Olga Shpak, Director of Assist Ukraine
Assist Ukraine Director Olga Shpak works out of Kharkiv, which is just 19 miles from the Russian border and often under attack. Before the war, Olga had become widely respected for her methodical studies of bowhead, belugas, and other whales. When Russia invaded, she resigned her prestigious position at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and returned to help people in Ukraine. Her former Russian colleagues have written her to express their shame over the war.
“They cannot speak the truth in public,” say Olga. “I don’t know if I will ever work as a scientist again. My priority is now people. My fellow Ukrainians.”
“Olga has a soft voice, soulful eyes, a mind that sees details and connections that others miss—and as much heart and determination as anyone I’ve ever known,” says Assist Ukraine cofounder Art Davidson. “From Kharkiv, she goes up and down the Eastern Front, fielding urgent requests from battalion commanders.”
With winter coming, she got parkas from Turkey and sub-zero sleeping bags in Poland, as well as evacuation vehicles, thermal vision drones, wood-burning stoves, and thermal clothing for defenders who were literally freezing, in the front-line trenches.
“One of Olga’s strengths is being able to communicate and work closely with a wide variety of people and organizations,” says Davidson. “For example, when Russia began shelling Ukraine’s power grid in the fall of 2022, we needed to get generators to the frontline. But how? Light, ultra-quiet generators were no longer available in Ukraine and getting hard to find in Europe. Olga made friends with the Catholic priest in Kharkiv. Through him, we were soon working with what I think of as the Catholic Underground.”
Through the priest, Olga put Assist Ukraine in touch with Ella in England, who had a relay team of drivers bringing winter clothes from Nottingham to Kharkiv. One truck driver would get them to the English Channel. Another would take them across to France. Still others would relay the supplies all the way to Kharkiv. We started buying light generators and other critical equipment in England. Ella placed them among boxes of donated clothes. And off they went to eastern Ukraine, crossing borders with ease. In this way, we have gotten dozens of fuel-efficient, ultra-quiet generators and other critically needed supplies to Olga, who get them to men in the “zero-line” trenches.
Olga has been featured in a CNN special on Ukraine, as well as in articles in the New York times, Politico, Mother Jones, and other newspapers and journals.