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Resilience and Reflection: Reviving Ukraine Calling Amidst Shifting Tides


Hromadske Radio presents the relaunch of «Ukraine Calling»! The podcast is hosted by Brian Bonner and is dedicated to providing insightful coverage of Ukraine’s evolving landscape. In this inaugural episode, we sit down with Marta Dyczok, the visionary behind «Ukraine Calling» and the author of a book chronicling its journey.

Resilience and Reflection: Reviving Ukraine Calling Amidst Shifting Tides
Estimated Reading Time: 18 minutes

Reflecting on the program’s origins, Marta emphasizes the pressing need to sustain public engagement amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine.

«I think the challenge now is to keep the story in people’s attention. Because the war, it’s just the same sort of reporting of more shelling or attacks on civilian targets. That story has been told many times. It needs to continue being told. But I think the challenge is how to make it interesting», — she remarks

During our conversation, we delve into various topics, including the evolving media landscape, the necessity of consistent English-language coverage, the importance of showcasing both the macro and micro stories of Ukraine and the impact of the war on a global scale. 

Join us as we explore the critical role of Ukraine Calling in shaping international narratives and fostering a deeper understanding of Ukraine’s complex realities.

Brian Bonner: I am so happy that I have Dr. Marta Dyczok, associate professor, International Politics and History she specialises in at Western University in London, Ontario. We’ve been friends for more than a decade. She is the original founder and the original host of Ukraine Calling. She produced 124 episodes from 2016 to 2019. Very impressive array of guests, topics, formats and everything. And that’s what I want to go over with her today. And she didn’t just do the program. She wrote a book about it. I only have the digital version. Maybe Marta will send me an autographed copy of the print version. It’s really great. I haven’t listened to every episode.

After Martha left there were another 28 episodes and then with COVID and the war, the program sort of went dormant, but Marta would not let it die. And she reached out to me and I was able to work with Andriy Kulykov and Kyrylo Loukerenko, the executive director, and we got together enough grants to put together a team to relaunch this. And this is what we’re going to do now in a newly remodeled studio. So that’s a long introduction to say welcome Martha. How are you?

Marta Dyczok: Brian, I am so happy to be here and I’m delighted to see Hromadske Radio’s Ukraine Calling reborn in a new way and that you’re hosting it. So I’m just delighted to see this happening.

Ukraine Calling: how did it start and why do we need it now?

Brian Bonner: I’m just curious to go back sort of in memory lane why you started it. I read the book and you said, well, all my friends kept asking me in Canada what was going on in Ukraine because there were too few English language sources. Apparently the Kyiv Post wasn’t enough for them.

Maybe you can elaborate more on what really got you going, beyond that, since 2016, there’s been a lot of technology changes. Do you think we still need Ukraine Calling and why?

Marta Dyczok: A lot has changed, but a lot has not changed. And I first got into journalism when I was a PhD student in Oxford a long time ago. And the news coming about Ukraine, this was still 1991, there was almost no news about Ukraine because all the media outlets, they had their bureaus in Moscow. So I was doing my PhD. I went to Kyiv to do research and I reached out to the Guardian and said, do you need me to write something about Ukraine? And they said, sure, we’d love to have somebody on the ground.

And then in 2016, well, 2014 is when things got interesting with the Euro Maidan protests – the world started paying attention. And again, my friends and colleagues were saying, what’s going on, explain? Because there was not enough consistent English language news. Things would appear in Canadian and international media when there was a heightened story. But to sort of follow along on a regular basis, Kyiv Post was one of the only. But not everybody reads newspapers. Podcasts had become the thing.

And I thought, well, let’s do a podcast. And Hromadske Radio was set up by these amazing people and some of them were my friends. So I reached out to Andriy Kulykov who was then the head of the radio station, Kyrylo Loukerenko who was the main news editor. And they said, yeah, that would be great. And so I just started every week so that it was consistent so that it wasn’t just when a big story launched. But so that people who wanted to stay on top of Ukraine. 

And since 2022, there’s been an explosion of information about Ukraine. But I believe that Hromadske Radio is unique in that it provides a very different perspective than the other media outlets that are there. Because it focuses both on the big stories, but also on the little stories. And this is what I think the new Ukraine Calling podcasts can really do that could be the niche.

