Interview 13:35 15 Sep 2022

"If someone says I do publicity stunts, do it with me," Serhii Prytula about volunteering, army's needs, and children

Rubryka talked to a well-known volunteer and asked about the work of his charity fund, the purchase of a satellite, the situation at the front, and criticism of him.

Serhii Prytula, Ukrainian public and political figure, volunteer, and TV presenter, from the beginning of russia's full-scale invasion, entirely focused on helping the front and may have become the most prominent figure in volunteering in Ukraine. Drones, cars, "people's Bayraktars," and even a satellite—there was nothing that he didn't manage to raise funds for. We talked with him about the foundation's activities, criticism, motivation, and even children—read our article to find out what came out of it.

On raised, "big" and "small" donations, and "humanitarian PR"

— Today, charity and volunteering are one of the main pillars of Ukraine's approach to victory. Many people actively help, but many also wonder why charity organizations and volunteers should handle the provision of soldiers at the front next to the state. What do you think of this state-charity-volunteer frontline supply? What should it look like?

— People not involved in volunteering ask this question because people who work in this field have an answer. Naturally, the state should deal with the provision of the army, but I'm sorry, the war has been going on for eight years, and it's been more than half a year since russia's full-scale invasion began. We were not and are not an economically strong country to provide our army at such a level as it happens with our enemies, who spend ten times more money on their defense than we do. Therefore, the Ukrainian society could "put one foot on the other, take a coffee in hand, watch TV, say the state is doing nothing." But our people are pretty intelligent. That's why they support the state in such a difficult time because the country's defense capability is not only a matter of the Ministry of Defense, law enforcement agencies, and structures; it is a matter of every unit in the country, every citizen. If we lost the war, we would not exist as a state. We would not exist as a nation. Would there be a nation without a state, of which there are already enough in the world? Therefore, if you don't want to be a refugee—even if you have become a refugee and want to return to your native land—be so kind as to wake up thinking, "What can I do for my army?"

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— Do you think that your fund is now working at total capacity? Do you see areas where you need to "push up"?

— I am not ashamed of the last six months of work of our foundation and our team. Our volunteers are all working to the limit of their abilities. I recently even argued with two women responsible for verifying military requests for us because they left the foundation's premises around midnight. I understand their desire for maximum efficiency, to give everything and do it through gritted teeth, but if you work in such a schedule for a long time, it can hit your quotient of practical actions in the future. That's why you have to give yourself the responsibility of keeping the balance of your forces right. On Independence Day, we made a report on six months of work. We collected 2.2 billion hryvnias, and there were moments that I'm very proud of. These are the thousands of drones that we delivered to our units on the front line. These are our Bayaktar drones, which I was able to hug personally recently, and which were a gift from the Baykar company. This wouldn't have happened if the owner of the Baykar company hadn't seen the scope and reach of people during this project. We had 1.346 million transactions in 3 days, for which we collected 600 million hryvnias. Our foundation has acquired access to a satellite and a database of satellite images from a company with the most significant number of SAR satellites worldwide. Therefore, I believe our foundation is excellent, and all the people working there are also great.

— Many Ukrainians now feel that they aren't doing enough to win. How to work with this feeling? Do you sometimes feel something similar yourself? What could you say about it?

— You need to work with this feeling. How? It's your matter. The fact is that I have been volunteering for more than eight years, so I already went through what some volunteers are facing now with my colleagues in 2014. There is no concept of "I'm not doing enough." There's a notion "I either do it, or I don't." Depending on your capabilities, you can do something that will bring benefits. You can go to work to earn money, pay taxes, and support Ukraine's economy. Can you weave a camouflage net after work? Weave. You can volunteer not on a cosmic scale but collect money in your area and drive an SUV from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium, or Poland to the units for the boys who serve in your area; go and do it. You can support the family of migrants and their children; please go and do it. You can buy something necessary for the hospice, which was brought from the temporarily occupied territories to safer regions; please take care of the elderly. So, there is a lot of work. You can not even spend your energy and just donate. There is no such thing as a "big" or "small" donation. An example is a retired older woman who came today and brought a thousand hryvnias, and her pension is a little over a thousand. It is her wish, her request. Whoever had the opportunity to donate a million dollars donated them—both the thousand and this million are valuable to me.

— The work of your foundation and you personally is now very noticeable. Many Ukrainians call this your PR campaign. How do you feel about such statements? What do you think about it?

— To be honest, I kind of don't care about who thinks what. Am I doing a publicity stunt for eight years or what? A PR campaign is when you did something once, or maybe several times, and then gained some "achievements" from it. In my case, I don't quite understand who can say something to me; my cousin received the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, defending Lysychansk, and another brother is in the system of the Ministry of Defense and engaged in sending soldiers for training. My godson is a border guard in the Sumy region; I have enough motivation for volunteering, besides the fact that I love my country and my army, which protects me. I want our boys and girls at the front to come home with arms. Therefore, if someone says I do a publicity stunt, do it with me.

