Andrey Aksenov is a Russian historian and author whose history podcast – Zakat Imperii (The Dawn of the Empire), is popular among listeners in the troubled nation.
When his country invaded Ukraine, he fled, and moved to Israel to continue his work.
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Al Jazeera spoke with Aksenov about the historical context of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Al Jazeera: Why is there a full-scale war in Europe in the 21st century?
Andrey Aksenov: There are a lot of factors here. Throughout the 20th century, many European countries went through dictatorship or various authoritarian forms of government.
Russia was busy constructing Communism, detached from the rest of the world.
This 70-year-long experiment ended unsuccessfully and left Russia going through the same stages of development that European countries went through in the 30s, the 40s, and the 50s.
These unlearned lessons are being learned now, albeit with a deadly price.
Al Jazeera: Russian President Vladimir Putin often calls Ukraine a country of “neo-Nazis”. How would you characterise the understanding of Nazism in Russia?
Aksenov: Putin calls Ukrainians Nazis simply because they won’t be called Russians.
In the Soviet Union, nobody explained to people what Nazism was. Nazism is what we won [against] in 1945, they said, in the Great Patriotic War. But what Nazism is, including the absence of state institutions, the lack of free media, a one-party system, and all that, was not explained on purpose because people would then start to draw analogies.
The modern-day Russian educational system is roughly the same as it was in the Soviet Union.
Al Jazeera: How has this affected the worldview of modern-day Russians?
Aksenov: The idea of nationality is pretty vague.
At the beginning of the Soviet Union … they were not taught at school who they are by nationality.
Hence, the average person doesn’t believe Ukrainians are a people. If you take a man from Siberia and bring him to Kyiv, he will hear someone on the street [speaking Ukrainian], and he may be surprised.
“They speak Ukrainian on not only TV, but also on the streets?”
People are surprised that Ukrainians speak Ukrainian and that it’s a different country.
The perception is that the Soviet Union somehow collapsed, then a part of Russia was cut off, and some strange country called Ukraine appeared, where there are Russians, like us. They think that Ukrainians are forced by the government to speak Ukrainian.
Al Jazeera: Is it fair to say that Ukrainians have fought for the right to be called their own people for decades? And when did this begin?
Aksenov: In the 19th century, there was a rise of nationalism all over Europe.
Nations began to form primarily by the so-called national intelligentsia, which was rising in groups all over Europe. They said that we, for example, are the Czechs, or we are the Slovaks, here’s our age-old Slovak culture. We need schools in the Slovak language, we need books in the Slovak language, we need some kind of Slovak cultural autonomy, then political, and then, ideally, the creation of our own state.
In this sense, Ukraine is no different from other national projects in other European countries.
Some national projects didn’t work– like the Rusyns – but others did, like the Czechs, Slovaks, and Ukraine.
Al Jazeera: Have certain camps in Russian always been against the idea of Ukraine’s statehood?
Andrey Aksenov: This pattern is as old as the general concept of nationalism, which dates back to the Russian Empire. The state policy back then was that there was the Russian nation, which included three branches: Little Russians (Editor’s note: Little Russia refers to the historical term used to describe the modern-day territories of Ukraine), Belorussians and Great Russians (Russia “proper”).
There was the Russian intelligentsia, who recognised themselves as Russians by nationality, and then there was the Ukrainian intelligentsia, who considered themselves Ukrainians.
The project of the Ukrainian national intelligentsia was harmful to the state because it presented separatism. So they [“Great Russians”] banned schools that taught in Ukrainian and banned books in Ukrainian.
Al Jazeera: Many Russians say that the Ukrainian language resembles the Russian language. They use this as an argument to say, as Putin often does, that they evolved as one…
Andrey Aksenov: Ukraine is not a branch of Russia. It has its own people, nation, and language. As taught in linguistic departments, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. That is not a linguistic, not a philological, distinction. It’s a political one.
Nationality cannot be defined. If a group of people consider themselves New Zealanders, they are New Zealanders. If Croats think their language is Croatian and Serbo-Croatian, they are Croatian.
It’s not a question of linguistics, it’s a personal choice for everyone.
The last time governments tried to force nationality on people, and I mean the Second World War, it ended badly.
The census clerk comes, you say, “I’m a Jedi,” and he scribbles, “Jedi.”
Why? Not because they are idiots, but because people cannot be determined from above who they are by nationality.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.