A woman walks past a damaged school in the city of Lisichansk, eastern Ukraine, July 2014. Photo: AP.

How Volunteers Created A ‘Second State’ Inside Ukraine

Massive and unprecedented volunteer movement fills the void where the state fails.

by Chris Dunnett, Hromadske International

produced by Maxim Eristavi, Randy. R. Potts

What You Need to Know:

✓During the Maidan Revolution, volunteer organizations emerged to support the protesters and assist the wounded;

✓The Ukrainian government was unable to handle necessary tasks during the annexation of Crimea and Russian invasion: that’s where a massive volunteer movement filled in

✓Volunteer groups emerged to handle tasks usually shouldered by the state such as supplying soldiers and helping civilians amid the growing conflict in the east;

✓The emergence of volunteerism in Ukraine has led to the development of parallel state structures of civil society in the country at unprecedented levels in the country’s history;

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How It All Started

The Maidan Revolution that swept the streets of Kyiv and other major cities across the country from November 2013 until February 2014 made a lasting impact on Ukraine’s civil society. A proliferation of spontaneous organizations emerged to meet the needs of protesters. Self-defense forces, medical staff, lawyers, and food distributors cooperated in their duties on Maidan, building their own institutions.

Many of the self-defense forces, later proved essential in building the volunteer battalions that assisted the regular Ukrainian military in Eastern Ukraine. Other Maidan organizations, including volunteer medics, later served as the foundation or inspiration of later volunteer groups. Where the Ukrainian state has been unable to provide for its citizenry, volunteer organizations are stepping up with their own parallel institutions.

The Ukrainian Red Cross Society volunteers administering first aid to a wounded protester. Kyiv. Jan 19, 2014. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, Wikimedia.

Articles from the height of the Maidan movement in February document the roles of volunteer “hundreds” and other auxiliary groups in the anti-government camp. This volunteerism on Maidan later served as the basis of Ukraine’s contemporary civic activism.

“Guys,” he called out, “we are forming a new hundred. Please sign up.”
Anton Chontorog, 23, a computer programmer, joined a small crowd of young men who lined up to enroll in the hundred, the basic organizing unit of a strikingly resilient force that is providing the tip of the spear in the violent showdown with government security forces. The sotni, as the units are called, take their name from a traditional form of Cossack cavalry division.

The volunteer defense battalions are perhaps the most visible of Ukrainian volunteer groups. Many of the battalions and their volunteers have their roots in the self-defense forces that manned the barricades of Maidan from police assaults.


Ukrainian medical volunteers unpack donated medical supplies. (REUTERS)

War-Time Volunteers

There exist dozens, if not hundreds, of other organizations that perform various charity functions as a result of the current Russian invasion. Like the volunteer battalions, these organizations fill in the role that the state has been unable to. Below we sample some of the most important of these organizations.

“Ukrainian army before and after volunteers.”
An infographic of a handful of leading volunteer organizations that assist the Ukrainian military.

Saving Lives in Ukraine

The volunteer organization, Saving Lives in Ukraine, provides blood-stopping agents and other medical goods to Ukraine’s soldiers on the front lines. The organization works in cooperation with MedAutoMaidan, an organization which previously provided medical support for protestors against the Yanukovych government.

Diaspora groups

Diaspora organizations with their roots in the Maidan movement also assist in providing necessary assistance to affected areas in the former combat zone, civilians, and Ukrainian servicemen. In Canada and the United States, diaspora groups collect money, medical supplies, and other goods to support soldiers and the displaced.

Soon it became clear that the Ukrainian Diaspora could do much more, and the community organization Razom for Ukraine (Together for Ukraine) was established…
So far, Razom has raised about $135,000 in humanitarian aid. They supported the Maidan protests, as well as human rights and justice-seeking activists. In North America, Razom organized demonstrations in New York and Washington D.C., plus roundtable discussions and cultural events.

Return Alive

The Ukrainian volunteer organization “Return Alive” assists Ukrainian soldiers with military supplies that the central government has been unable to provide for them, including important medications. The equipment that the organization provides to soldiers in the zone of military operations includes night vision and infrared googles. “Return Alive” also provides medications, such as those that can prevent excessive blood loss.

Founded in May of last year as a Facebook group by the Ukrainian IT specialist, Vitaliy Deinega, Return Alive has morphed into one of the largest public initiatives in the country.

The initiative relies on private donations gathered through crowd funding online. So far, the group has raised more than 20 million hryvnia, or nearly one and a half million U.S. dollars. Despite the difficulties in measuring their impact, Deinega believes that the initiative may have saved as much as a hundred Ukrainian soldiers’ lives.

Volunteers of Return Alive collect funds to equip ambulances.

