Amira El Ahl: Welcome to a new episode of "Die Kulturmittler", the ifa-podcast on foreign cultural policy. My name is Amira El Ahl and I'm glad you're joining us today. In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. Despite the manipulation of the referendum, Russia continues to speak of a legal annexation. The United Nations have not recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea because it violates the Ukrainian constitution as well as fundamental principles of international law. Therefore, the situation of Crimea remains a highly controversial topic and an integral component of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In this episode, I talk to Alim Aliev. He is a journalist, human rights activist, researcher and vice president of the Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv. His work mainly focuses on the situation in Crimea, the Crimean Tatars and humanitarian policy. Today, I want to talk to him about Ukrainian culture and the self-understanding of the country and its people. And I want to learn more about his work for the Ukrainian Institute. Welcome to the "Die Kulturmittler", Mr. Aliev.
Alim Aliev: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Amira El Ahl: Mr. Aliev, could you describe in a few words the mission of the Ukrainian Institute?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, of course. We are a young state institution in Ukraine. In Ukraine, we say that we are an "after the Revolution of Dignity institution" that founded after all of this reforms and changing after 2014. And for today, the Ukrainian Institute is an institution that is based in Kyiv and is affiliated to the MFA of Ukraine. Our mission is to facilitate international connections between people and institutions and to create opportunities for Ukraine to interact and cooperate with the rest of the world through cultural and public diplomacy.
Amira El Ahl: And how would you describe the self-understanding of Ukraine? And has the self-understanding maybe changed over the past years due to the Maidan unrest in 2013 and the Crimean annexation the year later or even the Russian invasion last year?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, probably. Now, Ukraine is perceived as a country of free people, unbending spirit, rich culture and history. For a long time we were in the shadows. Although, we are located in the very center of Europe. Now, the values of Ukrainians have become known to the whole world, especially to Europe. And it's about the same values as the values of dignity, the values of freedom, as well as multiculturalism. You know, in 2013, the Ukrainian resistance began to revive, which was inherent a century ago and even earlier. Ukrainians simply remembered what they already have in the face of danger to their freedom. That is why the changing of the self-understanding is huge because 2013, 2014, during the Revolution of Dignity, it's the beginning of a new independent state. That's why we say that 2014 is a new way of a new Ukrainian state.
Amira El Ahl: And in what way do you think that your work as an institute influences Ukrainian self-understanding and this vision of a new democratic state?
Alim Aliev: The Ukrainian institute promotes Ukrainian culture with its projects both abroad and within the country. Whereas our programmes implement projects in different areas films, music, visual art, literature, performing art, academic programems, cross-sector projects, development, cultural diplomacy. Civil society programmes are also a huge part. It's about research and analytics, Ukrainian language and communication. And each of these areas has educational projects that popularize knowledge about Ukraine, about our story, art, figures, who influenced it for the formation? It also stimulates the interest of Ukrainians knowing their own history and identity. Now is the time when Ukraine, especially the Ukrainian Institute state a lot of our efforts to explain what is the Ukraine, who are Ukrainians, what are the roots of such resistance today?
Amira El Ahl: I found quite interesting what you said earlier, that for a long time the rich Ukrainian culture and history was in the shadows, you said, if I quote you correctly. But now, due to the Russian invasion, Ukraine compulsorily became more visible to the world, even though the conflict between the two countries has already been going on for years. Ukraine isn't too well known in other countries. Yes, it's slightly changing, but it wasn't well known at all. Especially knowledge about Ukrainian culture and traditions weren't necessarily widespread. How is this possible 30 years after the Soviet Union ended? And as you said, such a big country in the middle of Europe. And still it had lived in the shadows, as you said.
Alim Aliev: The problem is that all those years, Russia has continued its active propaganda and colonial policy using various opportunities, including the cultural sphere. Russia has actively employed its culture and cultural diplomacy for disseminating narratives and perceptions favorable to Kremlin among foreign audiences, especially Western ones. We conducted a study of the cultural diplomacy institutions of the Russian Federation, which clearly demonstrated how the Russian regime spreads Kremlin's geopolitical and cultural narratives and fostered networks with Russians and Russian sympathizers abroad through various organisations, proxy organisations and foundations, for example.
