When a fight in London on his 19th birthday nearly cost him his left eye, Serhiy Prytula took it as a hint from higher powers that he should change his wild ways.
He clearly did something right in the intervening years, because when the television presenter and politician turned 41 last week, he shared a birthday wish with the Ukrainian people that triggered a deluge of $20 million (€19.2 million) in donations in just three days.
The drive carried out by Prytula’s foundation to buy drones for Ukraine’s military is just one striking example of how Ukrainians are helping to fund and equip their nation’s war effort – as they have since Russia occupied Crimea and parts of the eastern Donbas region in 2014.
“When I spoke to guys from our defence ministry about raising money for Bayraktar drones they looked at me like an alien. They said ‘Okay, good luck with that, we believe in you,’ but afterwards they admitted they didn’t believe it could happen,” Prytula recalls.
Now he is meeting defence officials to decide how to spend $15 million (€14.4 million) that is still burning a hole in his fund’s pocket, after the Turkish makers of Bayraktars pledged to deliver three of the powerful attack drones for free in recognition of the Ukrainian people’s “solidarity and resolve in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges”.
The foundation has raised almost $50 million since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine four months ago, but it is only one bright point in a vast constellation of groups and individuals who are chipping in to buy everything from medical kits to military trucks for the nation’s forces, as well as helping millions of people displaced by the war.
“We need to remember all the time that no one can occupy Ukraine and beat us if we are united,” Prytula says in the English he learned working in a factory near King’s Cross and a Heathrow food court 22 years ago.
“We had trouble with the dignity of our nation in the past, because we didn’t have a Ukrainian state for a long time … and whenever we tried it was destroyed by Russia,” he says of a people who were long ruled by Russia, Poland or the Austro-Hungarian empire.
“We didn’t have our own state or national government, and all the time these empires talked to us as if we were a little brother, a stateless people … I’m trying to express to everyone that our dignity is our power, and we can do anything when we unite.”
Volunteers have played a pivotal role in Ukraine since hundreds of thousands of people rallied on Kyiv’s Maidan square and in other cities through the winter of 2013-2014, joining forces to keep the protest camp in the capital fed, warm and defended from attacks by riot police who killed scores of demonstrators in the revolution’s final bloody days.
Many people went straight from Maidan to Donbas to join volunteer battalions that fought fierce battles with Russian-led militants through 2014, when the Ukrainian state was in chaos and the armed forces were disorganised and often desperately underequipped.
While some volunteers took up arms in the east, others raised money and forged networks in Ukraine and abroad to find, buy and deliver whatever the fighters needed, whether uniforms and rations, flak jackets and helmets, or sniper scopes and walkie-talkies.
Even now – after eight years of investment in and modernisation of Ukraine’s military, and as western allies send billions of euro in security aid to Kyiv – these volunteer networks still serve as crucial supply lines that work quickly and flexibly to meet soldiers’ needs, and help bind this vast country of 42 million people together in a time of crisis.
“If we were talking about last December then we could say the supply situation in the military was much better than in 2014. But now we’re talking about a much, much bigger number of people — the army grew by three times in a month and a half,” says Prytula.
“All their needs can’t be covered so quickly by the state, so volunteers provide a crucial shoulder of support; if we’re talking about new bulletproof vests, the defence ministry said that in March-April, 50 per cent were bought by the ministry and 50 per cent by volunteers.”
Prytula was a popular television presenter before moving into politics with a new liberal party called Holos (which means “voice” and “vote”) in 2019 — the same year another popular entertainer, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, took the same plunge and became president.
“I’ve known him for more than 20 years as a leader of his [comedy troupe] Kvartal 95. He’s really strong as a boss and as a man who can see a few steps ahead,” says Prytula, adding that any criticism of the president’s pre-war rule can wait until “after victory”.
Prytula was preparing to launch his own party when the all-out invasion began on February 24th, and now uses his high profile and contacts to keep cash flowing to the Ukrainian cause.
In recent auctions, he raised $1.2 million by selling the Eurovision trophy won by Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra and the lead singer’s distinctive pink bucket hat, and $500,000 (€478,000) for a work by artist Maria Prymachenko, which paid for 125 buses for the army, each emblazoned with a large sticker-version of the painting on its bonnet.
Many of her canvases were destroyed when a museum in the town of Ivankiv burned down during Russia’s occupation of the region early in the war, and Prytula liked the idea of “Ukrainian art taking revenge” against the invaders.
He says contributors to the Bayraktar fund included everyone from children who collected money selling cherries, to wealthy businesspeople and cryptocurrency investors, but in a country where the average pre-war monthly wage was about €480, many want its coterie of super-rich “oligarchs” to do more.
Billionaire tycoon and art collector Victor Pinchuk this week auctioned his Jeff Koons sculpture Balloon Monkey (Magenta) at Christie’s in London, raising $11.5 million for “soldiers and civilians gravely wounded by war who urgently require prosthetics, medical treatment and rehabilitation”.
“Our gratitude and respect to our soldiers have no limits. They give their blood for us, the future of Ukraine, and the world. Every fellow Ukrainian civilian killed or wounded by Russian shelling, shooting, and systematic violence means a wound in our souls,” Pinchuk said, describing the sale of the Koons piece as a way to “put life and hope against death and suffering”.
Like Zelenskiy, Prytula says he moved into politics to make Ukraine a fairer and less corrupt place, where oligarchs no longer pull the country’s strings from behind the scenes through parties and deputies that they fund.
There could well be a reckoning after the war as to who did what to defend Ukraine, with particular focus on how the wealthy contributed to a national struggle that is largely being fought and supplied by people with little to spare.
There may also be a battle for political power between the former showmen, Zelenskiy and Prytula, but the latter says he fully backs the comedian turned commander-in-chief as Ukraine fights for its life: “Now there is only one big dream, and its name is victory.”