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Three stories of Ukrainian Wikimedians during the war

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By Anton Protsiuk and Viacheslav Fedchenkov

Russia's military invasion of Ukraine upended the lives of most Ukrainians, and most members of the country's Wikimedia community. Some people have had to flee their homes, some joined the army – and many are working on expanding free knowledge on Wikipedia and beyond.

For this article, I spoke with three members of Ukraine's Wikimedia community: one who lost his home in the siege of Mariupol, one who made an emotional decision to join the army, and one who was writing a Wikipedia article every day even when traveling across the country to evacuate her relatives.

The tragedy of Mariupol, as seen by a first-hand witness

Mariupol after Russian shelling, photo taken by Oleksandr
Mariupol after Russian shelling, photo taken by Oleksandr
Mariupol's drama theater before the war
Mariupol's drama theater destroyed by Russian bombing

The Russian siege of Mariupol, a major city in southeastern Ukraine, has become one of the most profound tragedies of the 21st century.

Authorities estimate that over 20,000 civilians have died since early March, as a result of shelling, and the effects of the siege like lack of food and water. The vast majority of Mariupol's buildings have been destroyed or severely damaged by indiscriminate shelling.

Oleksandr, known on Wikipedia as Wanderer777, was born in Mariupol and spent much of his life in the city. He eventually managed to escape from the city and is safe now, but before that he had witnessed the siege and its effects first-hand.

Oleksandr graduated from the Pryazovskyi State Technical University in Mariupol, specializing in the automatization of metallurgical processes and computer-integrated technologies.

On Wikipedia, he's been most active in the Russian-language edition; over the past 15 years, he had the opportunity to be an administrator, a bureaucrat, a member of the Arbitration Committee, and a mediator on the topic of Ukraine. Oleksandr has also contributed to Ukrainian Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and other wiki projects.

When Russia openly invaded Ukraine on February 24th, Oleksandr and his family contemplated leaving Mariupol but decided to stay, hoping that the war would not reach them quickly. The predictions proved too optimistic – Russian forces advanced rapidly in the east of Ukraine, and soon Mariupol was encircled. On the third day of the invasion, leaving was already impossible, Oleksandr recalls.

Oleksandr's family moved to a safer western part of the city. Within a few days, the occupiers destroyed practically all civilian infrastructure. Supermarkets, electrical transformer substations, water supply pumping stations were shattered, and so were fire stations and funeral homes.

Oleksandr and other people in his building moved to the basement and lived there for a few weeks. He remembers constant shelling – a picture of a Russian tank approaching the neighborhood and indiscriminately shooting at residential buildings was not uncommon. Oleksandr's house was hit and damaged but not destroyed – unlike most of the buildings around it, which collapsed completely.

As soon as possible in mid-March, Oleksandr and his family managed to sneak from the city to a nearby village. This wasn't the end of their ordeal, though – they spent another month looking for ways to escape from occupied territory. Finally, they managed to leave by car in the second half of April, reaching the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia.

Oleksandr says it's a miracle he managed to leave Mariupol. People leaving later, especially military-age men, were either not allowed to leave or placed in filtration camps, effectively being jailed for an indefinite period without trial.

He helped his family move abroad and remains in Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine that's controlled by the Ukrainian government and is relatively safe as compared to beleaguered Donbas.

Oleksandr says we'll never know the full extent of the devastation in Mariupol. As he describes on his user page in Russian Wikipedia, "many people died, truly many … People were dying from missiles and shells. In houses and on the streets, in yards and shelters. When they were trying to get at least some food from destroyed shops, when they were cooking food in bonfires, when they were looking for a place that still had mobile connection. People were dying when buildings collapsed from air bombs and in basements from smoke caused by fires. People were dying from the lack of insulin, antibiotics and medications for heart diseases. People were dying from hunger and thirst."

Now, what once was a major industrial center with over 400,000 residents is in ruins – and fully occupied by Russia. Active fighting has stopped, but the humanitarian disaster is not over – the city's infrastructure was destroyed, and the occupying authorities aren't likely to rebuild it soon.

For another account of the Mariupol tragedy, check the diary of doctor Oleh Zyma – also a Wikipedia editor – published by "Bird in Flight".

