Interview with Dr Marta Dyczok: This horrible war has had one positive side effect

By Andriy KulykovHromadske Radio, August 29, 2023

Today’s interlocutor is Dr. Marta Dyczok. She works at Western University in Ontario, Canada. She is a prolific author and she has several books to her credit.

Andriy Kulykov: Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, the English-language podcast from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. I’m Andriy Kulykov. Today’s interlocutor is Dr. Marta Dyczok. She works at Western University in Ontario, Canada. She is a prolific author and she has several books to her credit. One of them, as far as I know, is in the process of being published or probably reviewed at the moment, and Dr. Dyczok came to Kyiv a couple of weeks ago …

Marta Dyczok: No, just one week ago. I’ve only been here for one week.


Andriy Kulykov: It seems that you’ve been here for at least a month because these seven days have been marked with everything that we’ve been getting used to over the last 18 months or so. Air alerts, international negotiations, offensive and counter offensive on the front line. But what were your major impressions when you came? What was as you expected? What was unexpected?

Marta Dyczok: Well, thank you very much for having me. It’s great to be on Hromadske Radio again in your studio. My first impressions were that Kyiv remains this beautiful vibrant city. I have been glued to the internet watching, listening, reading about this horrific war and the way the war is presented through media, as I’m sure you realise, it’s the horrible stuff. The shootings, the killings, the bombings, the torture. What is less visible in Canadian media, Western media, British, American, is the day-to-day life. And that has really inspired me; that despite all the horrors, people are walking around, the city centre is beautiful, there’s flowers, there’s cafes, there’s musicians on the street, people are working. I have been here to collect data for my new research project on war and social media. So many people are finding time to speak to me, giving me interviews, suggesting others, they’re sharing data, they’re collecting data. I am just so impressed with how people continue to work in these horrible conditions.

It’s important to somehow challenge all that disinformation that is coming at people and they’re not often aware of it

Andriy Kulykov: You said war and social media, do you really mean war in social media or war as reflected in social media?

Marta Dyczok: Oh, sorry, no, it’s the relationship between war and social media.

Andriy Kulykov: Because of course there’s sort of war in social media and traditional media as well. What’s your take on this?

Marta Dyczok: Well, that’s what I’m here to ask people about. This has been called — Russia’s war against Ukraine has been called — the world’s first social media war. That this is the first time that a war is being played out in social media, that social media is showing the war as it happens, that people throughout Ukraine are recording things and posting them on various types of social media, whether it’s Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Viber, Telegram. There’s almost information overload. So many things that are happening are visible to the world immediately. The other thing that’s happening is that social media is one of the instruments being used in the war because as we all know, social media is not regulated or very poorly regulated. So anybody can post anything on social media, whether it’s true or not, nobody can verify that. So it’s a battlefield in the information war and that’s what I want to get people’s opinions on.

Andriy Kulykov: Dr. Dyczok, when you say that nobody can verify it, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration because you for one and some other people like you really have the opportunity to verify, and I know that you are verifying, but you are in a sort of a privileged position due to your knowledge, due to your experience, due to your very tight links with Ukraine. But when speaking of an average Canadian, if there is such a person, how they are inclined to perceive what they get from Ukraine, from Russia, and from third countries on social media about what’s going on in this country?

Marta Dyczok: You’re absolutely right. I said it’s impossible to verify, it is often difficult to verify and many people don’t take the time to verify. So I think that’s an important distinction. As to people who are in Canada, who are not Ukraine experts, who are not following Ukraine the same way that I am, they usually get their information through filters. So they’re not following Ukrainian sources per se. They’re following either Canadian media or Canadian journalists who are reporting from Ukraine. So they’re getting that perspective. So they would not necessarily follow Hromadske Radio, Ukraine Calling unless we make more advertising for this podcast. They’re more likely to be reading what The Globe and Mail has to say, or people that they follow on Twitter who are not necessarily either from Ukraine or from Russia. People don’t necessarily verify the sources, right? So they might be reading somebody who they think is a Canadian, but in fact is a Russian bot, right? So that’s where it gets, it’s important to somehow challenge all that disinformation that is coming at people and they’re not often aware of it.

How do Canadians learn about what’s going on?

