As the world watched Russia invade Ukraine this winter, many no doubt wondered what they would do if it was their friends and family under attack. Sitting behind a screen, as so many of us are most of the day, it can be hard to imagine the options at our fingertips. But many Ukrainians facing the brutal realities of war — both within the country and in other parts of the world — found themselves forced into action, some with little more than the drive to help and an internet connection. From posting on Instagram to organizing via Telegram to offering rides and shelter, these people are finding creative ways to resist and fight for their future.
One such person is Yuliya, a Ph.D. candidate at the Max Planck School of Cognition, who has been living in Germany for the past six years. Originally from Lutsk, Yuliya (last name withheld for privacy reasons) is also an activist advocating for sexual education in Ukraine. War found Yuliya at her home in Berlin when she and her roommate, who is also Ukrainian, received a phone call from their mothers at the same time. Yuliya had returned to Germany from Ukraine just two days before the invasion started. Remembering dinner conversations with friends in Kyiv, she explained how people weren’t thinking about war.
“Everyone was so optimistic, telling me about their beautiful plans. It was surreal to realize that everyone I saw only two days ago is now in bomb shelters.”
Yuliya felt urged to do something. Thinking of her friends, she decided to mobilize her networks by utilizing the messaging app Telegram. Having co-organized a music festival in the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains the previous year, Yuliya knew she had many real and virtual connections to engage, spanning some 25 countries.
“For the people that came to this festival, Ukraine became a very special place, and Ukrainians became a special kind of friend,” she said.
Drawing from a group chat with 250 festival attendees, Yuliya created a Telegram channel to share resources for anyone looking to be evacuated or seeking shelter. She quickly got the word out by posting a link on the festival group, artist groups and other communities she was part of, saying that anyone who would like to host, drive people, translate or contribute in any way could join that Telegram channel. At the same time, she reached out to other Ukrainians who were organizing and, together, they thought of ways to pressure the German government into accepting refugees.
“What happened,” Yuliya explained, “is that the Telegram channel grew from 20 contacts into a group of 13,000 people.”
A similar chain of events happened to Sofia, an economics student from Bucha, currently on an exchange program in France. At first, she found herself in a situation no one could ever be prepared for — beginning with a call from her mom, who was still in Bucha, as Russian bombs exploded only six miles away. They eventually managed to escape in their car.
Thinking about what she could do from exile, Sofia connected with fellow classmates, part of a student group at her university in Kyiv. They restructured their activities to focus exclusively on the struggle, calling their Instagram page Hear Ukraine. There they share infographics, interviews and other materials, explaining how war has altered the reality for millions of Ukrainians.
Dmytro was in Kyiv when the war started. Originally from Zaporizhia, he works as a photographer and runs the project Ukrainian Modernism, which focuses on preserving 20th century Ukrainian architecture. On Instagram, Dmytro speaks out against the Ukrainian government’s imperative to demolish monumental art and buildings from that era, arguing that “many Ukrainians associate it with Putin’s Russia, despite the fact that the architects and artists involved were Ukrainian patriots.”
After withstanding the initial shock of the invasion, Dmytro decided to inform his 80,000 Instagram followers on what was happening. He spent the first day of the war on his computer checking all the information and summarizing it into a post that ended up reaching 300,000 people. Ever since then, he has been using his platform to document the destruction happening in his country as a result of the invasion. He even organizes restoration projects for historical buildings that were damaged, while also running free city tours for locals and internally displaced people in Kyiv and the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Keys to success
So how did Ukrainian civilians manage to organize so fast even as bombs were falling over their heads? Things certainly did not happen overnight. Instead, their efforts are the result of a preexisting vibrant culture of activism and collective organizing. Nevertheless, several key factors contributed to networks flourishing both within and outside Ukraine, making it possible for a people-led movement to make such an impact.
1. An immediate response by volunteers
The war came as a surprise to many, so adequate preparation was absent. According to Dmytro, the government in Ukraine “did everything to keep people calm,” which meant that even those who expected something to happen were unprepared for what followed.
