How a Radical NFT Project Is Fighting to Save Ukraine

The Meta History Museum is raising money for the Ukrainian government through NFTs, but the project is facing an uphill battle. Going viral is harder than it looks.

May 19 2022, 3:11pm

Karina Kachurovsakaya decided to stay in Ukraine during the war. Kachurovsakaya owns Avangarden, an art gallery and wine bar in the city. Our interview is unconventional: When we first connected, she explained over text that a standard phone or video call wouldn’t work. Her internet connection was bad, she said over Telegram, and people in Ukraine, “need to burrow into hiding places from time to time.” “Air raid alerts,” she clarified.

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Kachurovsakaya was until late April part of the approximately 10-person team behind Meta History: Museum of War, an NFT fundraising initiative in Ukraine. Although Kachurovsakaya, her husband, and the project’s anonymous founder are staying in Ukraine, some of their team is now international. The museum’s crypto consultant, Valeriia Panina, revealed that she had moved to Seattle just two and a half weeks before our interview. She explained, “I lived in Kyiv and I fled,” and then repeated herself: “And I fled.”

The Meta History: Museum of War curates and sells NFTs to raise money for the Ukrainian government. So far, it has released two collections of just under 1,700 NFTs each, with a third, collaborative series coming out on May 19. Its primary project, “Warline,” documents Russia’s invasion between February 24 and March 15. Each NFT in “Warline” is a collage, pairing tweets from the likes of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, BBC News, Justin Trudeau, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and the White House with dark, emotional, and defiant digital artworks by artists from around the world.

Image by Meta History Museum/Serhii Holtvianskiy

Image by Meta History Museum/Alisa Gots

Some have chosen to represent their assigned tweet literally, depicting politicians shaking hands as sanctions are placed, or smoldering buildings as missiles crash into city centers. Others play with symbols like rats, monsters, shadowy figures and men in blood-stained suits to represent Russia, or sunflowers, children’s drawings, playgrounds, and birds to represent Ukraine. 

The museum is part of a larger trend: Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than $60 million has been donated to the besieged country via the blockchain. Although cryptocurrency, and specifically the NFT market, has grown exponentially in popularity in the last year, this is the first time so much crypto has been donated in response to a global crisis. It’s not just grassroots: Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin donated 1,500 Ether (equivalent to about $5 million) to the Ukrainian government and local charities. Pussy Riot, Russia’s world-famous dissident feminist activist group, has been centrally involved in donating via an NFT project called UkraineDAO. 

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Arguments for Ukraine’s shift to crypto—fast, anonymous, and divorced from rapidly disintegrating national currency—were discomfitingly similar in Russia. As donations flooded Ukrainian crypto coffers, analysts wondered if Putin would ramp up his country’s already strong blockchain infrastructure to avoid sanctions. Shortly after, the U.S. and U.K. governments publicly addressed plans to implement stricter regulations on cryptocurrency. 

Despite the team’s tireless work, some buyers of Meta History Museum NFTs are discouraged that this project, although timely and well-intentioned, isn’t very popular. Neither of the project’s two released collections have sold out, which lowers the potential resale value of the NFTs. If that remains true, buyers will be unlikely to make money from auctioning off their Meta History Museum purchases—something many consider to be a central appeal of the NFT economy. Since late March, the museum has raised between $650,000 and $850,000 in donations for the Ukrainian government, but its momentum is stagnating. As a fundraiser that takes place on the blockchain, Meta History Museum’s charitable success is tempered by concerns about resales, virality, and the Sisyphean effort to harness the attention of the internet. The reality of why this fundraiser exists—amid an as-yet-untold number of civilian deaths across Ukraine, destroyed cities, and growing calls to try Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes—is paradoxically obscured by quotidian, startlingly transactional, quibbles over the marketability of the Meta History Museum’s NFTs.

With some token-holders disappointed by their investments’ performance, this earnest, artful fundraiser attempts to resolve an existential question: Is there room for humanity on the blockchain? 