Andriy Kulykov: You mentioned The Globe and Mail and maybe some people in our country also know a couple of newspapers from Toronto, or maybe even from Montreal. But what about The Winnipeg Free Press and something like The Manitoba Examiner, if there’s such a newspaper, what about regional or provincial media in Canada?

Marta Dyczok: Again, good question. I have been approached more often by radio and television stations rather than print media. And that’s where a lot of the regional radio stations are quite interested. And that actually is more of an answer to your question, how do Canadians learn about what’s going on? The media in Canada will often reach out to people like me and say, you know, Professor Dyczok, tell us what’s going on in Ukraine and then I broadcast it and they hear about it. And there are other experts in Canada who regularly appear on media to comment on what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia. But I do have to say there are some pro-Russian academics in Canada, in the US, in Britain, all over Europe. So there’s, you know, part of what scholars in democratic countries are facing in the debates within academia, not just in media. There are pro-Russian scholars who continue to hold those positions even after a year and a half and all the information that is available about what Russia is doing. There are still people who are writing things like, well, Ukraine really does need to sit down and negotiate with Russia and it’s not realistic for Ukraine to expect to get Crimea back ever, because they don’t have the capacity and so on and so on.

Andriy Kulykov: In which fields of social sciences such people are more numerous?

Marta Dyczok: Mostly political science and mostly international relations.

Andriy Kulykov: What about history, philology?

Marta Dyczok: Philology, not so much. In history, the debates tend to be more within academia rather than in the media. But the international relations scholars, people like John Mearsheimer, I mean, he continues to say that this is NATO’s fault, this is US’s fault. And there are a number of intellectuals who I used to respect like Noam Chomsky or Habermas. And they are all on this same: you know, this is American imperialism and Ukraine needs to accept the fact that it’s in Russia’s sphere of influence, that type of thinking, which is absolutely shocking. But it continues.

Andriy Kulykov: Although I have heard such statements more than once, they continue to strike me as unfounded. But obviously I’m not very objective or I’m not very balanced in this and what about you? By the nature of your work you have to be balanced. But I remember that on the first day of the full-scale invasion you called us in Hromadske Radio and offered any type of help that you could. Even though you have done this before because you are one of the people abroad who know that the war against Ukraine was unleashed by Russia not in 2022 but at least eight years earlier. So how often are you accused of being biased towards Ukraine?

Marta Dyczok: I think that bias is something that every person has. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be objective. Those are very different things. And in all the media interviews that I have done, which is well over a hundred, bias is not an issue that I’ve encountered or have been accused of. And more to that, you said that you can’t be objective. I completely disagree with that. You have a perspective which gives you the ability to evaluate things in a way that many people don’t. And it’s from information that people can make an informed analysis and form opinions. The bias comes often from lack of knowledge, lack of understanding, and just sort of you know, gut reactions: I don’t like this. I don’t like that. I don’t like Americans because…, and so anybody who says it’s America’s fault, yeah, I’ll join that. But that usually comes from being uninformed rather than being informed. And it makes me furious that there are a lot of analysts, many of them are American, who feel they can comment about Ukraine, write about Ukraine, get published in prestigious publications. They have never been to Ukraine. They don’t speak Ukrainian. And yet they feel that they can comment about this. Can you imagine somebody writing, commenting about the United States who didn’t speak English and had never been to the United States and been published in a reputable scholarly journal and had their opinion taken seriously? So those are the people that I really have issues with, that if anything they’re biased because their lack of information doesn’t allow them to make a proper assessment.

My opinion is because for decades there was very little knowledge about Ukraine

Andriy Kulykov: Dr. Dyczok, I’m sure that you remember those times when a lot of people in this country, which was then part of the Soviet Union, had never been to the United States, never spoke English, yet they have written a lot of things about the US, or any other Western country. Another question is whether they were published in reputable scientific journals because there were not so many reputable scientific journals in the Soviet Union. But still, why does this attitude towards Ukraine or not only towards Ukraine, of course, because we can find similar examples when we think about a lot of countries in the world, still persist?