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About a car for the front, children's donations, and a companion

— You often buy cars specifically for the military. We recently saw posts from Ukrainian volunteers in Sweden that they turned to your fund to help buy suitable cars in the country at better prices. Ultimately, they weren't contacted despite assurances, and cars were purchased at higher prices. Why did this happen? Do you cooperate with local volunteers/organizations of Ukrainians or those who care about Ukraine during the same purchases abroad? What are the criteria for cooperation?

— This question is a little outdated because after this publication appeared, our transport manager coordinated with the person, and now we have cooperation.

And the fact that someone ordered something at inflated prices is not entirely factual. Someone, for instance, brought a car from Poland for 2,000 euros, someone from Denmark did it for 5,000, and someone from Sweden did it for 7,000. The one who got it for two has every right to say that the other two people are wasting money, but he also forgot to mention that it will need to be repaired for another month. Sometimes there are urgent requests related to rare equipment that we have to overpay. I'm content when people find time to nick-pick our purchases. This means that, on the one hand, they have enough time. On the other hand, they don't care about the fighters. However, they're not in our position and don't always understand the objectivity of one or another expense. Let's give an example. We bought a gadget and wrote about it. We purchased for a price of, for instance, 50,000 hryvnias. A person studied the issue well and wrote me a long message that we are "scumbags" because she found the same gadget on the manufacturer's website for 30,000, and we have a significant overpayment. After that, we asked the representatives of this optical company and received a precise answer: yes, you can place an order, and it will reach you in three weeks. The military unit that made the request needed it now. It was a matter of life and death. In Ukraine, this gadget is one piece in quantity, and we bought it for the price it sold. Therefore, I wish all the researchers of our purchases good health and join our efforts.

— Children regularly bring raised funds to your foundation — what do you feel at these moments? What would you like to say to the little Ukrainians collecting money to help the Ukrainian army?

—I feel great anger towards our enemy because our children grew up very quickly because of these sick people and murderers. They lost the childhood they deserved, and instead of buying some gadgets, scooters, and toys, they are now collecting money and bringing it to us, other foundations, to buy aid for our military. On the other hand, I am terribly proud of our children, who understand, despite their young age, that the Ukrainian army doesn't protect Ukrainian society selectively, and that is why Ukrainian society should help the military, not selectively. I believe it is a good thing and a clear signal to putin that we cannot be defeated because our entire country is behind our army, from the youngest to the oldest, and everyone is working with one goal: the victory of Ukraine.

— What is the enormous demand at the front right now? Is it possible to close it by the forces of the foundation?

— It's impossible to close all front-line requests by one fund's forces. We cannot do it even with all the volunteer organizations in Ukraine. We significantly contribute to the provision of the army and to the fact that our country wins. Still, we don't have the same budget as the Ministry of Defense or the budgets allocated to us by Western partner countries to support Ukraine through the material and technical assistance, macro-financial assistance, and so on. There is a constant need for good communication, radio stations, and repeaters. There is a need for vehicles in various forms—from buses and pickup trucks to light and heavy armored vehicles and armored ambulances. Drones are consumables. UAVs fall, crash, and get lost. The situation with optics seems to have leveled off more or less—at the level of sniper sights, surplus periscopes, and thermal imagers. However, the demand for night vision devices remained incredibly high. It is a fascinating item. It is difficult and expensive to get.

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— You visit cities that are actually on the front line. What are your impressions of these trips? How is life there? What can you say about our defenders' morale and fighting spirit since you communicate with them? And about the provision of our armed forces with everything necessary?

— I cannot be responsible for the entire front line because so many units and requests exist. Security is also different. Some have enough of everything, and some lack a lot. There are active battles, and saving human life is much more important than saving some gadget, no matter how much it costs. Optics are lost, Starlinks crash, cars burn, debris damages buses, etc.

Regarding morale, thank God the units we visit there do not have panicky moods, as our neighbors say. There are many motivated people. Of course, there were cases when people were mobilized without military experience, and they did not cope with the challenges because the war now is far from the one we saw in 2014, 2015, and later. There is a lot of artillery work and aviation, which is scary. There are a lot of people who die and a lot of people who get injured.

However, it seems to me that there are more profound things that have affected the processes for the past six months and have now begun to be corrected. For the last seven years, we still had a positional war, and the people sitting in the trenches were the side defending themselves from russia. With the Minsk agreements, offensive operations became impossible, and we cannot boast, for example, of any successful operation in the form of a large-scale offensive since 2016. That is why those who are now engaged in bravado are saying that we will start a counteroffensive in two weeks and will be in Kherson… I am still more restrained in my forecasts and understand somewhere in my head that I need to rebuild and find some motivation to move forward. As we can see, according to what Ukraine's General Staff says, it seems that this has started to happen in our army.