Yuliya also confirmed that the sudden events led to an incoherent approach, where official guidance was severely lacking, leaving many unprepared to protect themselves and their loved ones. Meanwhile, in Berlin, no official response followed in the wake of the city welcoming refugees. According to Yuliya, “All of this first-line emergency help was completely volunteer-based. Volunteers were working 24/7 because the government would not respond adequately — even as people were coming to Germany traumatized, without food, not knowing what to do.”
Given the lack of information on housing, Yuliya created a database for hosting refugees, where 5,000 people signed up in Berlin. Eventually, her databases were taken over by a Berlin-based, Ukrainian-led NGO called Vitsche. The group is helping refugees and advocating with the local authorities, as well as organizing protests, psychological help and cultural events. Yuliya described them as having “done much more than the government or big organizations. These kinds of NGOs are the ones people should donate to. Everything is spent for a reason.”
Even now, the governments in Ukraine and Europe still rely on volunteers. According to Sofia, many people in Ukraine stay connected via their local authorities, since mayors update people on the current situation through their Telegram channels and use it as a platform for organizing mutual aid.
“In Bucha, there is an Instagram and Facebook page where the admin is connected to the local authorities,” she said. “So, when they receive notifications about supply shortages or recent information they publish it there. The local authorities and volunteer organizations have been coordinating the response together.”
Yuliya echoed this sentiment, adding that most resources available to Ukrainian refugees are thanks to volunteer groups and networks.
2. Everything is used with purpose
Given this unprecedented mobilization, communities have had to think about how to maximize the potential of those participating in the effort to support civilians. As a result, people began organizing and volunteering in any capacity according to their skills and assets.
“This threat is so strong that it is impossible to ignore, and people just understand they have to give and do their best to help their communities,” Dmytro said. “I’ve seen professionals organizing in community centers and adapting their skills to help in wartime.”
He also noted how people opened their homes or other private and public spaces to help those escaping conflict-affected areas find shelter. In his own case, Dmytro stayed in a kindergarten housing internally displaced people for a few days on his way to Ivano-Frankivsk.
Sofia also gave accounts of how her relatives and people she knows have used what they have to help fellow civilians, such as people owning restaurants and cooking for people who stayed in the affected cities. Her uncle returned to Bucha after the occupation, signing up to become a volunteer because he has a big car and could assist with transporting humanitarian aid.
3. Social media as powerful tools
A “digitally-versed” generation has made a huge difference to a humanitarian catastrophe that has seen approximately 14 million people displaced and thousands dead or injured. Social media became pivotal for people being able to organize fast.
Dmytro already had a strong asset on his hand given the reach of his Instagram page. “It’s been a helpful tool as our lives are now unimaginable without it, and we Ukrainians use [the platforms] to their full potential,” he said.
Telegram, Instagram and Facebook were crucial in helping people organize. Interestingly, Yuliya said that she used Telegram because she knew that, in Ukraine, everything is done on the platform. “People start communities there, and it is really popular,” she said. “Telegram seems like the way to go.”
She also highlighted the importance of good moderation for these open platforms. Speaking of the chat she was administering, she said that it “got messy over time and now there are better resources available.” Nevertheless, she feels the chat “served its purpose well — being a first-line emergency response to people who were really lost, which was important at the time.”
Beyond mutual aid, social media are now serving as the archives where everyone can witness the bravery of the Ukrainian people as the war unfolds.
“The whole world saw what was happening,” Dmytro said, “and it was very encouraging to see all those rallies in support of Ukraine, to know that we are not alone. On Instagram, I asked people to tag me on this content specifically so my followers could see it.”
Many Ukrainians are internationally-minded and have connections with people abroad who they consider important to helping stop the spread of disinformation.
“I have foreigners in my following and I wanted to show them the situation from a first-person resource: my friends, people who witnessed everything,” Sofia noted. “That’s one of my main aims. I really want people to be aware of the situation and ask them to donate and help however they can.”
