SFU professor shares experience living and teaching in war-torn Ukraine

SFU communication professor Svitlana Matviyenko returned to the Ukraine last February to care for her mother. Photo by Serhiy Kashcheyev.
March 21, 2022 by Heather Sanders

Svitlana Matviyenko’s students know that if an air-raid siren sounds during their class, she will have to take cover. The Simon Fraser University (SFU) communication professor is teaching her theory of communication graduate seminar remotely this term, after returning home to Ukraine last February to care for her mother.

Fortunately, her home town of Kamyanets-Podilsky–a European historical hub and UNECSO World Heritage site in western Ukraine—is considered relatively safe. The town has mostly maintained its infrastructure despite a few small air strikes and has internet, although it is sometimes intermittent.  

When Russia attacked Ukraine a month ago, Matviyenko decided to stay near her parents. "I think if I were back in Canada I would be going crazy with worry,” she says. “From here, I can talk and write about the situation, which I do on a daily basis. Somehow, I feel like this is where I need to be."

Matviyenko’s research and writing focuses on topics such as the political economy of information, social media, mis/disinformation, resistance and mobilization, Soviet and post-Soviet politics, and nuclear cultures. She is the Associate Director of SFU’s Digital Democracies Institute, an interdisciplinary group of diverse scholars and stakeholders from around the world seeking to counter mis/disinformation and support democracy.

Throughout the invasion, Matviyenko has been posting updates on Twitter, has kept a personal blog and is working on a book about her experiences. She also has a growing list of media requests and her commentary has been featured on CBC Radio, in the Globe and Mail and syndicated across Canada.

One of her recent Tweets describes the relief of hearing explosions— however this time from the Ukrainian Army training nearby.

While the ordeal has been extremely stressful—especially experiencing air raid sirens, dealing with uncertainty and staying informed while staying calm, Matviyenko acknowledges this is an important learning opportunity for her students, and an important time in history to document.

“The situation lends itself too well to themes we explore in communication studies such as propaganda, the militarization of information and disinformation—a very enriching learning opportunity for my students. Professionally, as a scholar, it is a chance to lend my voice to the narrative and to be a first-hand witness to history. Personally, I am caring for my parents, friends and neighbours, and I feel a new urgency to get things done.”