Armed service and Twitter poems – the story of Wikipedian joining the army

This article is a first-hand account written by Wikipedia editor Viacheslav Fedchenkov, user fed4ev; translation by Anton Protsiuk

Viacheslav Fedchenkov participating in Wikimedia Ukraine's annual Wikimarathon in 2018
Ukrainian delegation at Wikimania 2019. Viacheslav Fedchenkov is the tall guy on the left

I've been contributing to Wikipedia as user fed4ev for twelve years now; I've also contributed to Wikinews and Wiktionary (mostly the Ukrainian editions). I've volunteered for Wikimedia Ukraine in event organizing and led wiki trainings. I visited two international Wikimania conferences and participated in Ukrainian Wikiconferences.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine didn't take me by surprise; I believed in the assessments made by Western intelligence services before the war. However, to be honest, I did nothing to prepare for the war. My loved ones refused to leave Kyiv even in the first days of the war. During that time, my wife and I, like many other Kyivans, slept in metro stations [which have served as shelters from air attacks]. For a few days, we weren't able to go to the left bank of Dnipro, where my mother lives. We donated to the army and humanitarian causes.

I'm a military reservist – I served in the army as a conscript in 2006–2007. As a loyal citizen of Ukraine, I decided in advance to go to the army. I also voluntarily came to the military enlistment office in 2014, in the first days of the occupation of Crimea and with the beginning of the Russian aggression in Donbas.

It is worth mentioning that I am Russian by origin: Russian is my native language, and more than two thirds of my ancestors were ethnic Russians (from Moscow, Moscow region and Orlov region). I know my family history well, and I've never felt discomfort because of that. At the same time, my origins didn't cloud my judgment, didn't cloud my conscience. I've always seen Ukraine's relations with Moscow as a struggle of the former colony for liberation from the grip of the imperial metropolis. And like any modern person, I've rooted for the freedom-loving colony.

The actions of the Russian government, the lies with which it justified its war, and the crimes of the Russian army only strengthened my readiness to join the Armed Forces.

However, I now understand that my decision to join the Armed Forces was rather emotional – I was not ready for war, and I would be more useful in civilian life with my specialty as a social worker, an expert in the protection of children's rights. In organizing support centers for internally displaced persons, in documenting war crimes against children, in working with a new wave of migration from Ukraine to the west, in the placement of children who have lost their parents, and more. But human stupidity has no limits, and for the second time under the same circumstances, I would probably do the same and go about the same path.

My service is not easy. But I try to support myself with usual civic activities; for example, I write poetry on Twitter; I have already created a selection of haiku (search #хайкуЗСУ on Twitter).

In two months of service, I have not contributed to wiki projects; I hope to return to active editing after Ukraine's victory. But I've used Wikipedia to look up different information. I'm grateful to editors who are developing military articles and I think I will join them, because I found gaps in some military topics (such as tactical and technical characteristics of certain types of weapons and ammunition).

Maybe even now, in calmer conditions, I will add a couple of articles or publish something from the drafts, because Wikipedia is love, and it's love that is the strongest support in times of war and enmity.

New article on Wikipedia every day – completing the #100wikidays challenge during the war

Antanana at a wiki event

In 2015, Bulgarian Wikipedian Spiritia initiated the #100wikidays challenge. The rules are simple – creating at least one article on Wikipedia every single day for 100 days.

Over the next seven years, the challenge grew in popularity. Over 400 Wikipedia users joined the challenge, and over 100 people successfully finished it. The participants jokingly call themselves "victims" – creating a new article every single day is fun but difficult; you have to sacrifice other tasks or even sleep.

Seven years ago Antanana, an experienced Wikipedian and Ukrainian Wikipedia administrator, became one of #100wikidays' first participants. In 2022, she decided to complete the challenge again.

Antanana started her 100-days marathon on January 2nd – and almost half of her #100wikidays had to be completed during Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Still, Antanana managed to complete the challenge successfully. In an interview with me, she shared how she managed to do it, when creating an article was most difficult, and who was inspired by her run to complete the challenge themselves.

Why #100wikidays – and what the articles covered

Zohar Argov, Israeli singer who was the subject of Antanana's first article in her #100wikidays challenge

The decision to start #100wikidays was a sort of New Year's resolution for Antanana. She says she often "lacked a sense of accomplishment during the day" – the tasks she'd been working on were progressing slowly, and she wanted to see some tangible work completed every day.

