This text comes to us from a faction of what was Operation Solidarity, the anarchist organization in Ukraine from which Solidarity Collectives broke off several months ago. As a local project far away from the events addressed in the text, we cannot easily judge the details of the conflict, although we know that the authors of this text generated a lot of frustrations among those who broke from them and various groups engaging in solidarity outside of Ukraine. Despite that, we believe it is relevant to our readers, as a document from anarchists with experience in a situation that few of us in our local context can speak about credibly, regardless of whether it tells the whole story. We published a text from Solidarity Collectives here.
Anonymous submission to MTL Counter-info
Operation Solidarity is a volunteer organization created by anarchists prior to the full-scale russian invasion of Ukraine. In the early stages of the new round of war, the organization became an important, useful and media-successful project. We, its founders and participants, reflected on our own experience and drew practical lessons, which we want to share in this article. We hope that our experience will help other activists in their work and prevent them from making some mistakes; we hope that new, beautiful anarchist projects will emerge from this experience.
Some pre-words: in the article you can find a word “Milieu”. By this we mean all people who are interested, sympathize or get involved into anarchist activism. We use this word instead of Stage or Movement, because we think that these words are not fulfilling our understanding of local reality and practices.
- Organizations must begin with careful preparation: in-depth discussions, reflection and detailed proposals.
- The Collective Agreement’s creation stage is extremely important.
- Structures need mechanisms of self-sustaining, embracing integration of new people.
- It’s always necessary to negotiate the terms of cooperation with other people/structures BEFORE cooperation begins, in order to understand each other’s expectations and not to let each other down.
- We shouldn’t empower people to make strategic decisions from the beginning, assuming that since you are an anarchist, there will be no problems.
- Communication should be respectful and comfortable – otherwise the team can fall apart.
- We must fight informal hierarchies in the Movement.
- It’s better to refuse or cautiously cooperate with “leftists”. We shouldn’t let them chart the development course of our structures.
1) Prepare everything in advance
We began preparing for the invasion and creating the organization in late January 2022. We didn’t have enough time to think all things through and get a total agreement on the interaction, which subsequently led to a split and further animosity. Therefore, it’s important to take enough time to create new structures, which takes at least 3 months.
2) Get busy with your equipment
An individual lesson.
We provided 150+ fighting comrades with basic items: body armor, helmets, IFAKs [individual first-aid kits], and tourniquets. In addition, more serious and specific requests were met, like quadcopters, cars, and radio stations. Nevertheless, it was incredibly difficult in the chaos of the first days of invasion. Much of what arrived to the comrades at the time turned out to be useless or even harmful and the necessary things had to be sought in Europe and the United States.
Over time the situation got balanced, but it became obvious that it’s better to take care of your own equipment and have the maximum necessities in advance. Therefore, we recommend every non-belligerent activist own and know how to use a tourniquet, IFAK, radio, body armor and helmet, ideally to have their own weapons; and know how to drive a car.
3) Have a well-thought-out proposal
Organization starts with an idea, then comes to the project proposal. It can be created individually or collectively. A project emerges when the team has discussed, finalized and approved the proposal.
But when it comes to extreme situations, like the outbreak of war or uprising, it’s better to have a ready and concrete proposal that people can support and implement. Often you can see anarchists supporting or rejecting some ideas only on the basis that the speaker displeases them. It’s time for us to change our internal culture of voting «for people» and come to a culture of voting «for projects».
4) We need documentation
We didn’t have time to finish the documentation detailing the inner workings, rules and a number of other important points – the Collective Agreement. This was necessary in order to create complete transparency about the project, to develop in harmony and to integrate new people to the project. Our attempts to finish the documentation in parallel to the activities of the organization were actively resisted and resulted in a split.
It’s important to finish the documentation BEFORE launching the project; or at least to have an established and understandable culture of interaction.
5) Make a Collective Agreement
Collective Agreement (CA) — is a written document that records goals, describes mechanisms and processes and the culture of the project. On the basis of this information further activities are built, experience is transferred and new people are integrated.
A CA can include all kinds of tools for resolving conflicts, making decisions, electing and appointing specific people to perform certain functions, describing public communication, recording the collective criteria for accepting or expelling participants, etc. You choose the items to fill out the CA based on your group’s needs, desired efficiency and work processes.
