Our interpreter describes Mykhailo Mykhailovsky as “class”. Mykhailovsky is a young deputy commander in the Donbas battalion of the Ukrainian army, fighting Russian-backed separatists in a conflict that has rumbled on since April 2014 – a conflict that may now escalate with the election of Donald Trump, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
We meet Mykhailovsky at his base in the town of Marinka in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. The small “nerve centre” is completely silent. Calm and considered in his movements, his brown eyes fixed on a “live feed” screen that details enemy activity in the distance, Mykhailovsky tells us that there has been sniper activity in the last hour, prior to our arrival. Apparently we are only 300m from the separatist frontline.
The man’s calm demeanour means I too manage to remain calm at this news. But each time his mobile rings, I feel panic setting in, even though I know there is nowhere to run. And for the villagers the soldiers are here to protect, running is not an option.
The current conflict in eastern Ukraine can be traced back to December 2013, when police dispersed a student protest camp in Kiev’s Independence Square. The protestors were reacting to then president Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign a promised trade deal with the EU.
The movement escalated into the “Maidan” revolution and, on February 20th, 2014, 100 people died within 48 hours when protesters and government snipers clashed. Two days later, Yanukovych fled Kiev.
Then, in March, Putin incorporated the Crimea into Russia. There were reports of “little green men” or unidentified gunmen suddenly appearing all over the territory. Putin later revealed that the plan to annex the area had been made weeks earlier, once Yanukovych had gone.
There was further unrest in April, when protestors seized government buildings in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. This culminated in the May declaration of the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
May 2014 saw the presidential election of Petro Poroshenko, who strove to unite the country despite that fact Russian separatists were fighting Ukrainian government troops in the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. That July the world witnessed the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
Dutch-led investigations found that the atrocity was likely caused by a BUK missile launched from separatist-held territory (there was evidence to show the missile launcher crossing back over the Russian border later the same day). The conflict still rages in Donbas despite two Minsk ceasefire agreements.
Quiet streets, no children
It is a Sunday morning, and autumn sunshine bathes the main street, which is eerily quiet and empty of children. A solitary babushka, sweeping her yard, does not make eye contact. Before war broke out, this was a bustling town of some 11,000 people.
Mykhailovsky explains that he is from Luhansk and that 70 per cent of his battalion are from there or Donetsk. He says the soldiers feel a sense of duty to protect their own families and their land, in a war that “starts and ends with politicians”.
We have come to Donbas to understand why it is not just the frontline soldiers who feel a sense of duty, but ordinary citizens as well. And how they are using social media and the internet to organise and support the war effort. Facebook, for instance, provides an instant international connection and enables volunteers to communicate and recruit others.
Facebook also enables users to instantly share powerful images for recording moments in time, connecting dispersed people with common goals, and acting as a catalyst to shock the world into sitting up and taking notice.
Despite Putin’s focus on Syria and the two ceasefires in Donbas, life remains unsettled. While travelling around the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, Ukrainians tell us they fear what will happen if they pull back from the frontline.
A few days later, we see the consequences of this “hybrid” war at a prosthetics clinic in Kharkiv, full of young men whose limbs have been blown off during the conflict.
Sasha (19), from Kirovograd, was a university cadet before he volunteered to join the army. He lost an arm in an incident with a self-propelled rocket. Sasha was lucky – his commander was killed. Blond, slim-faced Serhiy is in a wheelchair. A relative veteran at 22, he volunteered with a brigade and took a direct hit that knocked him unconscious. He also lost an arm.
Both young men still feel a sense of pride for their country and do not regret volunteering, despite their life-changing injuries. This sense of national pride and fear for the future has given rise to a “social network” of volunteers, who say their mission is to support soldiers on the frontline.
The network is fuelled by social media and Facebook connections, which is fitting, given that leading Ukrainian politician Mustafa Nayyem prompted the Maidan Square gatherings in 2013 by posting on Facebook, urging people to gather to protest the then government’s decision to stop Ukraine’s integration into the EU.
Mykhailo Mykhailovsky is connected online to Artem Velichko, a translator in Kharkiv. He in turn is connected to Elena Plotnikova, volunteer group co-ordinator with Prosvita, a cultural organisation. Plotnikova once made ballroom dresses; she now organises nightly groups of volunteers to construct elaborate camouflage nets and ghillie (camouflage) suits. Each suit takes 80 hours to make.
In Plotnikova’s dimly lit Kharkiv headquarters, a giant camouflage net drapes across one wall as three women administer the final touches. In a side room, a lone elderly man weaves diligently. In soft Ukrainian, he says Ukraine would have been one of the great nations of the world if history had not been so cruel.
Galia Ignatova (38), is also connected to the group online. I first meet her in the hardware section of Kharkiv’s vast Barabashovo market, where she sources supplies for the army. Ignatova then drives as a “shuttle volunteer” to where the battalions are stationed in the anti-terrorist operation zone, the area where the war is taking place. Some battalions need wood for construction, others clothing.
