How memes drive Ukraine’s fundraising efforts

LVIV, Ukraine – Christian Borys was at home in Toronto in February trying to find a way to help war-threatened Ukrainians when he decided to print some stickers from an internet meme: the Virgin Mary hoisting an anti-tank missile.

Mr. Borys, who had worked for the e-commerce platform Shopify before turning to journalism, said he set up a half-hour website in hopes of raising money for a charity for Ukrainian orphans. That night, he earned $ 88 in sales. By the time he added T-shirts in late February, the threat of war had turned into a full-scale invasion, and he said sales grew to $ 170,000 a day – most coming from the United States.

“The Internet is talking in memes, and it was just this crazy, viral sensation,” he said. “I think it’s because people were looking for a symbol of support, a way to support Ukraine, because they saw all the injustice in everything.”

Images such as Ukrainian tractors towing a disabled Russian tank and helicopter, although unverified, have not only helped combat Russian disinformation, but also helped support Ukrainian charities and even the Ukrainian military.

The merchandise sales they have generated in the US and elsewhere are surprising given that many people who buy T-shirts, stickers, coffee mugs and chocolate bars would never have thought of the Eastern European country before the conflict.

Mr. Borys’ website, Saint Javelin, has so far raised nearly $ 1.5 million to help the Ukrainian charity Help Us Help, which has branched out into more services, and to provide protective equipment to journalists covering the war, he said.

“I think it’s unprecedented,” said Peter Dickinson, editor of the UkraineAlert service at the Atlantic Council, who spoke about the Internet-generated support. “We need to keep in mind that this is also a technological thing, that we are at the point where the tools are in place.”

When Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the invasion received far less attention in the West. This time, President Biden’s warning in mid-February that Russia was days away from invading Ukraine brought thousands of journalists rushing in, and the news dominated the headlines.

“Russia had previously had great success in publishing all sorts of information about Ukraine because no one really knew much about Ukraine,” he said. Dickinson. “It was like a blank slate.”

That changed quickly from February, when Ukraine was seen as the clear underdog against a much more powerful attacker. Crowdfunding efforts emerged – raising millions of dollars for the Ukrainian military, including through cryptocurrency – as European allies initially refused to send more weapons to the country to avoid inciting fighting.

Now the overwhelming public image of Ukraine, amplified by memes and merchandise, of a brave country that, against all odds, is turning the tide of war.

“This is about the spirit of our struggle and our struggle,” said Taras Maselko, marketing director of clothing company Aviatsiya Halychyny, which sells T-shirts under a category called “Fight as Ukrainians.” Mr. Maselko said 20 percent of the orders came from countries outside Ukraine.

“You know, if you wear a T-shirt, if you read something on social media, it brings you to the reality of what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said.

The clothing brand’s biggest seller is a T-shirt with the now famous, vulgar response that Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island, an outpost in the Black Sea, gave to a Russian warship that had ordered him and his unit to surrender.

The answer is a call, with all its vulgarity, put up on billboards in Ukraine and chanced upon by children and their parents in protests outside the country.

This week, Ukraine’s postal service unveiled a stamp depicting a Ukrainian naval special forces operator with the middle finger raised against the warship. It plans to launch a website to sell stamps, coffee cups and other items.

The Russian warship, called Moscow, sank on Thursday after Ukraine fired Neptune missiles at it, according to US officials. The Russian government denied that it was attacked and said it was deactivated when a fire broke out.

The head of the Ukrainian post office called the stamp “a symbol of the courage and indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people in the fight against Russia.”

The post office prints one million stamps and sells them at face value, equivalent to less than $ 1 each, said its director, Igor Smelyansky, in an interview.

He said some people reselling the stamps for much more had promised to donate the profits to the Ukrainian army. But Mr Smelyansky, who is a Ukrainian American, said the possibility of demoralizing Russia was invaluable.

“As a postal service, we are always happy when the recipient gets the message,” he said.

Humor in the midst of adversity sits deep in Ukrainian culture. Before President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president three years ago, he was a comedian. A famous Russian painting depicts Zaporozhian Cossacks in present-day Ukraine laughing indignantly as they compose a swear word letter to the 17th-century sultan of the Ottoman Empire who demanded that they submit to him.

In the current wartime, shops in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv sell chocolate bars with pictures of Mr. Zelensky. Another has the president’s adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, portrayed as a TV sitcom character who says, “Everything will be fine.”

Aviatsiya Halychyny, the clothing company, continues to produce T-shirts in Lviv. Profits from the T-shirt line are being sent to the Ukrainian Air Force, with about $ 70,000 raised so far, according to Mr. Maselko.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Borys, a Canadian of Ukrainian-Polish descent, Saint Javelin from a completely voluntary effort to a full-time employee of four to keep up with demand.

His website has branched out from the Virgin Mary to other saints: Saint Carl Gustaf wears a gas mask, while “Saint Olha, the Warrior Queen of Kyiv” wears a crown and hoists a bazooka over her camouflaged shoulders.

“People on Instagram demand that we do things fundamentally,” said Mr. Borys. “We get messages from people in Spain saying, ‘Hey, we just shipped the C-90,’ a shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launcher,” he said. “And they will say, ‘Hello, we want a saint for Spain’ or a saint specific to that type of system.”

The Virgin Mary, dressed in blue and gold robes and with a spear, is a picture adapted from a painting by the American artist Chris Shaw. Mr. Shaw based this painting on an earlier work in 2012 in which the Madonna held a Kalashnikov rifle.

Mr. Borys acknowledges that some people may find the image blasphemous.

“People are certainly offended, but the vast majority of people see what it actually stands for,” he said. “Religious symbolism has been used in war for hundreds of years. To say that it is blasphemous is not to understand the reality of war and how people look for symbols of support. “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.