VOICE MESSAGE FROM KARINA KACHUROVSKAYA (APRIL 2, 2022, 4:34 AM PST): Sorry for not answering for a long time. We have a lot of work … there are no vacations or days off in wartime, unfortunately. We work 24 hours. And cannot sleep well. I will be waiting your answer, and [pause] I wish you a good day. And I hope that someday, we will meet in Kyiv, and we’ll drink wine and celebrate the victory of Ukraine. … Thanks a lot. Keep in touch.

When Ukraine’s government elected to legitimize cryptocurrencies in September 2021, The New York Times depicted it as an effort by officials to “bury” the nation’s reputation as nurturing “a system rife with corruption” and bolster “the second poorest nation in Europe.” Back then, analysts were skeptical, remarking that bringing the blockchain to the mainstream as if it were any other currency triggered “alarm bells.” Commentators likened a government recognizing crypto—legally embracing a highly volatile, unregulated form of financial exchange—to waving a white flag over the country’s economy. Other countries that had done the same, such as Venezuela and Iran, had unstable governments and unforgiving sanctions. The Times described some decision makers’ dim view of blockchain users: “Money launderers, terrorists, mobsters and ransomware extortionists.” 

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But in Ukraine, crypto’s warm welcome wasn’t totally out of nowhere. Politicians argued that the country’s robust tech industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers domestically, offered fertile ground to become an international leader in blockchain finance. It didn’t hurt that the nation’s people hungered for financial stability: One Ukrainian cryptocurrency developer told The Verge that crypto was “the only opportunity to invest” for people in Ukraine, other than real estate.

Since the war started, Alex Bornyakov, one of Ukraine’s ministers of digital transformation, has explained in multiple interviews that the government’s decision to prioritize cryptocurrency was simply practical: With the Russian army advancing, the typical lag time for wire currency transfers (between two to three days) was too long to bear. Crypto, as he explained during an appearance on Washington Post Live, could travel from donor to recipient “in five minutes.” Ukraine had already established infrastructure for alternative currencies; why not use it? Writing for Rest of World, Andalusia Knoll Soloff conveyed her belief that the blockchain offers a lifeline for people with nothing left to lose, and on the blockchain, belief is everything.

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“I’m the most talented guy I have ever seen,” Meta History Museum’s anonymous founder, V K, texted me. “I was the best in school. I read hundreds of books. I don’t touch alcohol. I’m a strange animal for all my life. I’m outsider.” V K also claims to suffer from an undisclosed chronic health condition. “I have serious problem with body,” he messaged, before poetically adding: “But all is temporary here.”

V K’s fervent dedication to his project is not merely born out of interest in the funds it funnels into his country, but also the sea change in seriousness it brings to the NFT space. “I’m trying to create phenomenon, role model, narrative,” he wrote and asked, semi-rhetorically, if I could name an NFT project with “deeper” aims than his. He’s indisputably right: After all, the NFT that brought the concept to the world’s attention was an ugly Photoshop collage by Beeple that sold for $69 million. Before the Meta History Museum, he implied, NFTs were meaningless. Now, for the first time, there’s valuable art on the blockchain. 

Across almost 260 works, the “Warline” fuses dispatches from disaster with artistic renderings, emotional shrapnel of cities under siege. No development is too grandiose or too minute to merit inclusion: The timeline threads together the Russian army’s seizure of Chernobyl with a baby born in a Kyiv subway station. A boy’s life is saved by the Ukrainian passport in his pocket, sanctions are placed by international governments, and a police dog barks as “the enemy” draws near. After spending time with each piece in the museum’s archive, the urgency of this catastrophe—ambient and distant for so many months—is turned up, thudding like a broken heart. 

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V K and Kachurovsakaya emphasized that the museum was a fundraiser, but also an active archive—a gesture of preservation amidst so much loss. “I hope that you never know what kind of emotions and feelings Ukrainians have been going through,” Kachurovsakaya said.