President Zelenskyy gives interviews. So it’d be great to have him on. But some of the things that I think are really poignant that are not reaching international audiences enough are things like something that appeared on Hromadske Radio`s English language feed on Twitter about a journalist from Kherson who chose to stay under occupied conditions and continue to report. And that sort of a story, I think, is not making it out because the big stories more or less are covered, but it’s the micro stories. 

Andriy Kulykov just did a few series about international attention to missing people. And again, that ‘s the sort of story that’s not making it into the big international headlines, but I think are really, really important for international audiences to see the full picture and the big picture.

Brian Bonner:  That’s good. Do you think that Canadians would be interested, or what do you think Canadians are interested in?

Marta Dyczok: I think the challenge now – two plus years into the war – is to keep the story in people’s attention, as you know. Because the war, it’s just the same sort of reporting of more shelling or attacks on civilian targets. That story has been told many times. It needs to continue being told. But I think the challenge is how to make it interesting. And I recently just earlier this week, I screened that really good documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” at my university. And that was really powerful. And people came up and said, wow, that’s really stayed with me, what can we do? So that sort of thing of reaching out in a way that is not just the headlines. 

Human interest stories are one thing, but also there’s a lot of talk about Ukrainian resilience. But to fill that out a little more, again, I came across the story about this big bookstore that just opened in Kyiv. I think that would be a fascinating thing for Canadian audiences to see that Ukrainians, they’re not just making drones and chasing Russians away, but they’re also opening bookstores and reading and holding book events. So I think to sort of diversify the picture.

Brian Bonner: That is a great point. And you’re very good at picking out those stories. You’re right. I was, you know, at the Kyiv Post in 2014, Ukraine was the hot story. By 2016, international interest had cooled off quite a bit. We even ran a promo thing, you know, all the big people, all the big time journalists have left, Kyiv Post remains. We’re not going anywhere.

And I think that’s why Internews network, which is like the media support arm of the US government, decided to invest again in Ukraine Calling because I think we all recognize that Ukraine is sort of falling again out of the focus of the world, the global attention. And certainly falling off in terms of the support that it is getting as this war, unfortunately, goes into the third year.

Marta Dyczok: Something else that I think Ukraine Calling could really do that would be unique and really useful is to engage in conversations with Western journalists who parachute into Ukraine. A lot of journalists, they don’t live in Ukraine. So they don’t know the story. Something happens, they parachute in and they leave. But people like you and other Ukrainian journalists have a role to play in informing them about the bigger story. So to engage with them in conversations on air, I think would be fascinating.

Brian Bonner: Your favourite episode you wrote was, I believe, the original Canadian ambassador to Ukraine. And your show had a Canadian flavour, obviously.

Marta Dyczok: I’m Canadian, of course. This type of a podcast is multidimensional. So it covers the headlines, but it also fills in a lot of things that are behind the headlines. And the reason I really enjoyed that interview. That was with the Honourable Nestor Gayowsky, who was Canada’s chargé d’affaires. The first Canadian diplomat posted in Ukraine. I met him at the time and we maintained a friendship after his retirement. 

But it was only during that interview that I learned the full story of how Canada became the first Western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence. And he told me the story in great detail about how then Foreign Minister Barbara McDougall travelled to Ukraine with this then satellite telephone, because communications had to be protected and how she left the phone and how he then used it to contact Ottawa after Ukraine declared independence.

So it was sort of like a little, not spy thriller, but you got an insight into what had happened. And then Roman Waschuk, who later became Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine at the time, was political officer in Ottawa. So he had a role to play. So it was like all these pieces came together in this podcast. And I keep reminding Nestor to publish his memoirs. He’s been working on his memoirs, but they’re not quite ready. But anyway, we got a little snippet of history told by somebody who was instrumental in making history. So I love those sorts of stories.

Brian Bonner: Remind me again, how do you trace your Ukrainian roots?

Marta Dyczok: Oh, well, my parents were World War II refugees. They came to Canada on separate routes, met in Toronto, found love and got married. The reason I keep crying is because they lived through this horrific war back in World War II. And here we are again. And we’re seeing the same thing. People being displaced and family members being killed, families being torn apart, homes destroyed. And it’s just, you know, that phrase – “never again.” We’re living through again. And we’re watching a genocide be perpetrated in real time. Sad that my parents are no longer with us, but I’m very happy they’re not watching this because it would just break their hearts.