Amira El Ahl: Is there something you as the Ukrainian institute can do against this?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, first of all the base of our activities is our values. That's why now it's important not to give this another type of propaganda. It's important to describe what is the Ukraine and to give true information. Our culture is our identity, uniqueness and nationality. It's about thousand years old and contains our history. And it is what makes every nation unique. Ukrainian culture, on the other hand, is characterized by the manifestation of freedom, love for one's land which is sacred to Ukrainians.
Amira El Ahl: Could you say how the Russian invasion changed the international perception of Ukraine and the knowledge about Ukrainian culture? Is this in any way measurable?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, of course. Now we have a unique chance to be heard and seen. For a long time, Ukraine remained in the shadows. Now it has come out of it and got a voice. This is the chance for us to show the world our country, to be an equal partner in a civilized cultural role. And during last year, we have had a lot of proposals to demonstrate Ukrainian culture, to make an exhibition, to make conferences, to participate in panel discussions, because today this war is not only about Ukraine. Yeah, it's our common war because this war is about values.
Amira El Ahl: And you signed the "Sustainable Peace Manifesto - Never Again 2.0" with other Ukrainian intellectuals, like for example Volodymyr Yermolenko, who has also been a guest in this podcast for the special episodes on Ukraine. This document describes a post-war vision of Russia and Ukraine. What does this vision look like? Can you tell us how you envision a world after this war ended?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, of course. Because this topic, we talk a lot about. Ukraine is the first state and first community who want the peace. And we are confident in our victory. We want the peace because for us, the highest value is the value of human life. And today, a lot of people died in a frontline. A lot of people died in different cities and villages of Ukraine. Just civilian people. But peace and the end of the war will only come after Russia fully withdraws from Ukraine. Including Crimea and parts of Donezk and Luhansk regions. And an international Special Tribunal holds Russia accountable for its war crimes and acts of genocide. Reparations will be paid by the aggressor's country. It's about one legal part of the war. But we also have another part about the Russian society after the war. A lot of our partners abroad ask about reconciliation. And such reconciliation could only happen after the Russian society understands all of these crimes that Russia does in Ukraine. Especially acts of genocide in Butscha, in Irpin, in Mariupol, in Borodjanka, in Isjum, in Bachmut today and in other cities of Ukraine. But also, if we talk about Ukraine and Ukrainian culture, it's important, now we have the time when we bring back our voices to ourselves. Because a long time Russia talks about us, talks about our culture, talks about history, appropriated our figures, et cetera. And Ukrainian culture should be competitive in the world, and we open to collaborate with different institutions to create something new, to create added value for this world.
Amira El Ahl: It seems like it could be a very long way until you reach this goal that Russia fully retreats from all Ukrainian territory. I mean, you're aware of the time it might take?
Alim Aliev: In our last nine years I'm not only a curator and the deputy director of the Ukrainian Institute, I'm also a volunteer. And not only last year but since 2013, since the Maidan. For me, it's a crucial and an existential war. I hope it will be in the nearest future or we will not exist. We don't have any other choice. That's why we fight and that's why all of the Ukrainians fight. It's not only fighting with a weapon in your arms on the frontline, it's about volunteering. It's about establishing and launching informational, cultural, educational projects.
Amira El Ahl: So it kind of touches a lot of different aspects of life, not just fighting on the frontlines but also volunteer work. Let's talk about nationalism and national identity, because that's something that's quite important. It touches on a lot of things you just said, and it's something that, for us Germans, is also a rather sensitive topic. Nationalism also plays a very big role in Ukrainian history up to this day. And as you just said, this is a crucial existential war. So can you explain why nationalism is so entrenched in Ukraine and in Ukrainian history?
Alim Aliev: First of all, it's important to understand that nationalism is not the same as Nazism. Ukrainian nationalism is rooted in the idea of the independent state protection, national identity and that is the myth that Russia spreads about Ukrainian nationalism, it does not correspond with reality. Ukrainians defend their country, their independent state. I want to give one example based on my life. I'm not ethnic Ukrainian. I am a Crimean Tatar. We are indigenous people of Ukraine. And I am Muslim. When I talk about Russia, about Russia myths and propaganda, about nationalism [...], in Ukraine today, we have really people with open-minded visions. So two years ago in post-Soviet Ukraine, it was really very orthodox people. But now it's a lot of organisations that support national identities in Ukraine, a lot of, for example, projects that support the LGBT-Community in Ukraine. A few days ago in the western part of Ukraine, in Lviv, the Crimean-Tatar-Community opened one more mosque together with the Muslim-Community. And it's about the topic of nationalism. I have a lot of Jewish friends that also say that nationalism in Ukraine is about patriotism. That's why Russians see me, a muslim, as a nationalist and my Jewish friends as Russian nationalists because we have a dignity and we defend our own land.