Marta Dyczok: My opinion is because for decades, possibly longer, possibly centuries, there was very little knowledge about Ukraine. And the way people were taught about this part of the world was through a Russian colonial imperial perspective. Russian history was taught in the English-speaking world. I know less about the French and German-speaking world, but it’s the Russian imperial narrative that was exported to the English-speaking world, translated, and continues to be taught even today. There are courses that are called, you know, «The history of Russia», and they start with «Kievan Russia». Today, they still call it «Kievan Russia». That historical narrative is so strong, that’s just how they were taught and that shaped their mental maps and that’s how they think about this part of the world. And layered on top of that is the Cold War, where the two enemies were the US and the USSR. And for most people, USSR equals Russia. Lack of knowledge about USSR, it’s just this big red space on the map. Without realising that there’s Ukraine and Georgia and Estonia and Kazakhstan and Moldova — it’s all Russia. And again, in a lot of textbooks, Soviet Union, USSR, Russia was used interchangeably. And so a lot of people think like that. So for them to become aware of the fact that there is a place called Kyrgyzstan or Lithuania or Ukraine, it’s a stretch. So for the average person, but then the people who were specialists in this area, that’s what they took on board. That’s how they studied it and that’s how they taught it and that’s how many of them continued to teach it. And so now there’s this big discussion about decolonizing the way Russian history, Russian politics, Russian culture is taught because it’s also in the cultural sphere. A lot of figures are called Russian. You know, Malevych, if you go to museums, he’s listed as a Russian artist. And when I was in New York at the ASN convention, just a month or two months ago now, I especially took a break from the conference, went to the Museum of Modern Art to see if they changed it and they have. So it now says born in Ukraine, whereas previously it said Russian artist. So there’s a decolonization.

Andriy Kulykov: Born in Ukraine does not mean that they have discarded the notion of Malevych being a Russian artist.

Marta Dyczok: Well, Malevych, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, there’s a discussion about his self-identification and his multiple identities, but until recently Ukraine wasn’t present there. And that’s changing in the cultural sphere. So this horrible war has had one positive side effect, that knowledge about Ukraine globally has increased tremendously.

I created a new course Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Andriy Kulykov: Dr. Marta Dyczok teaches at the Western University in Ontario, Canada, and listening to her in this podcast, Ukraine Calling, for Hromadske Radio, I think that I would be one of her very interested students, although I do not know what courses you teach.

Marta Dyczok: Well, I created a new course.

Andriy Kulykov: Is it admissible in the world of academia?

Marta Dyczok: Is it admissible to create new courses? Constantly. We’re constantly designing new courses. I mean, there’s old courses, classical courses.

Andriy Kulykov: Who has to put the stamp of approval?

Marta Dyczok: There’s a procedure. There’s a committee at our university, I imagine at every university. We’re self-governing. So there’s an undergraduate committee, a graduate committee. In this case, it was an undergraduate course. So it had to go to the undergraduate committee. They met, they examined it, and then either approve or disapprove, usually they approve. Sometimes they ask to make some changes or revisions. So that’s how the procedure often works.

Andriy Kulykov: And the course is?

Marta Dyczok: I designed it last summer and I taught it from January to April of 2023. And the course is called Russia’s War Against Ukraine. And it’s offered in the Department of Political Science and I’ll be teaching it again next year. And the idea was to present information to undergraduate students. Actually, it was open to anybody in the university. So not just political science students. And guess how many people signed up for my course?

Andriy Kulykov: Well, I don’t know about the corps of students in your university at all. Tell me how many there are.

Marta Dyczok: Well, we have 30,000 students. But usually, I mean, the most I’ve ever had before — anyway, go ahead and guess.

Andriy Kulykov: 294.

Marta Dyczok: Close. 475.

Andriy Kulykov: Oh!

Marta Dyczok: Yes. The most I ever had in other courses. Usually courses, sometimes they’re small courses, so they’re capped at 20. Sometimes.

Andriy Kulykov: 475.

Marta Dyczok: Yeah. And they were from all over the university. And that’s how I designed it: it wasn’t just for political science students. So I had students from chemistry, and music, and anthropology. I had retired professors taking my course. I had a secretary from the anthropology department wrote to me and said, I’ve heard about your course. Can I enroll, and I said yes, of course. So yeah, it was hard to teach. It was a hard course because, first of all, the story was moving. I was teaching about something that was happening. But also, some of the material was really hard. I did one week on international war crimes. And that was very, very hard to teach that. But I thought it was very important to include that.

