Volunteers drive social change in wartime Ukraine 14 February

A year into Russia’s full-scale invasion, a new study by Dr Olga Boichak has found ordinary citizens who volunteer their time and resources can bring about social and political change.

Research published in an international peer-reviewed journal Cultural Sociology, has found the large-scale collective effort of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian volunteers throughout the Russian-Ukrainian war has seen a fundamental reshaping of the relationship between the Ukrainian state and its citizens, as well as a widening definition of what makes, or can be considered, a strong civic society.

a woman with short blonde hair smiling

Dr Olga Boichak

Dr Olga Boichak, sociologist and lecturer in digital cultures in the University of Sydney’s Discipline of Media and Communications, interviewed Ukrainian citizen volunteers to understand what motivates their efforts in helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion.

“Volunteering is never just about helping those immediately affected by the war,” Dr Boichak said. “When thousands of people engage in daily acts of solidarity and care, they transform the meaning of citizenship and foster the emergence of a strong and agile civil society”.

“Wars are significant crisis events that blur distinctions between military and civilian, public and private, volunteering and activism, as we see from these emerging forms of collective behaviour in Ukraine,” Dr Boichak said.

The study, conducted in collaboration with sociologist Dr Brian McKernan from Syracuse University, analysed the volunteers’ reflections to understand how they made sense of their involvement in the war, and what they were hoping to achieve.

Researchers were particularly interested in how volunteers saw the Ukrainian state and articulated their duties and responsibilities as citizens. They found that for many, volunteering was a way to exercise their agency during the war, situating themselves at the centre of democratic state-building.

“When Ukrainians volunteer, they do not only attempt to alleviate immediate issues – they also promote and/or create a new civic and political culture,” said Dr Boichak. “In this way, volunteerism is political even if the immediate goal may not be the restructuring of the political system. Through their acts of engaged citizenship, the volunteers are actively crafting solidarities across citizens around their participation in grassroots voluntary initiatives.”

This research highlights the political significance of volunteering in democratic societies, which has often been underestimated, Dr Boichak said. “It also draws attention to informal, non-institutional civic associations through which citizens may collectively articulate their visions of the future.”

Ukrainian volunteer movements

Since the beginning of the first phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which started in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the subsequent orchestration of insurgency in the Donetsk and Luhansk territories by Russia, Ukraine’s efforts to prevent an encroaching occupation have sparked unprecedented levels of civic engagement.

By 2016, tens of thousands of volunteers had contributed time, labour and financial resources to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces deployed to forestall further military activities in eastern Ukraine.

Now, in 2022, volunteers continue to work daily – offering their time, money or in-kind resources to help others – while living under wartime conditions themselves.

The volunteers in the study said:

“It is not the responsibility of our President or government to win this war for us – therefore, victory is in the hands of all of us and we have no right to stay passive.”

“It is too easy to give up and say it’s hopeless – but we are watched by our own children, and if we don’t make an effort – they will live in a country where one cannot achieve anything while honestly playing by the rules [. . .] I don’t even know what kind of future I want for my own children if nothing changes.”

Agents of change

The study found many ordinary citizens who worked as volunteers could be “agents of change” who work with self-reliance and agility, unencumbered by bureaucracy or restrictive policies. The volunteers believed they could continue to “lend a hand” to the State even after the war ends.

One volunteer said:

“The volunteer disregards the barriers and does what has to be done. That’s the whole point of volunteering – to figure out how to work around the barriers so that the Army could do what they have to do. These people work at maximum bandwidth, at full capacity.”

The study found the volunteers believe it is vitally important to cultivate a “more active citizenry” capable of driving social change from within, or at times outside institutions.

“Human dignity is a core value behind the volunteers’ efforts,” said Dr Boichak, “as well as the multiple levels on which personal security concerns translate into national security issues.

“Our findings demonstrate the need for researchers to be sensitive to the ways that volunteers may be focused on alleviating immediate needs while also laying the foundation for broader cultural and political change.”

Declaration: The publication of this article has been supported through the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Open Access Fund. The researchers have received no funding for this project and have no conflict of interest to declare.

/University Release. View in full here.