Neither of the project’s two released collections have sold out, which lowers the potential resale value of the NFTs. If that remains true, buyers will be unlikely to make money from auctioning off their Meta History Museum purchases—something many consider to be a central appeal of the NFT economy.

Today, anyone can buy one of the Meta History Museum’s limited-edition digital artworks for 0.15 ETH (or about $350). If an NFT holder decides to resell their token, they will keep 90 percent of the profit, while 10 percent will always be donated back to the original cause.   

Like many in the crypto space, V K’s Meta History Museum runs on the fumes of his passionate commitment. Crucially, no one in the project is earning a profit, as all of its funds are going directly to the wallet of the Ukrainian government. That hasn’t incubated the project from being eyed with suspicion. Pointing to the project’s lack of verification on NFT marketplace OpenSea, one user in the project’s Discord chatroom fretted that “a lot of people in the crypto community say it’s a scam.” (As proof that it isn’t, the Museum offers that the Ethereum wallet address for the Ukrainian government is visible as the destination address in the project’s code, which is publicly available.) But in the cryptosphere, they’re not wrong to wonder. After all, isn’t a “scam” one where only the original seller cashes out, at the expense of the buyer? How does that look in the context of charity? The project organizers say that the money will go from Ukraine’s crypto wallet to rebuilding cultural landmarks, but how could anyone prove that?

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In the name of transparency, Bornyakov and another digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, have made a point of tweeting infographics outlining how crypto donations to Ukraine are being allocated: So far, they claim the most money has gone into buying drones ($14.3 million); assorted tactical gear, fuel, and rations (a combined $11.8 million); and “specialized hardware and software complexes” ($5.5 million), to quote their posts. It is not clear if the funds from the Meta History Museum have been put to use or where they would have gone. 

Although it might sound crass, transactional donations are not unprecedented, especially in wartime: When governments used patriotic rallying cries to drum up sales of war bonds in the 20th century, many civilian buyers did so believing that their “bonds” would be repaid by the government with high interest. Like NFTs, such bonds were immaterial investments—at least NFTs are visible. Despite these promises, however, the financial reality of war often sapped up possible earnings, as Professor James J. Kimble describes in The Conversation

“I personally do not consider it a scam,” one Meta History Museum holder wrote on Discord. “I see it more as an opportunity to contribute to the Ukrainian people and receive a commemorative work in return. It is the first time in history that a country has done something like this, and for that alone it is worth buying them.”


VOICE MESSAGE FROM KARINA KACHUROVSKAYA (APRIL 6, 2022, 3:27 AM PST): … [N]ow we are … cooking for a military and childrens’ hospital for those who could not leave Kyiv. We organized humanitarian aid for Bucha. … I think you have seen pictures of this. Of these places and what happened to them after the Russians. It’s… a disaster. And difficult to tell. Speak about it. And it’s scary. Scary to realize in what a cruel world we live. And this is not war. This is a real genocide.

Kachurovsakaya never mentioned that she had children, but in one message, I heard a baby cooing in the background. In another, she searched for the right words in English before laughing. “Art… sometimes it’s more powerful… than just words or text,” she said. Although she was describing her involvement on the team as its curator, it felt like an apt summary of the ability of art, or in this case, NFTs, to bridge the linguistic gap between us. 

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But despite the artworks’ high quality and widespread popular support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, the Meta History Museum faces an uphill battle. As the Meta History Museum revs up for its next installation, a series of NFTs created in partnership with popular local video game developers (“Avatars for Ukraine”), the organizers are working overtime to smooth their steep learning curve. The first collection did not sell out, and the second, it seems, didn’t even come close: OpenSea marks just a handful of NFTs as having sold since the second set “dropped” (went live, in crypto-speak) on May 1. Resales are slow going, and the May 1 drop was dogged by technical issues. “Is anyone else baffled about how few people know about this project?” one NFT holder wondered. “It should be huuuge!” In the chat, this is a common, if not constant, refrain. 