She set additional restrictions for herself that are not required by the general rules of the challenge – she covered only Israel-related topics, and each article had to be linked from a different article created in this #100wikidays round.

Antanana chose Israel because she is learning Hebrew – and also because she wanted to visit the country again but hadn't been able to for a long time because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions. Her first #100wikidays article was about Israeli singer Zohar Argov, while the last one, created on April 11th, covered composer and singer Avihu Medina, who created music for Argov.

During her #100wikidays Antanana wrote, for example, about the Montefiore Windmill, the Sasson Report, and the 1931 census of Palestine. (She also joined other challenges on Ukrainian Wikipedia during her run, and she didn't count the articles created then as #100wikidays articles).

Antanana mostly translated articles from English and Hebrew editions of Wikipedia. She says writing articles "from scratch", i.e. not translating from another language, is too difficult when it has to be done every day.

Overall, during her 2022 #100wikidays round Antanana added 685,744 bytes to Ukrainian Wikipedia (one Ukrainian character counts for two bytes).

Contributing every day during the war

Late on February 23rd, Antanana wrote her 53rd article for the challenge. A few hours later, Russian missiles hit her city – and many other cities across Ukraine.

In the early hours of the invasion, Antanana thought about giving up on #100wikidays – but soon decided that she would finish it anyway, and Russian aggression would not force her to abandon her plans.

However, the first days of the Russian invasion were still the most difficult. On February 24, Antanana was in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in Western Ukraine, but her mother and brother were in a village near Kyiv with Antanana’s grandfather, some 600 kilometers eastward. They had to be evacuated to Western Ukraine. Getting to that village is difficult even in peacetime, and much more so during the war.

A decision was made to immediately get in the car and drive to get Antanana's family members. The journey was ultimately successful and relatively safe, but long and difficult. They drove for three days – with short breaks for sleep, with large military vehicles on the neighboring lanes, and with long lines at gas stations.

Still, Antanana kept writing a Wikipedia article a day, even in the car (as a passenger) on the way toward Kyiv. She says it was really useful that Wikipedia's translation tool automatically saves progress – it was helpful when connection was spotty during the drive. These several days were the most difficult in terms of keeping up with #100wikidays, but Antanana managed to do it.

A few days after returning to Ivano-Frankivsk, Antanana went to Israel – and, ironically, finished the challenge of writing articles about Israel in that very country, where she couldn't get for a few years before.

How to find the time for an article a day

Sketch satirizing sleep deprivation that comes as a result of embarking on #100wikidays

For Antanana, one new article took approximately two hours. That's enough to translate an average article – not a long and highly detailed one, but something more than a short stub.

Of course, much depends on the topic of a specific article. For Antanana, it also depends on the language which she is translating the article from; she needs more time to translate from Hebrew than from English.

How to find two hours every day? "If you want to, you'll find a way," Antanana says. Writing an article on Wikipedia becomes an urgent item on the to-do list. When the task has a specific deadline, you can sacrifice other tasks which can wait for a few more days. And, of course, you can sacrifice the time you'd otherwise spend on reading news, scrolling social media feeds, and even sleeping.

One useful lifehack – plan article topics beforehand. When you're more busy on a certain day, you can plan to create a shorter article. For Antanana, for example, the quickest to create were articles about Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. (In theory, one can also prepare full texts of the articles beforehand. The rules of the challenge prohibit it, but they also encourage ignoring all rules.)

Consequences of #100wikidays

Antanana's example inspired a couple of Wikipedian friends to get on a new round of #100wikidays as well.

The first one who couldn't resist was Spiritia, a Wikipedian from Bulgaria and the challenge's founder. Many of her 100 Bulgarian-language articles were devoted to Ukraine; for example, she wrote about the theater destroyed by Russian invaders in Mariupol and about prominent Ukrainian painter Maria Prymachenko.

Then, Israeli Wikipedian Ijon joined. He was also among the first #100wikidays participants in 2015. Now, his personal challenge is "consequences of 100wikidays". The idea is going back to the 100 articles created during the challenge and writing all the articles necessary to turn all the red links blue, i.e. creating all the missing articles linked from the 100 original articles.

Antanana says she doesn't yet have plans to embark on #100wikidays again – but in the future she might start fixing the "consequences" of her previous two rounds.

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