Amira El Ahl: So do you think that the role of national identity in the Ukrainian self-understanding also maybe changed in times of war? Or did it change in particular in this last year?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, a lot of people were united. This full scale invasion and full scale war united all of the people with different views and backgrounds. It's important now when we have this danger. But also the people started to know each other better, to understand each other, to have an experience of different cultures. That's why we combine projects. Just a few days ago, we had a tour in Germany in four cities, Düsseldorf, Köln, Hamburg and Berlin with Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian music projects named "Yusan-Zillia". It's about collaboration and it's about Crimean Tatar Muslim culture and Ukrainian Christian culture. And it works very good. That's why it's one of our goals, inside and outside of Ukraine, to promote such projects, to give an understanding of the multiculturalism of Ukraine.
Amira El Ahl: This is quite interesting because you said you were a Crimean Tatar and your research also focuses on the situation of Crimea. Due to the many changes of affiliation and governments, the development of a sense of belonging and national culture must have been influenced immensely. Can you tell us what the current situation of the Crimean residents in general and the Crimean Tatars in particular looks like at the moment?
Alim Aliev: Today, all of Ukraine is experiencing war and this war has a personal dimension for each and every one of us. Today, for example, my friends or relatives have weapons in their hands in the range of the Ukrainian armed forces or are in temporary occupation in Crimea or live in forced migration and in captivity or help in a volunteering movement. War leaves no space to stand aside and contemplate. But after this eight years of military aggression against Ukraine, Russia has launched this full scale war. But I want to remind that all of started from Crimea. And my background is that I'm a human rights defender also. My colleagues documented nearly 5.000 cases of human rights violations in Crimea during the last nine years. It's a variety or a spectrum of violations against the religious and ethnicity background to violations against freedom of speech. And approximately 80% of Crimean political prisoners are Crimean Tatars. But today, Crimea, after 2014, has become a role model for the occupation of new territories in 2022, 2023. Due to the creation of places of torture in basements, kidnappings of journalists and activists and attempts to hold so-called referendums. What is happening today in Crimea and in Ukraine in general is what I call a new Russian colonisation. Russia wants not only to conquer Ukrainian lands, but first of all to destroy Ukrainian identity, our statehood, our right to free culture. Colonialism is about appropriation or destruction. Now talking about memory, symbols, names and people [...]. What does this mean? Just a few examples in Crimea. First of all, its identity. For example, violations of the right of self-determination of indigenous Crimean Tatar people. Russia asserted bans against the representative body of Crimean Tatars, Medschlis of Crimean Tatar people and called it an extremist organisation. The leaders of Medschlis, of all Crimean Tatars or in Kyiv now, the persona non grata or in prison, like Nariman Jalal, first deputy head of the Crimean Tatar people, journalists. Also, when we talk about identity, we talk about Crimean Tatar language. And today, Crimean Tatar language is listed as one of the disappearing languages by UNESCO. Only 3% of pupils in Crimea are studying in Crimean Tatar to stop the language from disappearing. Parents create private initiatives for learning the language as well, speak it at home with their children. One more is about militarisation. Crimea has turned from the touristic corner into a military zone. This means that the military equipment, regular army and Russian security services were transferred from Russia to Crimea. But we have another side of militarisation, it's the militarisation of the consciousness and the children. For example Russia creating Crimea some paramilitary organisations that glorify military services and war among young Crimean people, the pupils. And last but not least, population replacement. Since the beginning of the occupation nearly 70,000 of the inhabitants left Crimea. It's a brain drain because the young professionals, students, business persons, public leaders, journalists, cultural figures left. But there is a reserve trend. The peninsula is colonised from the Russian and nearly 700,000 of new population comes to Crimea. It's one sort of all of the population in Crimea. And I just want to give two numbers.
Amira El Ahl: But sorry Russia is kind of exchanging the population. They're bringing in people from Russian territory, right?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, it means that it's not the first attempt of changing. It's been a few attempts of changing the ethnic composition in Crimea by squeezing the indigenous Crimean Tatar people. Here are two figures that need investigating before the first annexation of Crimea by Catherine the Second during the 18th century. 95% of the total population of the peninsula were Crimean Tatars. Today, this number has dropped to 13.