Brian Bonner: Do you think I should resurrect Ukrainian music? How hard is it to find every week, week after week?

Marta Dyczok: That was a very popular feature of the show. And I found it really easy. I enjoyed doing that part because I follow contemporary music and I think I have one or two musicians on. There’s no lack of Ukrainian musicians who have very interesting stories to tell and they’re producing music all the time. So finding it is easy. It’s a way to either introduce or end the show. And I think it also adds the sort of the texture that Ukrainians are both fighting on the front line, but also fighting on the cultural front. 

Andriy Kulykov can help you with that. I can help you with that. There’s tons of people, there’s tons of concerts in Ukraine and Kyiv all the time. They’re musicians who perform internationally. I mean, I go to all the shows that come to Canada. There have been many tours. So you’re not going to have any problem finding really good contemporary Ukrainian music.

Brian Bonner: I wanted to ask what you’re working on now. I mean, besides teaching, is your bio current that you’re working on research about how media in Ukraine has changed? Is that still or is that published already?

Marta Dyczok: Well, that’s the big topic. What I’m focusing on now is my new research project that looks at the relationship between war and social media. And I just started that project. So I’ve just started collecting the data and it’s going to be a big project. So it’s going to be a number of years. I also have a book coming out called “Ukraine, not the Ukraine.” And that’s a history book. It’s a short little book for people who are interested in Ukraine, but don’t have time to read a big fat history book.

So this is like a whirlwind tour from the medieval Prince Volodymyr the Great through rock star pPesident Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And it goes through the Kyivan Rus period, the Cossacks, the nation building, the state building, and of course the war. So that should be coming out shortly.

What Canadians think about the war in Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: The mood in Canada about the war. Is it as glum as it feels here in Kyiv because people are very worried about Ukrainian aid? Quite disappointed that, you know, Ukrainians have to be careful how they express their disappointment because they’re depending on the Western allies to come through for them. But I guess as an American, I’ll put a sharper edge to it. I’ll take your Justin Trudeau as an example, who said that Canada would give as much as it takes for as long as it takes, but neither element seems to be holding up well. What is the mood of Canadian-Ukrainians who are paying attention to what’s going on?

Marta Dyczok: Well, that’s an excellent question. And I’m going to start by saying I feel that it’s my responsibility to comment on that sort of thing. And my comment has consistently been that Canada could and should be doing more. And I said that in the CBC interview last Friday when I was interviewed about two years of war. Where are we at? Canada is diplomatically supporting Ukraine. So all the statements are spot on. But in terms of actual humanitarian, military, economic aid, in my opinion, it’s falling short. And I think it’s great that Trudeau went to Ukraine just recently because he has not been there very much. Just the moral support of visiting the country, I think, is really important.

The mood in Canada, there are a lot of different crises. And this has been two years. So wars are exciting when they start. But I’m seeing the same phenomenon with the Israel-Hamas War. It’s no longer the number one story. And that’s just since the fall. So, as a journalist, you understand the news cycle, the way it works. You’re following the latest. And Canadians are also facing their own challenges with economic problems and homelessness problems and various other issues that are, you know, part of our lives. So the international news is part of what we get every day. What is more worrying for me is what’s happening, because the critique I have of Canada is we’re not doing enough. But the commitment to Ukraine is still there in principle.

The Conservative Party recently voted against increasing aid to Ukraine. But they are not in any position to make decisions. So the Liberals and all the other parties, the NDP (New Democrats Party), they’re still very much on board with supporting Ukraine. But they should be doing more, that’s the point. What I’m concerned about is what’s happening in your Washington. Because it seems to me that a small group of white men are in a position to really fundamentally change what’s going on. Because American public opinion is in favor of supporting Ukraine, political elites on both sides are. So it’s just that bottleneck. So I don’t know how to get through that. But that’s more your story.

The Canadian public, I have to give you a mixed picture. Some people have tuned out. They’re no longer interested in Ukraine. Other people are still very engaged. And just the other day, I had two people in my office. And we were talking about what sort of a new fundraiser can we organise to help people in Ukraine, how to make it effective, and where to target our support. And neither of them are Ukrainian. So they know what I do. And so they were just, OK, well, what is it that we can do? And so we were brainstorming about that. People who’ve tuned out, but people who are still very much engaged.