A nail technician by day, Ignatova liaises with battalion commanders via Facebook, meeting their requests for regular supplies. She recalls how strategically positioned Kharkiv (the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1917-35) nearly fell to the separatists – and why she believes her volunteering mission is vital.
“If society did not rise in Kharkiv in March and April 2014, and did not defend the city, we would have had Kharkiv People’s Republic and then Russia there,” she says. “Kiev would have been next. I want to live and work in a peaceful Ukraine. My daughter knows that eastern Ukraine is now at war, but I don’t want her to see with her own eyes what war is.”
When asked why social media is the key form of communication for this civil society movement, many volunteers point to its immediacy, saying it is a much quicker way to immerse yourself in a movement. There is also the space to build trust within a closed community of Facebook “friends” and motivate isolated volunteers by sharing images of the work being done.
Getting the word out
Artem Velichko recalls: “Mustafa Nayyem wrote this on 21st November 2013: “Let’s meet at 22.30 at the Independence monument. Dress warm, bring umbrellas, tea, coffee, a good attitude and friends. Repost is highly appreciated!”.
“It was a seminal moment. It was right after the beating of students on Maidan [Square]. Society was waiting for a summons. And it came in this very simple text on Facebook. Social networks helped distribute the message very quickly.”
Later on, he adds, “Facebook became a very multifaceted tool. During Maidan times, a lot of co-ordination went on through it – calls for actions, needs of the Maidan medical service. Many online communities, like AutoMaidan or EuroMaidan, survived the period. Some continued as media outlets, some became platforms for social and political activism.
“We also fundraise through Facebook, show pictures of our trips, publish our reports – we raised so much, bought this and that, delivered to this unit. The content can be very rich: text, images, video. It is, indeed, instant, and can reach many people at a time.”
We meet engineers, doctors, lawyers, many with small children, who are devoting their time to helping the the war effort. Some, like Natalya (5), are coming out of retirement. The ex-military doctor now runs a cryotherapy centre to treat children and adults affected by post-traumatic stress caused by the conflict. Natalya says enduring freezing temperatures in a closed room for short bursts helps improve sleep disturbance.
Tanya Gabelyuk works with Velichko and Ignatova to support frontline soldiers. We meet in her Soviet-style Kharkiv apartment block. She has set up “Paramedic Fox”, which offers support to injured soldiers and supplies first aid kits and training. She juggles this with childcare and her day job as a physiotherapist. “I am a medic and a solider,” she says, handing over her business card.
A life for the army
The next day, we meet a soldier at a volunteer initiative in the ornate Kharkiv main railway station. We are introduced by Timur Melnyk, one of the volunteers (among them lawyers, marketers, engineers and housewives) working day and night shifts to support the soldiers travelling to and from the frontline. There is a shower, eight beds, practical assistance – even a makeshift orthodox church.
At a shift handover meeting, we learn that the soldier calls himself “Ivan”. He preferred not to be fully identified. Ivan is 25 and from the Kharkiv region. He explains that he is on leave, but has taken the minimum 10-day period because he has no family so would rather return to the frontline. In fact, he swapped an orphanage for the army. Gentle and engaging, Ivan says he has suffered concussion and now has speech problems.
Some of the food he will eat will have been prepared and donated voluntarily by Tatyana Kharlan and Nataly Dolgopolova, whose Feed the Soldier company supplies traditional dried borscht and kasha (sausage and buckwheat) and other foodstuffs to the troops. The scientist and pianist operate from a tiny high-rise room in Kharkiv’s imposing main square, overlooked by the gold onion dome of the nearby church.
Some businesses also volunteer, either providing personnel or donating goods. For example, XADO, is a multinational founded in Kharkiv, supports the Maidan movement by providing a monthly supply of goods, including canisters of motor oil for generators.
In an Italian cafe in the suburbs, we meet Eugene Zorkin (44). He runs an IT company while also supporting the Help Army volunteer group, which was set up in 2014. Zorkin donates computers and printers to the war effort and allows employees to take time out to volunteer. He also serves on a reform committee in the ministry of defence, and suggests that Ukraine needs “education and skills” in order to achieve lasting change.
Zorkin’s fellow volunteer, Iryna Markevich (45), says the movement is largely a middle-aged one. She became a hospital volunteer when her husband Yaroslav, a member of parliament, went to fight at the frontline.
Zorkin and Markevich cite InformNapalm as a source of news for volunteers. The volunteer website aims to inform Ukrainian citizens of news relating to the war by relying on “open source intelligence” – information available through online sources such as Facebook or Twitter.
Transforming our country
Artem Velichko is one of InformNapalm’s translators, as well as a shuttle volunteer. He traces his own grassroots volunteering to the Maidan revolution of 2014, when crowds lined Kiev’s streets to protest at Yanukovych’s rejection of closer EU ties.
“In a way,” he says, “it is a continuation of the Maidan revolution – the desire to transform our country, build a new civil society and ultimately a new state. In 2014, when Russia invaded the Crimea and Donbas, it was a clear threat to our revolution. Therefore people from Maidan joined the volunteer battalions. But they had no support from the state. That is why the civil society responded with this volunteer helper movement.”