6) Think through the process of integrating new people
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss in detail with each new person their tasks and responsibilities. So later we faced a situation where misunderstanding and disagreement with the goals of organization turned first into a conflict and then into splitting of the team on the basis of disagreement in the vision of the goals, means of their achievement and the need to stick with the already existing prescribed plan.
The information contained in the CA can be simplified and used for the reception of participants. It should be communicated and discussed with each individual at the stage of admission to the structure, given time for reflection and only then accepted into the organization. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a “trial period”: often 1 month of working together is enough to see how well you fit each other.
7) Structure is incredibly important
Operation Solidarity had an elaborate (but not prescribed) structure, documented and approved tasks, functions, a media strategy, a forward-looking vision (a network of cooperatives, a social center, and fellowship structures).
There was an assumption of organizational membership. The members belonged to the “Core” and could make decisions on the development of the organization through a system of assemblies, but within the framework of the goals and strategy. Volunteers who came for the activity and didn’t want to be a part of the organization/weren’t anarchists, were part of the “Environment”.
With the arrival of new volunteers, and then participants, our group encountered resistance, devaluation, and denial of the organizational work we had done before. The new people wanted to do things in their own way without offering any specific proposals nor mechanisms. Decisions to approve the structure were delayed and sabotaged. People began to hold their own meetings, bypassing the usual mechanisms to exclude us; negotiating among themselves, carrying out duties as they thought was right. Together, this led to growing tensions and new conflicts.
What conclusions did we draw? If you are building an organization, then: 1) stick to the structure you originally planned; 2) inform people about how it should work, get full clarity and agreement on your processes and mechanisms; 3) don’t be afraid to say “no” and refuse – people can always create something in their way if they don’t like yours; 4) stay flexible to feedback from people and newcomers, but always be aware of your own boundaries.
If you come to an organization: 1) it’s your responsibility to familiarize yourself with its documentation, including goals, mission, vision, values and principles, standards and expectations, mechanisms; 2) if the organization doesn’t suit you for some reason, don’t join it; 3) it’s normal to have your opinion and be critical, but if you come to the organization and you don’t like something in it, it’s worth discussing, not demanding immediate changes. Because you may not fully understand the context.
8) Hold the course
It’s especially important to emphasize the need to follow the goals/set course of the project. Of course, it can evolve; reformatting/rejecting the original idea in favor of a better one is a good thing. Just not in the initial stages and only when you have confidence in those around you. Obviously it’s strange to start out as a revolutionary organization and become a parliamentary party along the way, for example, without having achieved the original goals.
The course is maintained through regular synchronization. This is why strategic meetings are necessary, where development is discussed, achievements and failures are analyzed, misunderstandings are eliminated and team unity is strengthened. With lack of attention for to this factor, it will be very difficult to reach consensus and keep the team together when important decisions should be made.
9) People’s inexperience
Most anarchists & leftists denied the possibility of invasion until the last minute, and had minimal experience of collective coordination, participation in long-term projects and organization building. A serious problem arose with sometimes radically different understanding of Anarchism. Unfortunately due to a lack of time and energy, we haven’t been able to bridge the gap of experience, practice, and theoretical basis between different people.
It’s necessary to be very careful in the selection of personnel, to gradually deepen the inclusion of people in the activities of the organization. It’s especially important to train them before transferring direct responsibilities.
10) Visioning and dividing of duties
Before even having the headquarters and a functioning organization, based on previous experience, we agreed that the work processes would take place in the Departments: Media, Communication, Warehouse, and Technical. Within these Departments, participants could make local decisions, while strategic decisions would be made at the General Meeting. Each Department was accessible for people after: familiarization with their functions, communication with coordinators, and expression of desire.
In reality, there was no time for interviews, so responsibilities were divided spontaneously among the most active people. A clearer division and structure came a month later. Although many participants were against a structure, one was formed naturally, matching and complementing our expectations: instead of 4 Departments, we had 9, each of them had its own coordinator and together we tried to make decisions at the General Meetings.
Duties can and should be divided among the people, by discussing their abilities, functions and responsibilities in advance. This increases efficiency and reduces conflicts.
11) Delegate and contact experts
It’s super important to have people from different spheres of life you can turn to for advice or help.
At the beginning, not many of us knew much about military equipment. We were reached a comrade who was well aware of the subject. We were therefore eager to get her estimate or recommend before buying.
