from the mainland (or through the local grocers), as well as the large cooking vessels required for catering for several hundred people. They also asked their professional members to provide medical and dental aid to commune members and this was extended to the islanders. Half of anything received by members (money, food, clothes sent by their families) had to be given to the commune, and all participated in work rotas according to their abilities, for example, collecting brushwood from the hillsides and fuel for the commune’s ovens. In return, the commune made sure each member was housed, clothed and fed.  In the early days of the Metaxas Regime there were as many as seven hundred exiles on the island, but the number dropped to three and then two hundred, particularly as pressure was put on them to sign ‘declarations of repentance’, renouncing Communism (whether or not they actually were Communists), and this act allowed them to leave exile and return home.
Those from different parts of Greece set up regional organisations, which took turns to organise various kinds of leisure activities for other members which broke the monotony of daily life. Some produced their own regional handwritten newspapers, while one group was in charge of a commune newspaper called Antifascist. There was a music group, including musicians and singers, and on special occasions plays would be put on, to which villagers were invited. The organisers of the commune were insistent that good relations with the islanders were essential; to avoid any controversial topics of conversation, most members were not allowed to say more than good-day to an islander, and the well-known ‘Article 10’ of the list of rules forbade any romantic or sexual association between commune members and locals (or between themselves – there were a few women exiles). Theft was severely punished – sometimes by the offender being expelled from the commune. The commune was not without its inner tensions, controversies, conflicts of personality and ideological disagreements. But, ironically, exiles were able to set up a microcosm of the kind of society that the political views of some of them advocated – a Utopia of shared skills and resources, communal activities and a voluntary code of ethics with its own system of rewards and punishments.
The exiles’ lives changed dramatically during the Occupation, when an Italian garrison arrived on the island in May 1941. As one of the exiles remarked, they were no longer detainees of the Greek state but ‘captive-hostages’, often used in reprisals for attacks on the occupying forces. Their basic supplies from the mainland were cut off, and they were forced to live on a diet of wild greens and snails. A few members died of illnesses brought on by malnourishment and lack of food. Life at this time was hard for the islanders too, but they had their lands and livestock, and could often conceal supplies when there were searches. The exiles were finally transported from the island during the last months of 1942. Some were further imprisoned, or sent to holding camps, and some of these died or were executed; some were taken to hospital, others escaped; some joined the Resistance.
These extraordinary events are ‘forgotten’ to all intents and purposes on the island, because they are not relevant to any local concerns, and they do not form any part of whatever ‘history’ may be recounted orally, in print, or on island websites. Young women of a few village families married a few of the exile men, from both categories, criminals and politicals, and it is among their descendants that these forgotten histories and memories are still transmitted.
Very few tourists and travellers, many in search of their own Utopias, know about this part of the island’s history, and, indeed, there are very few traces of the existence of any exiles in the island’s one village or in the countryside. Most visitors see the island in comparison to something else, usually urban life and the anonymity of the city, and construct a vision of Utopia as ‘eutopia’ (the good place), which they hope they will find on the island. What they seem to crave in this location (positive social interaction on a small human scale in a pleasant landscape and climate) is indeed possible (provided that the winter months can be endured). But studies of small communities all reveal that none is without its tensions, rivalries and negative elements (as was the case in the exiles’ commune. Maybe their Utopia is rather ‘outopia’ (no place, an unrealisable dream).


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