Velichko’s key tool is Facebook, and he quickly connects with people to source bespoke items for the troops.
“The army . . . was in a dire state because of years of neglect. That is why this shuttle volunteering extended to the army and law enforcement agencies as well. They needed very basic things: food, warm clothes, uniforms, tools, helmets, tactical gloves.” As the volunteers became more experienced, he says, their donations became more sophisticated, such as night vision and thermal imaging devices.
The volunteers, he says, are a “loose and grass-roots movement with no formal leaders”, in which training lies with the volunteers themselves. They are organised into groups of two-15, and they build relationships with the soldiers and commanders. So the shopping lists are bespoke, extending to items to source, such as discarded mattresses from summer camps.
An old Cossack tradition
How is it that Ukraine, a country with an average monthly wage of €120-€180, has such a strong civil society movement? Surely people will be thinking more about putting food on the table and avoiding conscription? Perhaps one answer lies in the past.
Ukraine’s tradition of volunteering lies in a “frustrated tradition of statehood and a lack of native institutions,” says Uilleam Blacker, lecturer at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
“Living on the margins of often oppressive larger states or empires and deprived of self-determination, Ukrainians have had to self-organise and act in a ‘bottom-up’ fashion in order to protect their culture and traditions, rather than rely on state institutions that would really represent them.”
The tradition of self-reliance comes from the Cossack culture of the 15th century, Dr Blacker says. “The Cossacks practiced an early and chaotic form of democracy, and the 1710 constitution of Pylyp Orlyk is one of the first in Europe. This state would later be forcefully incorporated into the Russian Empire in the late 18th century.”
Fast-forward to the mid-1990s The striking, marching Donbas miners, who protested against low salaries and the dangerous and inhumane working conditions, were housed and fed by people all along their route. Velichko remembers his own parents taking in several miners to their Kharkiv home.
And despite the ongoing conflict, he has no wish to leave: “I do see a future in Ukraine for myself. There will be a lot of hard work to reform and transform the state and the country. But I have a vision of Ukraine as an established democracy, with fair rules of the game for all and dignity for the people.”
Velichko also says this: “I want it to be truly independent, but included in the family of the civilised countries, a part of global solutions, not problems. What will I do for that? I do not know yet. At the moment I am working for something ‘not to happen’ rather than something ‘to happen’. I am working to prevent Ukraine from being defeated in the hybrid war by Russia.”
Looking after refugees
As well as those on the frontline, the social network groups around Kharkiv assist the refugee population. Speaking in London in October, Hryhoriy Nemyria, chairman of the human rights committee in the Ukrainian parliament and deputy head of the All Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” party, said there are some 1.8 million internally displaced people now in Ukraine, fourth in the world after Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Volunteer Yulia Kontoptseva runs a refugee centre in Kharkiv with about 70 volunteer helpers. The centre opened in spring 2014 and word spread via Facebook, culminating in the opening of its own centre at the railway station, before moving to larger premises. Volunteers provide legal, practical and psychological support to adults and children.
One of the main problems Kontoptseva encounters is people showing up without necessary paperwork. She recalls the first wave of families arriving from Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They had “cats and dogs and summer shirts. They were not prepared, and thought it would be a short break away from home. The children lost their school life, so we provided a classroom here.”
Her colleague Anastasia Bezrodnova is a psychologist who volunteers in the centre. She shows us children’s drawings that decorate the walls: “They need to remember how to be children.”
Housing around Kharkiv is very expensive, so it is difficult for the families to buy or rent homes, find suitable schools, employment or transport.
Former actress Yarina Chagovets provides rehabilitation for conflict survivors in a forest setting. Every Saturday night a concert or party in the wooded grounds provides some much needed relief.
Six hours from Kharkiv, in the sleepy village of Solodke, we witness volunteer zeal for conflict-affected people at first hand.
Driving past a giant metal stork in a field (which marks the site of the communal village well), we meet a couple outside their home, along with their daughter and a refugee woman from Donetsk called Inna, who they have taken in.
The daughter, Oksana, has tuberculosis, but says there has been no money for treatment for two years. Her children are kept away from her in case, without treatment, she infects them. She begs us to help organise an operation to remove her infected lung.
Oksana’s father, Kolya Bykovsky (75) sits in the garden in a child’s pram. There is no wheelchair, and he can’t walk. He is too proud to be photographed and his wife, Lidia (74), cries as she tells us that her son has five children and now no job.
Chaotic bursts of energy
“Ukrainians are brilliant at chaotic and spontaneous bursts of energy,” says Uilleam Blacker, “of getting together and cooperating in the face of adverse and oppressive political conditions, and achieving remarkable things.”
I wonder what the original Ukrainian cossack sich (community) would have made of social media. I recall this later when I contact Artem Velichko to ask him about finding a wheelchair for Kolya Bykovsky. He urges me to use Facebook for updates. A few days later, a message comes back: “My volunteer friend Vera sourced a wheelchair for the old man and it was delivered.”
There is also a photograph. With some of his dignity restored, Mr Bykovsky had agreed to be in the picture.