“God Loves Caviar”: Ioannis Varvakis: Pirate, Merchant and Greek Revolutionary

Ioannis Varvakis (1745-1825) was born on the Greek island of Psara then under the control of the Ottoman Empire. His real name was Ioannis Leontides but Varvakis was a nickname that he received in childhood due to his imposing eyes which were like those of a bird of prey which lives on the island of Psara.

He started his career as a pirate in the Aegean Sea specializing in plundering Turkish vessels. He offered his ship to Russian forces in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 and steered his explosive laden ship into the Turkish flotilla causing severe losses. The Ottomans signed peace treaty with Russia granting Russia the large portion of the northern Black Sea and lands but did not result in Greek independence.

For his service to the Russians Catherine the Great gave him 1,000 golden roubles, authorization for unlimited and duty-free fishing in the Caspian Sea, a lieutenancy in the Russian navy and a right to settle in Russia.

Varvakis made a fortune through his fishing rights in the Caspian Sea. He developed a method to transport Caspian caviar without spoiling it hence the title of the film King of Caviar. By 1778 the businesses of Varvakis employed more than 3,000 people.

In 1810 Varvakis was granted the title of hereditary nobleman with a family coat of arms by Alexander1 of Russia who also made him court counsel and granted him the Order of St. Vladimir and Order of St. Anne. He joined the Greek revolutionaries in 1824 and died in 1825 on the Island of Zakynthos leaving his entire fortune to promote education in the new Greek state. The foundation he established still is operative.

The 2012 film also includes Catherine Deneuve as Catherine the Great and John Cleese as McCormick the British warden of the “sanitorium” on Zakynthos however their roles are cameos and the heavy lifting is by the German actor Sebastian Koch playing Varvakis and his slave Ivan (Evgenly Stychkin).

The cinematography and costume design are first rate. But some doubt its historical accuracy. The movie could have been transformed into a splashy extravaganza but focuses on the various inter-personal relationships of Varvakis.

Unfortunately the British bankers wanted Varvakis out of the picture so in order for them to make a loan to the fledging state of Greece they wanted him transferred to a British controlled “sanitorium” in Zakynthos (which was agreed to by the temporary Greek Prime Minister) where he died shortly thereafter. The treacherous state of politics.

How historically accurate the film may be is open to debate but it makes for a good adventure film. Entertaining and engrossing as the story of a poor man raising himself up to nobility by itself is exciting! You can see the trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA4MSCV2kSw

The film is one of the films brought to you by the Hellenic Film Society USA https://hellenicfilmusa.org/  which you will have to access their website to see the film. It runs until March 28th. Today is the 200th anniversary of Greek independence which the Hellenic Film Society USA is celebrating through film.

Directed by Yannis Smaragdis and most of the film is in English but when there is Russian or Greek dialogue there will be English subtitles.

Published by Robert K Stephen (CSW)

Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden and the University of Toronto. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he has established this publication. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write."

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