When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the situation seemed almost hopeless. A true David and Goliath story seemed to be unfolding, with many expecting Russia's forces to wreak havoc on Ukraine and likely even conquer it within weeks. But through a combination of smart planning, extreme resilience, and some unconventional tactics, Ukraine endured -- and then it endured some more.
Not only was Ukraine not conquered (as many analysts were predicting), but it is slowly kicking Russia outside of its borders.
Among a range of unconventional tactics, Ukraine has also employed an active and savvy usage of internet communication, not shying away from embracing even things like memes to convey its message. Outside people, looking to help Ukraine, have also embraced this idea -- and one such meme, in particular, Saint Javelin, has been making quite an impact, raising millions of dollars for Ukraine.
While most saints have a golden-white halo, Saint Javelin has a bright yellow halo that resembles sunflowers or the yellow on Ukraine's flag; in some versions, the halo is blue (another hint at Ukraine's flag) or reddish, hinting at the bloody pain endured by the country. Instead of tenderly cradling an infant Jesus, she's holding a Javelin -- an American-made, handheld antitank missile that became an icon of Ukraine's defense during the Battle of Kyiv. Instead of religious garments, she wears military-style colors. The design is now sold on everything from t-shirts and hoodies to stickers, raising money for Ukraine.
Saint Javelin is the brainchild of Canadian marketer and ex-journalist Christian Borys. Borys spent years covering conflict in areas like Ukraine and saw an opportunity to create an icon for Ukraine's struggles. He drew inspiration from another artistic project by Chris Shaw. In 2012, Shaw painted images of the Virgin Mary holding items like a suicide vest, a rifle, or malt liquor. His work Madonna Kalashnikov became the clear inspiration for Saint Javelin, but the Kalashnikov rifle was replaced by a Javelin.
"It’s been a humbling experience to watch as the Ukrainian people adopted the Saint Javelin image as an icon of resistance against the Russian invasion and to see it transform into a global symbol of support for Ukraine. Worldwide, the media has been calling her a 'Symbol of Resistance' or the ‘Face of the Conflict’. As the artist who drew that face, I’ve been awestruck to see what has become of my art," Shaw wrote in an article on Saint Javelin.
Shaw says he has "mixed feelings" over this -- on one hand, he feels humbled that his work served as inspiration for such a movement, but on the other hand, he feels he's lost control of his art and many are profiteering from his work or taking it out of context.
"Especially watching profiteers producing merchandise, for profit. When the internet steals your work, it’s important to try to take it back. I remade the art properly, creating an official ‘made by the artist’ version of Saint Javelin."
But Borys says all the proceedings are donated to Ukraine's defense and humanitarian projects for protecting and rebuilding the country; the Saint Javelin business also states "Saint Javelin is in business to rebuild Ukraine." The scale of the project has also grown quite a bit and achieved several spinoffs.
“I thought I was going to sell 50,” Borys told CTV News Toronto. But it quickly blew out of control. The meme went viral and suddenly, he had thousands of orders per day -- which posed its own challenges.
"It went completely viral," he also told the BBC. "There are a whole lot of logistical problems that have come up because we never expected that. I hoped I could donate 500 bucks and now it's become its own crazy thing."
Saint Javelin has become a sort of icon for Ukraine's resistance against Russia. It struck a chord with so many people, Borys remembers -- with Russian tanks trying to break through the Ukrainian capital, Ukraine's military forces found themselves heavily outmatched. But like the Javelin can destroy a much bigger and heavier tank, so too did Ukraine prove capable of defeating its invading neighbor.
This unconventional "patron saint" seems to have brought Ukraine good fortune, and while not everyone agrees with it (as the painting is clearly inspired from religious art), it's helping. We couldn't find just how much money was raised (an email to the Saint Javelin website yielded no response), but a BBC report found that they had raised over $1 million by March, a figure that has no doubt increased in the past months.
Still, one or several million is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the scale of devastation that Ukraine is facing. But even a drop is something.
"At this point, I don’t know where Saint Javelin will end up, but I do hope she remains a symbol of freedom, strength, and good. I’ll probably make a painting of her, then move on to the next thing. Most, I hope St. Javelin will help Ukraine, and the money raised by those using her image will make a positive difference to someone," Shaw concludes.