Andriy Kulykov: You said the story was, and of course it is, moving. How has it moved for you? And how has it moved for the general public in Canada?

Marta Dyczok: For me, I have to admit a year and a half into this it’s exhausting. I have no idea how people here continue to work, to smile, to fight, because it is exhausting just watching it and never mind living it and actively being on the front line.

Andriy Kulykov: Sometimes I think, apart from the frontline part, that being here and seeing it and experiencing it first hand is not as exhausting as watching it from abroad. When I’ve been abroad during these months and I’ve been at least three times, you know, being there and thinking a lot of different things about those people whom you probably might have helped if you were here at the moment is as excruciating as anything. And now you are experiencing at least part of what we were going through yourself. And is it as exhausting at the moment as you have imagined?

Marta Dyczok: Actually, that’s an excellent point because for me right now, it’s easier to be here. I didn’t expect that. It is different. I mean, what you just said just watching from afar is, I don’t know if I could find the words to describe it, but I feel more calm here. Despite the fact that the air raid sirens keep going off and you know, I’m following the news, but it feels different being here. And I just, I have to think about how to explain it because it’s hard to put into words, but it is, it’s easier to be here.

What have we missed and what do we need to do differently?

Andriy Kulykov: Dr. Marta Dyczok, Western University Ontario, let’s come back to the decolonization issue, decolonization of social sciences and of Russian or Eastern Slavic or Slavonic studies or European studies.

Marta Dyczok: All of it.

Andriy Kulykov: All of it. How easy it is to not even affect this decolonization, but to state the necessity and to tell people, look, we at least have to recognise that there’s such a thing that should be removed, and who has to do this?

Marta Dyczok: Academia moves very, very slowly. However, this discussion is moving really fast and it’s not a new discussion. People have been talking about this for a very long time, but they have not been listened to. They have not had the dominant voices, they haven’t had the access to the podium, as it were. But after 24 February 2022, those discussions became front and centre in all those fields that you mentioned. And the horror that people felt about what Russia was doing. And again, what we talked about at the beginning because they could see it in real time.

These discussions started in academia, so it was first of all trying to help academic students and professors, but also the bigger issues of how we have been looking at this field. And a question that people have been asking and discussing is why did we get this so wrong for so long? And what have we missed and what do we need to do differently? And the last time these types of discussions happened in academia in this way was when communism collapsed. And again, there was this discussion, how is it that we have this entire field of Soviet and Russian, East European studies and we didn’t see it coming, we didn’t understand. And there was this sort of rethinking about how we study what we do. And it’s happening again. And the focus away from sort of Russian studies and not seeing all the other parts of this world and not seeing Russia for the colonial imperial place that it always has been.

Serhii Plokhii had an article recently that, you know, people wanted to believe that Russia has become democratic. And they didn’t want to believe that the imperial nature of that regime persists. And now they can’t ignore it. So it needs to be discussed. And the way that history and political science and culture and all these things will be, the teaching of them is also being discussed, how to revise it.

So I mentioned that I proposed this new course on Russia’s War against Ukraine and it was accepted like this. In the past when I was proposing courses it was, Well I’m not sure we can fit it into the schedule, we have lots of other courses… So there’s been a real sort of sea change in that.

A lot of the big scholarly associations are having this discussion and giving more attention right now to Ukraine because Ukraine is in the news but also to other countries. Belarus and Georgia and why aren’t we studying these places enough? Why don’t we know enough about them as well as rethinking the way we study Russia. And there’s even discussions about renaming because it’s always Russian and East European studies and now people are saying well why don’t we just call it European studies. We don’t say German and European studies we don’t say British and European studies we’d say European studies so why Russian and East European, let’s just call it East European. So these discussions about taking Russia’s special place and putting it as one of many other places is heated. Although people who were the Russianists, are the Russianists, not all of them are crazy about this idea and they think, well but we’re not going to attract enough students because they want to study Russia. Yeah but look at all these students who’ve come to study Ukraine or Poland. So these are the discussions that are very interesting right now.