4. A culture of collective action
In talking with these three people, it quickly became clear that Ukrainians had a strong culture of collective action. What’s more, given the magnitude of the threat, the urgency to act in unity and solidarity spread like wildfire. From the Orange Revolution in 2004-5 to the Maidan pro-democratic movement of 2014, Ukrainians have been well-versed in the art of protest, always returning to the squares and streets to demand justice and change.
“Ukrainians were able to organize fast because we have been doing that throughout our whole history,” Yuliya said. “Ukraine is such a new country, barely older than me. We, the younger generation, participated in every revolution, and we saw that our civic action can bring true change.”
While Yuliya acknowledged that Ukraine “did not become a perfect place to live after the revolutions,” she touted their accomplishments: overthrowing an authoritarian regime, winning back freedom of speech, and generally endorsing European values.
“Ukrainians know that if you are enough people, you can change things,” she said. “Since each revolution started spontaneously, we have a culture of self-organization.”
Sofia, who’s only 20 years old, also thinks that
“Maidan prepared volunteers and Ukrainians for this war, influencing the ways we communicate and how volunteers work. Maidan started this movement and it all evolved quite rapidly.”
Sofia also underscored the way people banded together in the face of the occupation in order to survive — as they did in her home of Bucha.
“Some of my neighbors stayed there and, during the occupation, they made kitchens outside, collected wood, gathered together, and this is how a lot of people managed to survive those times.”
Bucha was completely cut off from telecommunication networks and, in the absence of coordination by the local authorities, Ukrainian civilians naturally thought of each other as their first resource for help.
After the warplanes are gone
What is pervasive about war is not only its destructive nature while the conflict is active, but also the everlasting imprint it leaves on the societal fabric. Like other places in the world that have experienced this level of violence, the path to healing and justice will be an uphill battle for many Ukrainians. However, after witnessing how powerful Ukrainian civilians can be in the face of adversity, people can be hopeful that what kept them together in times of war will work in times of peace. As Sofia noted,
“It helps immensely to know that someone is behind your back, that you are not alone in this.”
Yuliya agreed, adding that the networks arising from this situation will be useful for finding other Ukrainians to organize things beyond aid.
“We are moving toward having better-organized structures, and hopefully they will manage to get enough funding because I know a lot of people who’ve been working non-stop without getting paid and dedicating their whole life to this cause.” Yuliya also sees a big need for mental health support. “I see a lot of promise in art-based and community-based practices, which can help people express themselves non-verbally and feel connected to a supportive network.”
Dmytro also expressed hope that this level of engagement will remain.
“This flame that was lit in our hearts will take time to fade,” he said. “I believe the communities, the networks, the volunteer groups will remain, and this newfound patriotism will drive the country for some time. I just hope that it will drive it in the right direction.”
Sofia also sees identity becoming a very important driver in people mobilizing in the future.
“The war revealed our solidarity and how united we are,” she said. “A lot of Ukrainians who spoke Russian now try to use Ukrainian in their everyday life. Many educate themselves on our history because we need to be aware of our identity and past experiences.”
As the conflict continues with no end in sight — and many areas remain under Russian military occupation or subject to indiscriminate attacks — Ukrainians still find hope in talking about the future, signifying the power of their resistance. Speaking of what could happen after the war, Dmytro said,
“I hope that, as we are standing up to Russians now, we will be standing up against our corrupt officials and politicians [in the future]. They were the main threat before the war and, after we deal with the Russians, we will deal with corruption.”
In the coming years, whether Ukrainian youth will be preoccupied with saving architectural heritage, helping to cover mental health needs, or using their voice to stand up for their communities, they definitely have a long road ahead. But they also have many lessons to draw from. The solidarity they are showing in these times will be a guiding force for them to build their future in a country they have envisioned and fought for.
“We feel proud of our country,” Yuliya said. “We are looking forward to going back to normal and taking it further because now we believe in a country that we want to build, especially after seeing how things that seem impossible are possible after standing up to Russia.”