— 600 million collected for Bayraktar drones were eventually spent on a satellite for Ukraine. It is an unprecedented event; the people of Ukraine raised money for a satellite! But the news was received ambiguously in society; many people wondered why the satellite, in particular, was needed. Do you think you managed to explain it? Why do you think people had this reaction?

— I would not talk about "a lot of people"; any questions arise from specific people. If you examine the reactions to our announcement on the day we made it, you will see that it was primarily messages like "the irrationality of using this money for a satellite; the satellite was not bought, but leased; not the satellite, but only the database and therefore overpaid; there was no need to get this access because the Americans already give us satellite data 24/7." All this manipulation was carried out by the entourage and influence of one Ukrainian politician, who, I hope, is ashamed of his behavior. If he is not ashamed, then I am sorry.

— Do you know the name of this politician but do not want to name him?

— I think if you, journalists, investigate who these people are, you will understand everything yourself. To make it easier to search, I will name you the surnames Taras Chornovil and Vitalii Haidukevych and then look for yourself.

— You recently launched a new project to create modular housing for Ukrainians—Nest. It has already started to be implemented in Makariv. At what stage is it now? Where else do you plan to implement it? Are such houses suitable for living in them in the cold season? Do you still have plans to help people who lost their homes or were forced to leave them?

— We have been taking care of people who have lost their homes and displaced people with the help of our foundation for a long time because we still have military and humanitarian work areas. We have a large humanitarian headquarters, and we deal with people in the front-line areas who cannot buy food or get medicine because the pharmacies are not working. We deal with displaced people, and we help orphanages. We help hospices that have moved. Here, the work front is as large as possible, plus we have branches of our foundation or volunteer partner organizations with which we cooperate across Ukraine, starting from Chernihiv, Okhtyrka, and Trostianets, to Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Mykolaiv, and Dnipro. So in that context, going back to the Nest question, the bidding process is over, we've ventured out with a company that we want to work with, and now, frankly, we're more focused on finding dollars and partners with whom we can do this work of providing families with modular homes. While the volume is not yet so large that I can boast about a very large-scale project, I can say the project is being done. Now three more families should receive modular houses for their needs shortly. These houses are equipped with everything for the cold season, and we rent them on a turnkey basis. That is, the manufacturer has a task not only to bring and assemble these houses but inside, there must be furniture, plumbing, shower, air conditioner, kitchen, and so on. The territorial community, in turn, connects the houses to electricity and water.

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About original ideas and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who will soon be driving cars

— The fund regularly comes up with original ideas for fundraising — the legendary Kalush Bucket Hat, a painting by Maria Prymachenko, sold at auction. Where do you get such ideas from?

— I graduated from school with a gold medal. I studied at the Minor Academy of Sciences, was in the comedy club, and am now studying for a master's degree at the Ukrainian Catholic University. I think that mom and dad did everything for me to get a good education and for me to grow up to be an intelligent boy. That is why we succeed with our colleagues, who are also brilliant. I want to mention our director Hanna Hvozdiar, whose shoulders support all the processes in the fund, and the coordinator of the Hell's Wheelbarrow machine purchase project, Maksym Kostetskyi, our head of digital and partnerships Valerii Shelupets. These are very powerful and creative people who give society a compelling message. A phrase that became our foundation's slogan: invincible when united. That's what our foundation is all about. This is what we do, and this is what we strive for. These ideas and slogans are born at the table where I am sitting now.

— Do you now find time to be with loved ones? In January, you wrote that picking up a child from kindergarten feels like a holiday, or is there time for such mundane, simple "holiday" things? By the way, are you trying to motivate your child to help the Ukrainian army, with many examples of children's aid going through your foundation?

— Let's start with the fact that my family has not been in Kyiv for a long time. My wife and daughters are with my mother in the Ternopil region, and I sent Dmytro on February 24 from Kyiv to the west of Ukraine. Dmytro and his grandmother make camouflage nets, Solomia is now five years old, and her volunteering is to inspire her father. We often "quarrel" with Stefania because it seems to me that at one year and four months, the child should already be driving cars from Poland, but for now, she says: "Dada, mama" and wants to eat. Therefore, while we are giving her a reprieve from active volunteering, let her grow up a little, maybe, at least by a year and eight months, learn the language, and drive cars.

— What are you most proud of in the foundation's work now?

— A team with shared values loves the country where it lives very much. People who are as competent as possible in implementing the tasks I set before them. I have a team of professionals, and we listen to the military.

Photo: Kostiantyn and Vlada Liberov, for Rubryka


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