The consumption of news has decreased and it’s more kind of entertainment, lifestyle

Andriy Kulykov: Apart from teaching, apart from speaking about Ukraine on national radio and TV in Canada you are also writing and publishing books which tell the story of Ukraine and what are you concentrated on at the moment? Is it some new book or probably revision or new edition of some that you have published before?

Marta Dyczok: Well I just finished writing a book which is currently under review which is called Ukraine, not the Ukraine and it is a very brief history of Ukraine for non-experts.

Andriy Kulykov: How brief?

Marta Dyczok: 25,000 words. So you should be able to read it in a few hours and that’s what it’s designed for. So that’s under review. Hopefully, it will appear sometime in the fall over the next few months. What I’m now doing is, I’m working on a new project, but it’s still in the ideas phase which is, as I mentioned at the beginning, the relationship between social media and war and how that has changed as a result of this full-scale invasion by Russia of Ukraine. Because social media is something that has been part of Ukraine and the world for quite some time but social media is playing a role in information in a different way and I want to study that and try to see what that’s all about and how that’s working and why it’s important.

Andriy Kulykov: Comparing the extent to which social media have penetrated and have influenced life in Canada and Ukraine, what are the differences and what are the similarities?

Marta Dyczok: That’s a hard question for me to answer because I’m only starting to look at what’s going on in Ukraine. What I see happening in Canada is that social media is the primary vehicle through which people receive information. Now social media, as you know, doesn’t create news. It’s a vehicle, but people will go to, for example, Twitter to see what The New York Times is writing, what Wall Street Journal is writing, what The Guardian is writing, because that’s where they get sort of a selection of news. So that’s the trend that we’re seeing in North America. The other thing we’re seeing is that there is a decline in the interest for news. And there’s an organisation called the Pew Research Centre in the United States, and they monitor all sorts of media related questions, and the last few polls that they’ve released say people are not interested in news.

The consumption of news has decreased and it’s more kind of entertainment, lifestyle, that sort of thing that people are following, and part of that, in my opinion, although I need to do more research on this, is attention spans are shifting because social media doesn’t require you to focus for a long time. So if you’re used to scrolling, just your ability to concentrate is reduced and then you’re not actually able to read a full article. You’re not, like you just want the next headline in the next, you know, TikTok video, and the next photograph. So the way people are receiving information, and the audiences for it, the interest in it, is shifting, and social media seems to be one of the big factors in this.

Andriy Kulykov: Dr. Marta Dyczok of the Western University in Ontario, Canada is our interviewee on this podcast Ukraine Calling from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. You mentioned going to Ukrainian sources to glean information, but how reputable and how reliable Ukrainian sources are in the eyes of Canadian public, Ukrainian Canadian experts and all these people. For instance do they trust the information from the Ukrainian General Stuff about, for instance, the losses that the aggressors have sustained in Ukraine, about Ukrainian territorial gains, or territorial losses and all this.

Marta Dyczok: Well people follow those sources but to what degree do they believe them that’s hard for me to say. I think that there’s probably a variety of responses. I mean my personal response is of course they’re going to say what they want the public to hear, right? So people who understand how these things work I imagine that’s how they respond. People who tend to just be more you know, looking at the surface, they might be having a response of ‘yay we’re doing this’ or ‘oh no this is’, you know, a more emotional response without kind of getting into how accurate or inaccurate it is. So I think it just depends on the audience.

People want to know when the war’s going to be over, that’s the big number one question

Andriy Kulykov: Apart from your students, apart from the Ukrainian community which you are part of in Canada, apart from academia, you obviously have contacts with so to say, average Canadians, if there are such people as average Canadians. When they get to know that you are of not only of Ukrainian descent but also that you are following the events in Ukraine closely and to a great extent taking part in them as you may, what are they asking you about?

Marta Dyczok: People want to know when the war’s gonna be over, that’s the big number one question. They want to know how people in Ukraine are doing, but I have to say sometimes that random people say things that really upset me. For example this little corner store that I visit, the vendor, he’s still convinced the war is because of NATO. I went in once and he said, oh you look upset, and I said, well you know the war, and he said, yeah these Americans. I said, what are you talking about? So that also continues to happen but there used to be a lot more attention to the war. I have to say that it’s less of a talking point these days.