Brian Bonner: Definitely my country has major dysfunctions, which are pretty prominent on the world stage now. But while we’re on the subject of Canada, and I read the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star and try to keep up as much as I can. Because we’re neighbors, Americans and Canadians. But I never really understood why Canada has always been so reluctant to spend much on its defense budget, chronically. Is it because of proximity to America and you figure, psychologically, they figure, ‘hey, nobody is going to touch us because we’re neighbours with America?’

Marta Dyczok: And that’s a really good point. It’s a discussion within Canada because there are those who say we really need to take responsibility and defend ourselves. And there are those: we live next door to the US, they’ll just protect us. So that’s really where the discussion sits. And we can choose to spend our money on health care and the Americans will build up the defense. And in case of problems, they’ll defend us. And the state of the Canadian military is not great. And this is something that Russia’s war against Ukraine has revealed.

I was interviewing a former ambassador, Roman Waschuk, for my class because I teach a course on Russia’s war against Ukraine, I have a thousand students, by the way. And he was saying that Canada has sent a lot of the military aid that it can, but it doesn’t actually have that much more to send. So for Canada to send more tanks, more whatever, Canada would have to buy them somewhere. It’s not like we have them sitting on a stockpile and we’re not giving. So this is also a question of what is Canada’s perception of defense and how much we are spending. And this whole discussion, Canada has never met its NATO commitments on spending. We are at 1.3 percent. We’re nowhere close, well, I mean, 2 percent. We’ve never actually spent 2 percent. And so that’s also a discussion that is an internal Canadian discussion.

Is the West at a stage where it is possible to draw conclusions about its mistakes and what’s gone wrong?

Brian Bonner: As a historian, are we at a stage yet where we can draw conclusions about the mistakes made and what’s gone wrong? I’m not sure how it’s going to hold up over history, but it does seem clear that the West made huge mistakes from the beginning by sort of dribbling out weapon systems rather than giving Ukraine everything in the first years or in the first year of the war and actually before. And at what point do you see that, hey, I have a historical theme to follow here. Are you there yet with the war?

Marta Dyczok: I don’t know that we have a clear analogy. I don’t think that we’ve seen something like this clearly in the past. The closest we have is 1938, 1939, appeasement of Hitler. So if we give something, then he will stop. And that’s sort of thinking with regards to Putin, that if we don’t provoke him too much, he will stop. Which is faulty thinking, because the way history has shown us that the only way that you prevent authoritarian expansion, its powers and leaders, is by force. That’s what they understand.

The thing that’s different this time is the nuclear weapons. And I agree with what you’ve said. I think the collective West has been very timid and almost afraid. And I believe that’s because of the nuclear question. Everybody is really hesitant because they’re afraid that they’re going to provoke a nuclear war. And Putin knows this and he’s playing with this and he’s regularly saying: I will use nuclear weapons. And then, of course, everybody gets scared and backs down. Which is I think a weakness in Western military thinking and political strategic thinking, because that policy of mutual assured destruction hasn’t disappeared. Right? The reason there has been no nuclear war is because of that principle that if one country launches, the other will and the planet blows up.

So, of course, that means nobody will ever actually use (nuclear weapons – ed.). I wouldn’t want to be the one taking the decision to prove that wrong, which is what I think leaders in the capitals are thinking. But that said, the Europeans are really waking up and the Americans and Canadians are not. And I think that has to do with proximity. But the countries that get it and their policies are, I believe, spot on, are the countries that have been invaded by Russia in the past.

Brian Bonner: Now, you would have loved to have been here on the second anniversary. We had a parade, a smorgasbord. Besides Trudeau, just a whole bunch of international leaders. Strong ones, Wesley Clark and others making the point that if we’re going to let Putin’s threats deter us, then there’s going to be no end to them on the nuclear front. And we have, by the way, nuclear weapons, too. And I don’t think Putin wants to lose everything.  

And the other thing is, about the weapons and just how Ukraine always gets it too late to be, you know, of maximum value. Tanks, aircraft jets, things that could have been really handy in the first year are not so handy anymore.

Marta Dyczok: If Ukraine had received the military aid that it had requested, the war would be over.

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