“Saint Javelin” became a rallying sign of Ukraine’s resistance since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
An Orthodox Madonna clad in green and cradling a Javelin anti-tank missile, the viral meme found a new use in the hands of Christian Borys, a Toronto marketer who was a journalist in Ukraine in 2014-2019.
Days before the war started, Borys created a $10 sticker out of the viral meme to help Ukrainian orphans in what he thought would be a modest contribution to Ukraine’s support relief. He also created a website, SaintJavelin.com, to sell those stickers online.
“The sticker was a fluke,” Borys told the Kyiv Independent.
He had initially set up a $30,000 goal for his charity. A month in, Borys raised over $1 million, an unexpected success for the entrepreneur turned charity worker.
“It’s just very overwhelming,” Borys said.
The initial fundraising goal was aimed at providing scholarships to children who lost their parents in the war in Donbas that Russia started in 2014 – a personal topic for Borys.
"One of the stories I worked on when I was in Ukraine was about families who had lost mostly fathers in the war," Borys said.
He interviewed widowed mothers, listening to their stories of grief and losses.
“It’s one of those things that stick with you forever,” he said.
Borys collaborated with a Canadian charity HelpUsHelp. He went from hundreds of $10 stickers to over 6,000 items sold in 60 countries.
“It became a full-time job,” he said. “It’s so overwhelming, we’re trying to scale back a bit.”
To keep the operation running, Borys had to solve customer support, logistics and operational issues.
Each of his bank accounts was temporarily frozen because there was so much cash flowing through them that the banks thought he was laundering money, he told the Toronto Life, a Canadian local newspaper.
With that much money coming in, he rethought the purpose of the aid.
“We changed it from all of this money going towards orphans to all of this money will go to victims of violence," he said.
Aside from working with HelpUsHelp, Borys began working with the 2402 fund created by Ukrainian journalists to help equip reporters and newsrooms with the necessary equipment, vehicles and protective gear.
Apart from his Saint Javelin merch project, Borys works with the Ukrainian World Congress, which represents the Ukrainian diaspora all over the world. Borys helped the organization set up a logistics chain for aid flowing into Ukraine, including first aid kits, tourniquets, bulletproof vests, kevlar helmets.
Borys said transparency is key in such a large-scale charity operation.
“My goal is to show everything because nobody's gonna trust somebody who's hiding anything,” he said.
Art for charity
The Saint Javelin design was not an original creation of Borys. Ukrainian graphic designer Evgeniy Shalashov, based in Lviv and employed by Borys, slightly adapted a 2012 painting by U.S. artist Chris Shaw that was already a hit.
In mid-February, Shaw “woke up to find an image of 'Saint Javelin' going viral all over the internet as a meme,” a digital alteration of his 2012 painting, “Madonna Kalashnikov.”
Shaw painted the “Madonna Kalashnikov,” a feminine religious icon holding a gold-leafed AK-47, in 2012, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring that shook the Middle East in the early 2010s.
In 2015, Madonna Kalashnikov was conscripted by the Ukrainian Army and became a morale patch for Ukraine’s military.
"The experience of Saint Javelin, simply, has been amazing, humbling, incredible, and also leaves me with mixed feelings,” Shaw told the Kyiv Independent.
“Of course, nobody asked me if my art could be used or sold,” he said. “However, after seeing the image used successfully to raise money for Ukraine I felt better that at least some of the profits made would be used for good purposes.”
“For Saint Javelin to become an image helping to aid relief and show solidarity with Ukraine is amazing. Now that she is everywhere, I want her to do good,” he added.
Saint Javelin isn't the only Madonna art associated with the war in Ukraine now. Ukrainian illustrator Anta Frirean, based in Germany, recently published on her Instagram a religious adaptation of a viral picture of a mother from Kyiv breast-feeding her baby, her body reeling from shattered glass wounds.
Frirean’s Instagram links to a webpage listing numerous charities and foundations to donate and help support Ukraine against Russia.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war rages and hits close to home for the Saint Javelin team.
The Ukrainian members of Borys’ marketing agency “Black Hawk,” who lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, had to leave because the city had been destroyed, Borys said.
They are now hiding in smaller towns and villages in Ukraine, searching for apartments in Poland for their wives and children.
Shalashov, who adapted the Saint Javelin graphic, has been forced into bomb shelters so many times that he chose to flee to a village near his city, Lviv.
When he first answered the Kyiv Independent, he apologized for the delay because of his lack of sleep due to the raid sirens in western Ukraine.
“I think the success of our campaign is all about the good people, who want to help Ukraine, who want peace in the world," Shalashov later said. “Design is the last thing here.”