Overall, most NFT holders active in the Meta History Museum Discord are sensitive to the aims of the project, expressing that they’re more forgiving about losing value on their tokens since they were purchased in the name of a good cause. When project developers floated the idea of issuing unique tokens for future releases—editions of 1/1, unlike previously issued tokens, which had come with multiple copies—one user complained that that would inadvertently penalize early buyers, making their tokens less valuable. They wrote, “If I knew I would have waited for next drop… its a special cause and I can live with that but still not nice planning/strategy.” Later, the same user chided other members of the channel for asking if the project was “dead.” “Do remember that this isn’t your normal NFT project,” they said. “This is about so much more 💛 💙.”

Other users are more transactional. One cautions project organizers against continuing the “Warline” ad infinitum, advising: “We should set an upper limit on the number of NFTs, otherwise if the war continues, there will always be new NFTs appearing, round after round. This is exactly what the crypto community is worried about. If an NFT keeps increasing its circulation indefinitely, it will have no value, so everyone will not actively donate.” 

In our exchanges, V K is adamant that he wants to revolutionize the NFT landscape and make the Meta History Museum a major player. He does not see the NFT project as being symbolic or an experimental means of fundraising during a crisis. Instead, he and the remaining team members are working hard to make the project hit the big time, in the traditional NFT sense: hype, influencers, and a steady stream of new content. 

“I personally do not consider it a scam. I see it more as an opportunity to contribute to the Ukrainian people and receive a commemorative work in return. It is the first time in history that a country has done something like this, and for that alone it is worth buying them,” a Discord user wrote.

Some investors see the project as a startup, using language familiar to both the cryptoverse and multi-level marketing schemes. One member of the Discord offered this pep talk: “Do you have friends who trade crypto? Who trade NFTs? Who donated a small sum of money for the Ukrainian cause and need a bit of motivation to donate more? Chat them up. Tell them about MetaHistory & see what they say. As every startup begins with friends & family, your NFT journey can, too.”

For now, the Meta History Museum is trying to attract the attention of celebrities with a “Hall of Fame,” in which organizers attempt to gift free tokens to famous people who have supported Ukraine. So far, Elon Musk is an honoree, although he hasn’t responded to public requests for his wallet address.

In late April, Kachurovsakaya stopped working with the Meta History Museum. “You ask how the work is organized )),” she texted, using two open parentheses as a smiley face. “Impulsively, chaotically, without a system.” In a time of “air raids, explosions, permanent stress,” she said that “consistency and a road map of the project activities are very important” and added that she wasn’t getting that there. Instead, she said she would focus on supporting “mental health through art practices, meditations, sound healing and breathing exercises.” Still, over our months of messages, we had become something like friends. “I feel that we know each other a lot of years,” she marveled.

Just a few days before, someone had written despairingly in the Meta History Museum Discord. “We’ve lost the trust of the crypto community,” they wrote, indicating a bleak prognosis. What allows for one online conversation between strangers to foster genuine connection and another to foment suspicion and distrust? By joining the naked humanity of wartime with the cold cerebellum of the online marketplace, the Meta History Museum valiantly attempts to encourage traders on the internet to think beyond the bottom line. Whether the crypto space is hospitable to such a challenge remains to be seen. If the project should go viral, as its creator and some buyers seem to want, they’ll consider it a win. But is going viral necessary? At what point in NFT fundraising can one declare victory? 

On Discord, buyers of the Meta History Museum’s project grapple with the genuine value of their acquisition and, simultaneously, its still-limited potential for resale: In the exclusively transactional ecosystem of the cryptosphere, buyers and creators appear reluctant to admit that their initial purchase—what some might call a “donation”—was meaningful enough on its own. 

Follow Eliza Levinson on Twitter.

Tagged:

war, Ukraine, russia, cryptocurrency, blockchain, crypto, war in ukraine, nfts

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