Setting up a system of accounting and storage also took a lot of time and was accompanied by conflicts, because people didn’t have similar experience and a clear idea. The issue could have been resolved much more quickly and easily if we had approached competent people.
If it’s possible to delegate responsibilities without loss of quality, or to ask for help from a more experienced colleague, it’s always worth it.
12) Formality balance
Regular meetings and a written protocol of the results are necessary. Sooner or later, there is a need to go back to previously made decisions, expressed ideas and suggestions, to check the fulfillment of tasks, etc. For this to be possible at all and for you not to lose the “pearls” of collective activity – it’s necessary to keep agendas (a list of questions to discuss) and meetings reports.
Some may think this is an unnecessary bureaucracy, but even during OpSol we had many situations when we needed to refer to “the past”, so the described approach fully justifies itself.
13) Take decisions with those whom you trust
On the day the invasion began we made ourselves known media-wise and signaled to other comrades: “Let’s join us in volunteering to tackle this problem together!” We didn’t want people scatter to other projects or get lost. We were able to bring them together and set a vector for the development of the entire local Milieu. Absolutely different anarchists with absolutely different points of view and intentions came to us, so we got kind of a mix. The situation was intensified by the fact that people had none or very little experience of working with each other on serious projects.
Despite this, we tried to make decisions by consensus. Where it wasn’t possible, we looked for synthetic alternatives or made compromises.
Our experience confirmed once again that compromises are the worst way to make collective decisions. It’s almost always better to pause or divide than to go along with someone else. Diversity is good, but not in the ideological and strategic issues of one collective.
Decisions are best made by people who have a positive experience interacting in common projects and have been actively communicating for at least 6 months. This is not a guarantee of success, but it increases the chances that conflict will resolve good.
14) Vouching is working badly
Vouching is one of the oldest and most organic anarchist practices.
Nevertheless, our experience has shown that it worked very poorly when accepting new people. Members and volunteers recommended others more as friends than as comrades and good performers. The decisive factor in vouching was the convenience of interpersonal communication.
It seems to us that this practice must be changed by making ideological orientation, reliability, and performance the primary criteria.
15) Against “leftists”
In Ukraine, the majority of anarchists don’t consider themselves “leftists” and feel distrust to those who identify themselves in that way. This is due to the memory of the history of the anarchist movement, the betrayals by the “allies” (think of the Bolsheviks) and contemporary events.
Paradoxically, anarchists actively communicate and cooperate with the “leftists”, joining as crowd their projects like “Social Movement”, supporting their initiatives and there’s no a problem with it. But the problem is that ideologically we are different, and sooner or later it becomes critical. The worst thing happens when we allow “leftists” to be hegemons in our projects and discourse: in 2014 this led to the situation when most Western leftists/anarchists weren’t understanding what was happening in Ukraine, remaining “neutral” or supporting Russia; in 2022 this ended with the collapse of at least one ideological and strategic project – Operation Solidarity.
We recommend creating common organizations with people with whom you agree on major issues and have worked on the same project(s) for at least 3 months. Always discuss in detail the expectations of each other, unity of opinion on key issues, details and boundaries of your cooperation.
16) Commune = great idea
From the beginning we thought about the format in which the organization would work. In January-February, we searched for the space that could meet all the living and working needs of the participants: it should have the necessary working area, storage space, recreation area, separate WC and kitchen. The resulting solution of a closed commune as a form of organization of work and life was successful in the initial stages for several reasons:
1. Making a closed commune of politically similar people, having an action plan and activities for everyone had a positive effect on the psychology of the participants and helped them to concentrate on their actual tasks; to feel involved in an important cause.
2. The space appeared to be safe and logistically comfortable, became a shelter for many people. Especially during the hottest days of the occupation of the Kyiv region and bombing of the city.
3. Because we were in an enclosed space for a long time, there was full inclusion in the work process and greater transparency. The live communication between the participants always simplified the understanding of work processes and increased the efficiency of task implementation.
4. We gained tremendous experience in communal self-organization and self-government, gained important skills of collective activity and organization building.
17) Healthy communication is very important
Trust and team dynamics depend on the nature of interpersonal communication.
We fell apart up because of, aside from other things, rude communication from one of our group members occurred. In stressful situations it can be difficult to control your frustrations and reactions, but you should strive for consistently calm, considerate and inspiring communication.