Andriy Kulykov: What’s your reaction to air raid alerts in Kyiv? How do you react? Because I say for instance about people who lived in Kyiv or other cities in Ukraine that we have learned not to ignore the air raid alert, everyone in our own specific way. Which basically means that we acknowledge them and do nothing or almost nothing of what we are supposed to do. What about you?

Marta Dyczok: Well before coming here, I did my research and I know that Kyiv is relatively safe, as safe as can be in these conditions, and the centre of Kyiv is the safest part of Kyiv, and this is where I am. So that’s the background. What I have observed is that people don’t react to air raid alerts. Yesterday I was walking with a colleague, Natalia Lubinska, air raid sirens went off and so we went to the metro, and in the metro station you couldn’t tell that there was anything going on. And we went to the place where do your tickets and said, do we need tickets to get in, and the woman standing there said, no, no, air raid alert you can just go in without a ticket, but most people were just paying their tickets and going in as if nothing was happening. So I think people here know what they’re doing so I don’t see any reason why I should be panicking when nobody around me is panicking and I will follow the lead of people who live here. In the evening yesterday I was actually outside when the air raid siren went off, sitting on a terrace and that was the first time that I was thinking, should I do something, but again nobody around me was doing anything and I thought, well if they’re not panicking then why should I?

When I have watched Yedyni Novyny online from Canada, my impression was that it were leaning towards sensationalism and not a lot of analysis

Andriy Kulykov: A couple more questions, we’re nearing the end of our conversation. Do you watch Ukrainian TV and if you do, what’s your evaluation of what has been broadcast?

Marta Dyczok: I used to, and I have to say that since being here I’ve switched it on a few times but I don’t have the concentration to sit and watch because there’s so many other things that I’m doing, that to sit and watch a newscast, I haven’t had the focus to do that, but I will try to. In the past, when I have watched it online from Canada, my impression was that Yedyni Novyny (Government-organised TV marathon which unites efforts from half a dozen Ukrainian TV channels — Ed.), were leaning towards sensationalism and not a whole lot of analysis. That was my impression. But that’s, you know, not watching it regularly, that’s just occasionally tuning in and it’s the tone of the presenters.

Andriy Kulykov: You have imitated it quite well. And Dr. Dyczok, I also want to take this opportunity to ask you something as the President of the Taras Shevchenko Scientific Society of Canada, which unites Ukrainian scientists of all sorts in Canada: how has the activity of the society changed with the full-scale invasion?

Marta Dyczok: Well it hasn’t actually changed in terms of what we do, because what we do is we hold monthly lecture seminars and we have scholarships for students for publication, so that’s the main focus of our activity and we’ve continued doing that. Changed isn’t really the right word, the accent has been more on contemporary affairs in Ukraine. In the past it’s been a range of topics that we had speakers on: culture, and history, and politics, and cancer, and biology, architecture, and over the past year and a half, most of our lectures have been in one or another way related to what’s going on in Ukraine and the war against Ukraine. So we had Diana Dutsyk speaking about information, we had Dr. MyKhailo Vynnytsky, who is now Deputy Minister of Education but is also Vice President of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, he came to Toronto and he gave a lecture on sort of what’s gonna happen with Ukraine after the war. The focus has really been on current affairs, and the scholarship that we offer annually, we focused it, we said the topic this year will be given to somebody doing research on Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Andriy Kulykov: Dr. Dyczok you were the founder and the presenter and the author of Ukraine Calling podcast on Hromadske Radio, for which we are very very much grateful to you. You have also published a book about this podcast. How you will use the opportunity of being in Kyiv, are you going to record at least one podcast for Hromadske Radio as the presenter, not the interviewee? As the interviewer in Ukraine Calling?

Marta Dyczok: I would very much like to. I mean,  I think doing this show, it was so much fun, so interesting, and I have a couple of ideas running around in my head but until I get something formalised I’m gonna keep you guessing.

Andriy Kulykov: All right, thank you very much. You’ve been listening to Ukraine Calling, the English language podcast from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. I’m Andriy Kulykov and my interviewee was Dr. Marta Dyczok from the Western University in Ontario, who actually several years ago founded this podcast and we have resumed it when the things have dramatically changed.

click here to see interview on the original website