“The defense forces and the startup communities are different worlds,” Nataliia Kushnerska, Brave1’s project lead, says. “In this project, everybody receives what they need. The general staff and Ministry of Defense receive really great solutions they can actually use. The Ministry of the Economy receives a growing ecosystem, an industry that you could use to recover the country.”
It’s been a balmy spring in Kyiv. Café crowds spill out onto street-side tables. Couples walk their dogs under the blossoms in the city’s sprawling parks and botanic gardens, and teenagers use the front steps of the opera house as a skate ramp. From 500 days’ distance, the desperate, brutal defense of the capital last year has slipped into memory. What’s replaced it is a strange new normal. Restaurants advertise their bunkers alongside their menus. On train station platforms, men and women in uniform wait with duffel bags and bunches of flowers—returning from or heading to the front. During the day the skies are clear of planes, an odd absence for a capital city. At night, there are the sirens: Mark Hamill on repeat. When I left, the counteroffensive was due to happen any day. Here and there people dropped hints—supplies they’d been asked to find, mysterious trips to the southeast. It began in June, with Ukrainian forces inching forward once more.
Victory isn’t assured, and there are many sacrifices yet to come. But there is now space—psychological, emotional, and economic—to think about what comes next. Before I left Kyiv, I spoke to Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former government minister and now president of the Kyiv School of Economics, who is known for his unfiltered political analysis. I asked him why this young government had defied the expectations of many pundits, who expected their anti-corruption drives and grand plans for digitization to founder, and for them to crumble before Russia’s onslaught. “Because people weren’t paying attention to the details,” Mylovanov says. Of Fedorov, he says simply: “He’s the future.”
The war has provided proof of concept not just for drones, or the tech sector, but for a government that was idealistic and untested—even for Ukraine, as a nation whose borders, sovereignty, and identity have been undermined for decades.
Brave1 is a small way for Ukraine to look forward, to turn the disaster it’s living through into a chance to build something new. The incubator isn’t hosted in an imposing military building staffed by men in fatigues, but in the Unit City tech hub in Kyiv, with beanbags, third-wave coffee stands, and trampolines built into the courtyard. It’s emblematic of the startup-ization of the war effort, but also of the way that the war has become background noise in many cases. Its moments are still shocking, but day to day there’s a need to just get on with business.
The war is always there—Fedorov still had to present his education project in the basement, not the ballroom—but it’s been integrated into the workflow. In March, Fedorov was promoted and given an expanded brief as deputy prime minister for innovation, education, science, and technology. He’s pushing the Diia app into new places. It now hosts courses to help Ukrainians retrain in tech, and motivational lectures from sports stars and celebrities. Ukrainians can use it to watch and vote in the Eurovision Song Contest. And they can use it to listen to emergency radio broadcasts, to store their evacuation documents, to apply for funds if their homes are destroyed, even to report the movements of Russian troops to a chatbot.
Speaking as he does, like a tech worker, Fedorov says these are exactly the kind of life-changing, tangible products he promised to create, all incremental progress that adds up to a new way of governing. Small acts of political radicalism delivered online. “Government as a service,” as he puts it. He’s rolling out changes to the education system. He’s reforming the statistical service. The dull things that don’t make headlines. Ordinary things that need to be done alongside the extraordinary ones. “The world keeps going,” he says. “While Ukraine fights for freedom.”
This article appears in the September/October 2023 edition of WIRED UK