18) Learn to facilitate and solve conflicts
The knowledge and skills of facilitation are basic team-building activities, without those you will hardly create a sustainable team project.
Conflict is a problem with all people and communities. Unfortunately you can’t build a conflict-free society. The good news is that conflicts can be learned to be solved! Conflictology and practicing facilitators/mediators can help.
Even short reflection sessions work great, but it’s a really good idea for a structure to have its own facilitator whose main task is to prevent and regulate conflicts in the team.
19) Towards healthy conflict culture
Conflicts are inevitable and it’s important to learn how to resolve them. Anarchists often do this very badly, making conflicts public and turning into scandals. We cease to look serious to outsiders; activists become frustrated and discouraged, which has a negative impact on the whole Movement.
Therefore, we need to improve our culture of conflict. We need to understand that spreading rumors and lies is immoral and that public disputes and bullying is offensive. It’s not a good idea to bring internal conflict to public without the consent of all parties. Conflicts within organizations can only be discussed by external actors if they are called upon and legitimized by the conflicting parties as those who can help resolve the conflict.
Bringing out information about internal conflict in interpersonal communication without broadcasting (adequately) the position of the other party is wrong. Either this shouldn’t happen at all, and the desire to complain about comrades in private, behind-the-scenes rather than public discussion, should be suppressed by participants as inappropriate behavior. Or it should happen in a balanced and formalized way. For example, with short texts about the situation from all sides of the conflict, which we can use to tell someone about the conflict, to ask for help, etc.
We need to develop and implement fair conflict resolution mechanisms.
20) Horizontality is a dynamical process
No organization has become horizontal because it was named as such. Horizontality is formed through specific processes, mechanisms and a culture of interaction. Its establishment sometimes takes years. Horizontality is very fragile and can easily be destroyed at almost any stage – by a careless word, a rash action or, conversely, by inaction. This is an art that we anarchists ought to master to perfection. Alas, with few exceptions it isn’t.
Everything we organize and do as anarchists is an exercising and seeking the answer to the question, “How can a horizontal organization of community/society work?”
21) Look after each other
The mental and physical state of the project participants is very important. If one person has too many tasks, and the others don’t show solidarity and help, it will likely lead to burnouts and conflicts.
Any structure has a much better chance of survival when the relationships within it are like in a strong and friendly family.
We must take an interest in and care for the condition of those with whom we work side by side; pay attention to already deteriorating emotional or health conditions and help comrades in difficult situations: plan days off, sick leave, vacations, and any opportunities for mental and physical recovery.
22) Connections mean a lot
Operation Solidarity wouldn’t become as large-scale as it was, if there were no help from other people and structures.
The headquarters were provided to us by caring friendly entrepreneurs. We are immensely grateful to the international support network that have been raising money and sent supplies to our comrades-combatants. Moreover, we often found that foreign comrades did most of the logistical work: finding the right equipment, making the necessary arrangements with traders, buying, organizing delivery, getting the vegan food and humanitarian aid.
Thanks to old connections, new acquaintances and mutual help, we managed to get or exchange valuable and necessary things. We were helped by hackers, famous clipmakers, journalists and talented videographers, people with military experience and other volunteer organizations. This was made possible by: a) visible and important activities; b) the absence of certain ideological barriers and demonstrative attributes that discouraged people; c) the professional and cultural diversity of the participants.
23) Negotiate the terms of cooperation
When working with other organizations, foundations, groups, or individuals, it’s important to be specific: what? how? who? why? Receiving assistance (financial, material, humanitarian, etc.) almost always imposes additional responsibilities and obligations on you – these must be made clear. It’s necessary to specify in advance the goals and conditions of cooperation, its framework and mutual expectations, so that there are no conflicts and negative situations due to unjustified expectations from each other.
24) Lack of communication within the Movement
Communication consists of coordination (“what and how are we doing?”) and synchronization (“why are we doing it?”).
We realized that we are in lack of the Movement’s communication organs, both national and international. There are no platforms where we can collectively present a proposal, start a project, or come to an agreement. There are no mechanisms or bodies that can reason or appease/agree on the ambitions of individuals and groups.
