How a Canadian artist is using the Saint Javelin meme to raise money for Ukraine
Christian Borys has donated $350,000 so far for Ukrainian relief with merch featuring the symbol of resistance
When Christian Borys decided to make 100 stickers of "Saint Javelin" to raise money for children in Ukraine, he didn't expect it to make that much of an impact.
"I thought I was going to have a couple of stickers on my car," he says. "I thought I was going to convince some friends to give me ten bucks and then I could donate, you know, $500 or something like that."
Instead, he went viral.
Memes have become powerful things. In the last decade, we've seen internet memes totally upend political systems. In Ukraine, the Saint Javelin meme has become a powerful symbol of resistance to Russian occupation.
At first glance, Saint Javelin doesn't look that much different from any other piece of religious iconography. It features Mary Magdalene, rendered in a style of portraiture common in Eastern Orthodox churches, looking out beatifically. Look closer, though, and you'll realize that she's holding an American-made FGM-148 Javelin missile launcher.
"Ukraine's military has developed a lot since 2014, but it's still not on par with the best militaries in the world," says Borys. "Ukraine requires assistance from NATO countries, especially the U.S. So the U.S. provided the Javelin, which is an anti-tank defensive weapon system, and it became a symbol of support for Ukraine in this tremendous war that they've, by no fault of their own, been dragged into by Russia."
Borys had been thinking about ways he could help Ukraine for a few weeks before the Russian invasion of the country. The Toronto-based marketing executive and filmmaker spent four years living and working in Ukraine as a journalist, from 2014-2018, covering the country for the CBC, BBC, Vice News and more. (He co-produced and directed the CBC Short Doc Vika during his time in Ukraine.) He's still in regular contact with many Ukrainian friends, and he says that people in his group chats "had [the invasion] pegged in December."
That desire to help became more pressing as refugees began streaming out of the country. Borys's father lives in Poland, in a small city on the Ukrainian border called Przemyśl, which has become the first acceptance point for many of the refugees. Borys, through friends, started directing refugees to his father, who started housing them in apartments he owns and eventually in his own home.
"He's called me bawling a few times," says Borys. "We sent a number of kids to his house the other day, and they're all the children of guys who have stayed back to fight... And he called me this morning, crying, saying, 'These kids are asking me, 'Where's daddy? Where's daddy?' It's like that side of war that you don't really see or read about very much — the personal side."
So Borys decided to do a fundraiser for Ukrainian children. He had a designer with his company make a hundred stickers of Saint Javelin.
"As soon as I posted the artwork on Instagram Stories, I just got a flood of people saying, 'I want it, I want it, I want it,'" he says. "I spent 30 minutes setting up a Shopify site last Wednesday [Feb. 16], and I just put up one single product and and I put up a post on my Instagram that said, 'Hey, I made this sticker. 100 percent of revenue will go toward supporting the children of deceased war veterans,' because that was the topic that I spent a lot of time on when I was in Ukraine."
"I posted it at like 11:45 p.m. Two orders came in right away. And then the next day, it shot to like a thousand, and I was like, 'Holy shit, this is crazy.' At that point I realized, 'OK, well, this can't be a percent of revenue anymore because I'm going to go broke.' But I switched it to 100 percent of proceeds."
He added some T-shirts, flags, and hats to the store, and as of Mar. 1, the project has made over $600,000 in revenue. The money will be going to Help Us Help, a federally registered charity that focuses on humanitarian aid in Ukraine. He says the first $30,000 will be earmarked specifically for children and orphans, but since he's raised more than he ever thought possible, money will also go to other projects, including buying first aid kits and medical supplies.
Borys acknowledges that the militarism of the Saint Javelin imagery may not sit well with some people, but asks Canadians to remember one thing: "The reality is, Ukraine didn't ask for this war, right? So they're just trying to protect their homeland."