Wings Phoenix

Wings Phoenix was founded by Tatiana Rychkova, a native of the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, when she began to load her car with helmets, body armor, and medication and drive to the front to support Ukrainian troops.

Like Return Alive, Wings Phoenix delivers non-lethal equipment to several units in the combat zone, including radios, helmets, and bulletproof vests. The organization also gathers money for reconnaissance drones.


Internationally displaced persons (IDPs) are given emergency supplies with the support of the United National High Commissioner for Refugees. (UNHCR)

For Many Ukraine IDPs Volunteers Are The Only Hope

Volunteer organizations assist the needs of internally displaced people in the country. The Ukrainian government is often criticized by international humanitarian and human rights organizations for not doing nearly enough for over 1 million people who have been forced to leave their homes because of the Eastern Ukraine war.

Crimea SOS

Crimea SOS was founded by two Crimean-born Kyiv residents in the first days of the peninsula’s annexation by Russia. As the situation worsened in Crimea, the initiative raised awareness about the humanitarian situation there, as well the plight of those leaving their homes to other parts of Ukraine. Crimea SOS currently provides various services from the displaced, including providing humanitarian aid, free legal assistance, support with housing, and assistance for those who have relocated and are unemployed. The organization also assists the displaced from Eastern Ukraine in addition to Crimea.

Vostok SOS

Crimea SOS’s partner organization, Vostok SOS, assists internally displaced people from the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The project was first founded in May 2014, in partnership with previously existing human rights organizations, when the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine began to quickly deteriorate.

Vostok SOS provides assistance with the transportation of civilians from the conflict zone, general humanitarian aid, legal assistance, help with collecting social payments, medical attention, and other services for the internally displaced such as psychological counseling. In addition, the initiative delivers aid directly to cities and towns that have been freed by the Ukrainian military.

Given that roughly 90 percent of the organization is made up of displaced individuals from the eastern regions themselves, they say that they understand the hardships facing these internal refugees.

Kharkiv Station

The Kharkiv-based volunteer group, Kharkiv Station, provides assistance for Ukrainians displaced from the combat area. After the initiative was started in June, Kharkiv Station set up a tent next to the Kharkiv train station to assist newly-arrived civilians from the Donbas. Locals soon started delivering food and other suppplies. The organization currently provides psychological support, informational assistance, medical help, legal support, and provides free tickets for transportation to new places of residence in Ukraine.

Volunteers with Kharkiv Station, discusses their role in helping IDPs to the eastern city of Kharkiv.

In addition to well-organized groups, there are also hundreds of individual volunteers traveling to rebel-held territories at their own risk with a goal to support civilians trapped in local towns and villages because of the brutal fighting.

In eastern Ukraine, near the town of Makiivka, Hromadske’s Gumenyuk met with three families that are struggling to survive, their lives disrupted by continuous fighting. She followed the group of volunteers from “The Responsible Citizens” which has been organizing continuous aid delivery to the most remote areas of the Donetsk region. Aid distribution is a long process that inevitably favors those who are able to wait in lines and have time. This requires time and resources that the vast majority of residents not only in Makiivka, but also in other towns, do not have.

To get a feeling for what it is like to be trapped in your own home because of the Eastern Ukraine war, check out these dispatches from Hromadske International:

In early 2015 a bureaucratic decisions from the Ukrainian government with a goal to secure the semi-border with separatist territories substantially complicated the job of volunteers on their humanitarian missions. Some volunteer organizations called on the Ukrainian officials to launch the massive evacuation from the rebel-held zone first, before cutting logistical ties to it. Otherwise it would prevent volunteers from helping trapped Ukrainian civilians.

Where The State Fails, Volunteers Save The Day

The importance of volunteer organizations in Ukraine shouldn’t be understated. While the United Nations and international organizations have criticized the Ukrainian government for its inefficiency to provide proper social services and support for the displaced, Ukrainian volunteer organizations have drawn praise for their activism in the face of state failure. One of the most lasting, and perhaps influential, results of the Maidan movement and subsequent Russia-Ukraine conflict may be the rise of civic activism in Ukraine.

The Congressional Research Service reported that in 2014, the European Union announced an 11.1-billion-euro ($15.5-billion) aid package for Ukraine, while Congress approved $1 billion in loan guarantees to go with over $184 million in aid to the Ukrainian government for “political and economic reforms.” Much of this money will be stolen, even more wasted.
The international strategy is wrong. Ukrainian civil society in all its forms is increasingly doing what the state cannot. Where the state fails to deliver, the people make up the difference; where it is slow and flabby, they are quick and lean.

While the state is often not able to meet its citizens’ needs due to bureaucratic inefficiency volunteer organizations are continuing to step up to substitute it.

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