Earlier, secure mailing lists were used – today messenger chats. But we feel that something more meaningful and huge is missing: an international network with a common council of national actors, organized from the bottom up. When we have such a body, we will be able to act many times more effectively, coordinate interests more quickly, and regulate conflicts much more easily.
25) Reaching out to the broader target audiences
Through organized media work and cooperation with foreign activists and journalists, OpSol has become known not only in activist circles. We reached a broader target audience and exposed ourselves as a structure that supports the anarchists/leftists in the struggle against imperialism. In this way we drew attention to ourselves and the situation as a whole, increased interest in our ideas, and gained recognition and additional support. Here are the most important stories about the organization:
– Channel 5: garnered 2.1 million views on YouTube in two days.
– Popular Front documentary about HoodsHoodsKlan anti-fascists fighting: 143k views on Youtube in total, 400k Instagram followers and several live screenings in the US and Europe.
26) Don’t fixate on Movement
Contrary to popular perception, it wasn’t only leftist/anarchist structures that provided us with financial and material support. A significant portion of the donations came from Ukrainian businesses, the middle class, ordinary people, and the diaspora. At best, they were liberals who helped our comrades and Aim.
We achieved this because we followed a premeditated media strategy, contacted various organizations, and tried to talk less about our political views publicly and directly, while remaining attractive to ordinary people, but keeping our core.
27) Decentralize resources
OpSol was indeed centralized in the control of resources. The reasons were: a) the tight deadline for preparation; b) the initiative of one person and the unwillingness of others to take responsibility until Feb 24.
Conflicts arose with the arrival of new participants, denial of the work done earlier and a lack of trust. They ended in ultimatums, blackmailing and an international boycott of our group.
We gave most of our resources to the opponents of the new initiatives, and we can see that they are doing really important work in organizing military support at the expense of anarchists/leftists from all over the world. But we see two problems with this:
1) the comradeship resources are pretty limited and drying up – confirmed by ColSol’ member (listen from minute 18). In addition, they are also needed elsewhere: Rojava, Chiapas, Myanmar.
2) Military support is far from the only challenge facing individuals and the Milieu today.
The challenges we have faced and will continue to face cannot be met by spontaneous acts of mutual aid. We need stable, self-financing and regularly operating structures: a replenished self-help fund, lawyers, rehabilitation and training centers, jobs, and recruiting mechanisms. We were understanding this before the invasion, a year ago and we are more and more convinced of it today. Operation Solidarity was about that.
Therefore, our lesson: decentralization of resources can and must happen in projects where there are clearly defined, equally understood objectives (unity) and trust in each other, based on actions.
28) Explore the possibilities of cryptocurrency
Although the original idea of cryptocurrencies as decentralized and beyond the control of big capital and governments is now defamed, it’s a very useful tool.
We had been accepting donations to the bank accounts, PayPal (requiring passport details) and cryptocurrencies. We had the least problems with cryptocurrency, which allowed us to make almost instant transfers from anywhere in the world.
With a deeper knowledge of crypto it turned out to be possible not only to save, but also to multiply existing finances. That’s what we used to refill the organization’s funds.
29) Use suitable tools
We started using Telegram first, then Signal, and then Element to organize our work. Telegram is insecure by default, but relatively convenient for collaborative work. Signal is known as secure (which we doubt), but uncomfortable for teamwork. Element satisfies both requirements well, but it took us almost 3 months to figure it out.
We recommend doing preliminary research on technical solutions potentially suiting your tasks and making their use a prerequisite for participation in the organization.
Much has been done in the Milieu in the last 30 years. Much remains to be done and we are, in a sense, just starting our frighteningly beautiful journey. But we believe we can do it.
There is no clearness about when the war will end and what damage it will bring to the country, to the Movement and to all of us individually. But it’s in our power to come together, to organize ourselves, to overcome our differences and become better because of past experiences, to minimize the damage of historical events and to face the future with confidence. Both terrifying and inspiring prospects for this new reality are already visible and inevitable: grassroots volunteer networks, infrastructure facilities, queer units, anarchists who control kamikaze drones and have gone through trench battles, structures born in the dark — many, many things. How will we face this reality? What will we become, and how will it change because of us? – As always, it’s up to us. Individually and collectively.
What has happened this year and our further perspectives requires a more detailed analysis for better understanding of the connection with the global context and the Movement. This is the work we have yet to do and present the results to you, our dear comrades.