Amira El Ahl: Yeah, that's incredible. But since you say that, you've given a couple of examples how the Crimean Tatars have been particularly oppressed since the annexation and also before. Can culture be used as a coping strategy against this oppression? And if so, do you have any examples for that?
Alim Aliev: Yeah, of course. Two years ago, we launched a huge project at the Unkrainian institute named "Crimea 5 am". This is a project about Crimean Tatars political prisoners who are in a prison now and its performance. It's a documentary play and performance which not only describes the life stories of these people, of their families, but also describes the nature of this resistance, Crimean Tatar resistance and also the history of Crimea during this nine years and Crimean Tatar resistance. Now, it's crucial for Crimean Tatars to preserve identity. Our language, our culture and our traditions - well known in Europe is the singer Jamala who is a Eurovision winner, and this year we are planning to make a huge musical project with her in Germany, also in different European countries, to show all of the varieties of Crimean Tatar culture.
Amira El Ahl: That's very interesting. So the Ukrainian Institute, just as you explained, aims to promote better knowledge and understanding of Ukraine internationally using the tools of cultural diplomacy. And you're doing this since 2017. How has the war impacted your work at the institute and the collaboration with other European cultural institutions?
Alim Aliev: Many foreign cultural institutions and organisations supported us, especially in the call to suspend cooperation with Russian representatives of the cultural sphere. Of course, not everyone understands our call, and it's often necessary to carry out explanatory work to explain why this is important now, what follows from this and why the Russian narrative is imperial narratives. We have already received a lot of support from European and world institutions, but we understand that there is still a lot of work in the field for Ukraine to become an equal competitive partner in the cultural market. Just in December we joined EUNIC and now we are part of big European family of cultural institutions.
Amira El Ahl: Maybe we have to explain what EUNIC is. It's the European Network for National Institutes engaging in cultural relations and supporting European cultural collaborations in more than 100 countries. What potential do you see being a member of this organizsation?
Alim Aliev: It's about strengthening connections. It's about joint actions with different institutions. It's about collaboration and cooperation with our counterparts in European countries. Also it's about two ways: When we demonstrate Ukrain culture and our partners demonstrate their own cultures for Ukrainians also.
Amira El Ahl: So it's very relevant for you to be part of EUNIC now since December. I would like to know more about your programmes and projects. You already mentioned all the projects that you as a Ukrainian Institute address. It's really a great variety of topics like literature, film, music, visual arts, civil society, cultural diplomacy or academia. Which one of your projects would you recommend to our listeners to understand Ukraine better?
Alim Aliev: I would recommend taking a look at all of our projects since each of them has its own mission and function, of course. You can find these projects on our website. But for better understanding of Ukraine, I would recommend online courses about Ukraine, for example Ukrainian history, culture and identities. Also, we have a course about Crimea and Crimean Tatars, our history and nowadays. We published the book "Ukraine Food and History" it is a first edition about Ukrainian cuisine and culinary traditions. It's a tie to our history about identity out of the geographical features of different regions of Ukraine. I also advise you to visit the website ukraine.ua, our joint project with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a lot of different topics of art, music et cetera.
Amira El Ahl: There's lots to be found.
Alim Aliev: A lot. Last year we launched 130 projects in the Ukrainian Institute.
Amira El Ahl: Wow. That's quite a lot. So I definitely have to get that book on food and Ukrainian food and your culinary traditions. That's a must. So I'm going to go and look for it on your website. Thank you so much, Mr. Aliev, for the interview and for taking the time to be with us today. I think we reached you in Kiev, right?
Alim Aliev: Yeah.
Amira El Ahl: So thank you so much.
Alim Aliev: Thank you so much. Hope to see you in our free and Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar Crimea.
Amira El Ahl: Yes, I really hope so. And I'm going to be the first to come and visit you. So if you invite me, I'll join. That leads us to the end of this episode on Ukraine. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to recommend the podcast to others. This was the sixth and last episode of the special episodes on Ukraine, where we talked to different people from art, culture and science. Among other things we talked about how the cultural scene and civil society have developed in a year of war in Ukraine and what role social media plays in this war. If you have missed out on some of the previous episodes, take a look on a common streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcast or Deezer and catch up. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email us at podcast(at)ifa.de. For more information on our organization ifa - Institut for Auslandsbeziehungen, visit ifa.de. With that, I say goodbye. My name is Amira El Ahl. Thank you for listening, and I hope you join us for the next episode of "Die Kulturmittler". Bye bye.