On March 3, Alona Shevchenko was in London growing more panicked as she spoke to friends in her home country of Ukraine. Russian shelling had started a fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest such facility in Europe, located not far from her parents’ home.
“I call my parents absolutely hysterical and I’m like please, you need to evacuate right now because there is just going to be a huge nuclear disaster.”
Shevchenko’s previous pleas for her parents to relocate away from the fighting had been rebuked; they insisted on staying put and defending their hometown.
Again, as flames torched an administrative building at Zaporizhzhia, setting off alarm bells of concern around the world, Alona’s appeal to her parents was denied. Within hours the flames were extinguished. There was no nuclear meltdown, but the following day it seemed Shevchenko’s father Viktor had changed his mind.
“He calls me and he says ‘Alona, actually could you try and find us something helpful to do?’”
The father on the ground in Ukraine’s war zone was asking his daughter in the UK to re-deploy him.
This counterintuitive circumstance is part of the unexpected, unlikely and unsung way a 21st century war in Europe is being fought: not just with conventional weapons, propaganda and intelligence, but also with completely parallel and independent systems of organizing, communicating and transacting that center around an increasingly infamous pop culture pariah: cryptocurrency.
Shevchenko knew exactly where to deploy her parents where they would be needed and have the right resources to help at that moment.
“I know by this time that there is this huge problem at the border; that there is not enough trucks.”
She had heard of humanitarian supplies bound for Ukraine piling up on the southern border with Romania due to a lack of trucks. Fortunately, the family business is trucking.
Shevchenko’s parents packed up eight trucks with drivers and their families and an accountant and headed for western Ukraine where Viktor would later say they were “greeted like royalty.”
Knowing where her parents were needed didn’t come from her legal background or cable news or Facebook or from some secret military connection. It came instead from connections made inside Ukraine DAO, the Decentralized Autonomous Organization Shevchenko helped co-found in the days leading up to Russia’s invasion.
(Disclosure: I am involved in a DAO that is collaborating with Ukraine DAO to support journalists in Ukraine.)
The Way Of The DAO
DAOs began on the Ethereum blockchain as a way to use code to help run a new breed of organizations that can be highly automated and distributed, but the very first DAO ended in an infamous 2016 hack that ultimately splintered the Ethereum community.
The concept of DAOs survived and some huge crypto DeFi projects like Uniswap, Aave and Compound have been built and maintained by DAOs. It’s popular in Web3 circles to describe DAOs as the “human layer” running on top of crypto protocols like Ethereum.
In the last year-and-a-half or so the concept has expanded to include a number of so-called “social DAOs” with other goals like Friends With Benefits, which has become known for its live events, or Krause House with its aim to buy an NBA franchise.
Before the invasion, Shevchenko was already a key contributor to FreeRossDAO, which works to free Ross Ulbricht, creator of the Silk Road darknet site, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison. Just days before Vladimir Putin initiated his “special military operation” in Ukraine in February, Shevchenko was discussing the situation with PleasrDAO, a crypto art-collecting DAO in a group chat. Her hope was to find a community that could help channel cryptocurrency donations to Ukrainian charities.
Nadya Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot and colleagues from FreeRossDAO were added to the conversation and the group quickly grew as bombs began falling on Ukraine.
Shevchenko recalls handing over the credentials for a Discord server she had started (Discord is a chat app used by gamers that is also used by the vast majority of DAOs) to a member of the group before going to a public demonstration in London on February 24, where she was interviewed on live television by newscasters in Ukraine.
“By the time I got home there was already a full-blown, functioning community in Discord. That’s how quickly it formed.”
Hundreds of people from Ukraine and elsewhere around the world have joined the group, pledging time, skills, access to their social media network and millions worth of crypto to Ukraine DAO.
Tolokonnikova and others in the group led an effort to auction an NFT of the Ukrainian flag to raise funds. An interesting array of over 3,000 donors, including content subscription platform OnlyFans, pooled funds for the winning bid worth over $6 million that then went into Ukraine DAO’s treasury.
The DAO quickly turned around and redirected the funds to the Ethereum wallets of a handful of charities and the Ukrainian government itself. Each of the transactions can be viewed by anyone on the blockchain:
Crypto Rallies Around Kyiv
Other blockchain leaders have also sent funds direct into the crypto wallets of Ukraine’s government.
Polkadot founder Gavin Wood pledged $5 million worth of DOT if the nation would setup a compatible wallet to receive donations. When it did, he followed through.
Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin has donated millions to Ukraine relief efforts and also got on the phone to advise Shevchenko. His father Dmitry continues to advise Ukraine DAO and is a signer on its multi-signature crypto safe.
Illia Polosukhin, the founder of Near Protocol, was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He and other crypto founders created Unchain Fund, which has gone on to raise several million through its own, parallel effort.
In the spirit of transparency that is a central tenet of the crypto universe, a massive Google Drive folder hosts records of how all the donations have been spent.
One of the signers on Unchain’s multi-signature crypto safe is Scott Moore, founder of Gitcoin, which is a crypto crowdfunding platform that uses a novel form of matching called quadratic matching. Gitcoin recently ran a matching round specifically for organizations that support Ukraine, including Unchain Fund.
“The amount of funding flowing through to help with the crisis in Ukraine is ultimately a display, through action, of the values we have in Web3: transparency, accountability, regeneration, and optimism for the future,” Moore told me via Discord. “There’s a desire to show that we can be, when we put our minds together, more effective collectively than institutional bureaucracy pushing forward the notion of mutual aid, coming back to our relationships and obligations to each other instead of relying on external providers.”
This kind of crypto-utopian thinking and collaboration also comes through in the way Ukraine DAO has provided much more than financial support to Ukraine and its people.
Organizing On and Offline
Shevchenko credits the network of contacts formed through Ukraine DAO with potentially saving the lives of her parents, by allowing her to send them out of harm’s way to where they could best help other Ukrainians.
“What’s been most valuable about this DAO is the community that formed in it,” she tells me. “I was able to find them seven different options in different places in Ukraine within ten minutes.”
In another case, the organization was able to get thermal imagery devices from a Ukrainian expat in Canada delivered to his relatives serving in the military via the relief organizations Mriya Aid and Second Front.
Members of Ukraine DAO have also dedicated time and resources to countering Russian propaganda. Earlier this week Shevchenko posted an English translation of an article published in Russian state media pushing the Kremlin’s false narrative that Ukraine has become a haven for Nazis.
There’s a lot of talk among crypto believers about DAOs and decentralization and flattened hierarchies being the new way to do just about anything, from raising funds to running a company to revolutionizing whatever industry you can think of (I’m guilty of this myself).
But the truth may be that a DAO is just the human layer doing what it has always done in a more efficient manner.
“Ukraine right now is really amazing; it’s operating as an offline DAO,” Shevchenko says. “Everyone is just doing whatever they can towards the same mission and Ukraine DAO is like a DAO on top of that offline DAO.”
However we think about DAOs, their potential for real world impact has come into focus in Ukraine, where you just might see trucks carrying humanitarian supplies driving around with a Ukraine DAO sticker proudly displayed on the front.