The Other Dimension of Ukraine's Civil Society: Q&A with Svitlana Krasynska

October 1, 2019
Krasynska Svitlana

Why are Ukrainians less involved in civil society than citizens in some Western countries? Why have Western donors’ attempts to build nonprofit institutions in Ukraine enjoyed only limited success?

According to Svitlana Krasynska, Mihaychuk Research Fellow at HURI, these may not be the right questions to ask; the degree of Ukrainian civic activity is underreported because it fails to recognize the informal contributions of civil society.

She argues that Ukrainian and other post-communist societies participate in civil society in a different manner, forgoing the formalized and highly documented procedures that are typically tracked to assess levels of civic engagement. While formal civil society does exist in Ukraine through organizations, associations, and foundations, it is supplemented by scores of informal activities where citizens achieve collective goals through networks and processes that are more independent and less institutionalized.

On Wednesday, October 2, Krasynska will share her research on informality and civil society in Ukraine at HURI's Seminar in Ukrainian Studies. Her talk, entitled, "Below the Radar: The Power and Limits of Ukraine's Informal Civil Society" is open to the public and will be streamed on YouTube at

Ahead of her talk, Krasynska answered a few of our questions about her research and forthcoming monograph.

HURI: What constitutes “informal” and “formal” civil society? Who or what makes up civil society in Ukraine?

Krasynska: I define two principal dimensions of informality expressed by Ukraine’s civil society. First, informality is expressed by the lack of governmental registration. Registered organizations have a status of either a civic association or a charitable foundation. Unregistered activities, on the other hand, are absent from most forms of formal observation.

The second key dimension of informality is the level of financial reporting to the government. Every legal entity, according to Ukraine’s legislation, is required to submit regular financial statements to the government. For a variety of reasons, registered organizations can have varied levels of incompliance with this reporting requirement, from underreporting certain financial activity to not reporting any financial activity at all. Thus, informal activities take place not only within the familial and friendship networks, but are often interwoven into formal institutions and processes.

Whereas the lion’s share of civil society assessment focuses exclusively on formal organizations and their activities, I argue that informal action is a vital part of the sector in a context where informality permeates virtually every sphere of society. That is, if we want to have a realistic picture of what Ukraine’s civil society is and how it operates as well as understand its impact, we must include informal activities into our purview.

HURI: What kinds of methods do you use to evaluate informal practices? Why do they work?

Krasynska: In my study, I sought to expand our qualitative understanding of a complex social phenomenon that is informal civic engagement in Ukraine. I went about it by asking three interrelated research questions:

  • What does informal civil society look like?
  • Why do people tend to organize informally rather than through formal means?
  • What does the prevalent informality mean for civil society in Ukraine?

Seeking answers to these questions, I spent three months in Ukraine talking to over 70 people. These were the individuals who were actively involved in informal activities and thus, in my view, had the most authority on the subject. I asked them to describe in their own words what they did, how and why they did it, what they were accomplishing, and how they interacted with other actors in the polity. I also reviewed mountains of social media content and followed dozens of social media accounts for about a year to triangulate what I had heard during my interviews.

HURI: Are there particular spheres in which civil society activists’ interventions are especially fruitful? Places where they are less successful?

Krasynska: In this work I argue that there is no strict boundary between the formal and informal expressions of civil society. Formal and informal activities all comprise the same sector and, in all practicality, it often doesn’t really matter whether the resources are formalized or not, so long as the shared goals are achieved. Aside from entirely informal groups and initiatives, as I just mentioned, informality is also expressed within more formalized organizations.

That being said, informal action can be especially effective in times of crisis. A vibrant example of this is the volunteer movement which emerged with the onset of war in Donbas, and which was largely driven by horizontal and informal structures. When special tires were needed for emergency vehicles to evacuate the wounded from battlefields, for instance, and going through formal channels would not procure them in a timely fashion, the most efficient way to get the right tires to the right place was often informal crowdsourcing. It was quicker, cheaper, and more reliable. When the main goal is to save lives, formalities come a distant second, if at all.

HURI: How do you expect Zelensky’s administration to deal with pressure from civil society organizations? Will this be categorically different from previous administrations?

Krasynska: I don’t expect any radically different approaches to addressing pressures from civil society between the previous and the incumbent administrations. There is always hope for improvement, of course, but any substantial changes remain to be seen. The pressures from civil society do remain to investigate the unsolved attacks on dozens of activists over the past couple of years, especially the one resulting in the death of Kateryna Handziuk.

HURI: As a fellow at HURI, you’re completing a manuscript for a book on this topic. Can you tell me a little about the book insofar as it differs or is broader than the topic of your talk? And why is it valuable for you to be a fellow at HURI at this stage in the process?

Krasynska: My talk will focus mainly on the findings and analysis that are going into my book. I am looking forward to hearing feedback from the audience to help me further hone my ideas and conclusions. I am truly grateful to HURI for giving me this time, space, and opportunity to work on finalizing my manuscript as a fellow in residence, as well as for considering publishing the final product once it goes through peer review. The intellectual community I have had the opportunity to experience on campus so far has been unparalleled. Even the few meetings and seminars I have attended in the past month, as well as the individuals I had the privilege to meet in the course of this fellowship, have already helped me consider my ideas from different angles. I am looking forward to the most productive next three months, at the completion of which I intend to submit my manuscript to HURI Publications.

HURI: Why did you choose to study this topic and focus on Ukraine in particular?

Krasynska: Before my academic pursuits, I was working in the nonprofit field for a number of years, as executive director, board member, and management consultant. Going into my doctoral studies, I knew I was going to combine my personal background as a born-and-raised Ukrainian with my professional training as a nonprofit practitioner, and that my topic was going to be focused on civil society in Ukraine.

Svitlana Krasynska is an independent scholar and is currently a Mihaychuk Research Fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University. With an interdisciplinary PhD (University of San Diego, 2018) and nearly two decades of executive, consulting, and research experience in the nonprofit sector, Krasynska is the author of several scholarly publications, including her most recent co-edited volume, The Nonprofit Sector in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia: Civil Society Advances and Challenges (Brill, 2018).