Lara Zwarun studying viral spread of Saint Javelin meme and response to it amid war in Ukraine

by | Nov 13, 2023

The Waterhouse Family Institute at Villanova University awarded Zwarun and her associate Richard Canevez at Michigan Tech a research grant to conduct the study.
Lara Zwarun stands with an image of "Saint Javelin," Saint Javelin founder Christian Borys and research partner Richard Canevez at the Ukraine Festival in Toronto

Associate Professor Lara Zwarun (at left) traveled to Toronto with research associate Richard Canevez (at right) in mid-September as they conducted research on the spread of the “Saint Javelin” meme. They met with Saint Javelin founder Christian Borys (center) and attended the annual Ukrainian Festival. (Photo courtesy of Lara Zwarun)

Lara Zwarun remembers seeing the iconographic image popping up online early last year as she monitored social media channels for news updates from Ukraine after Russia launched its full-scale invasion that February.

It seemed at first familiar, the Madonna-like figure wearing a veil with a halo around her head. But the reason it caught Zwarun’s eye was because instead of cradling the infant Jesus, the Madonna was holding an American-made anti-tank weapon, one of many types of military equipment sent to Ukraine by its allies to aid in its defense.

“What makes the image so jarring is the religious piece of it looks so old but the weaponry is modern,” said Zwarun, an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

As the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant father, who came to the United States after Russian forces took over his village during World War II, Zwarun was also taken with the symbolism of “Saint Javelin,” as it’s come to be known in a nod to the anti-tank weapon produced by American manufacturer Raytheon & Lockheed Martin.

“I think there’s an unspoken message there that the good side or the holy side or the right side is the Ukrainian side,” she said.

Still, Zwarun didn’t immediately realize how powerful – and lucrative – the meme has become. A mural with the image has been displayed on the side of a residential building in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv since the spring of 2022. It is also sewn onto the uniforms of members of the Ukrainian army. And it’s been placed on stickers, T-shirts and other apparel around the world, the sales of which have been used to raise money to help Ukraine rebuild from the devastation of the prolonged fighting.

Canadian Christian Borys, who worked as a journalist in Ukraine from 2014-2019, started selling the stickers out of his house for $10 each shortly before the invasion began. The demand was and has remained so great that he’s needed to expand his one-man enterprise, and the company, named Saint Javelin, now includes 15 employees. Together, they’ve helped sell more than 200,000 products and generated more than $2 million for Ukraine.

As Zwarun learned more and more about the meme, she found herself intrigued by the communication phenomenon at play.

“This really hits the sweet spot on what my research more broadly looks at, which is the kind of communication that is simple enough that it gets through people’s defenses and penetrates when they’re not actively seeking information and kind of gives a vibe or gives an opinion or a little factoid or a nudge,” Zwarun said. “People who want to know more in-depth about things – they can go and find that information. But most people walking around are just not willing to invest mental resources in most things. They’re overwhelmed. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any opinions and impressions of things.”

After a conversation last year with colleague Richard N. Canevez, an assistant professor of communication, culture, media and humanities at Michigan Technical University, she decided to do a deeper look at the phenomenon and applied for a research grant from the Waterhouse Family Institute at Villanova University.

The institute funds innovative research projects across the world to support the complex study of communication and social change, and in July, it awarded Zwarun and Canevez a grant for a study on “Commodification of Religious Iconography as Resistance in Saint Javelin.”

In doing research for the project, Zwarun traveled to The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City in August for a panel featuring Borys and artist Chris Shaw, whose original work “Madonna Kalashnikov” was adapted to create the Saint Javelin meme. They joined Museum and Memorial Specialist Curator Patricia Cecil for a discussion of religious icons used in art and war. She had a chance to visit with Borys, Shaw and Cecil during the trip.

The next month, she and Canevez traveled to Toronto to tour the Saint Javelin office and talk to Borys and his employees about their operation. Those they met included Violetta Petrova, a 25-year-old Ukrainian who does marketing for Saint Javelin with a heavy reliance on social media.

“They are just killing it,” Zwarun said of the company’s social media usage. “They are so spot on with their messaging. They just don’t mess up. They’re so clear, and they just know what needs to be said.”

A major part of Zwarun’s research is looking at how that messaging is received among members of the Ukrainian diaspora in both the United States and Canada. For example, she knows not everyone is comfortable with the merger of a traditional religious symbol and a modern-day weapon of war.

In hopes of learning more about people’s attitudes about the meme, why they might have decided to share it and whether feelings change among individuals of different ages or who have recently immigrated to North America compared to those whose ancestors first made their way across the Atlantic many decades earlier, Zwarun and Canevez have launched a survey and will conduct focus groups and interviews.

They began by soliciting responses of people attending the annual Ukrainian Festival held in mid-September in Toronto. The festival, the largest of its kind in North America, coincided with their visit to Saint Javelin.

Zwarun will travel this winter to northeast Ohio, near where her father grew up and her aunt still lives, to gauge the attitudes of Ukrainian Americans in Cleveland and surrounding communities, where several waves of immigration have taken place over the last century. She also plans to survey the small but growing Ukrainian population in St. Louis. With a higher percentage of recent arrivals than either Cleveland or Toronto, it provides a potentially meaningful contrast.

They hope to eventually capture the viewpoints of about 300 respondents.

“It’s been awesome,” Zwarun said. “It has so many pieces that are relevant. It’s fascinating from a communication point of view, just how things spread, how it takes off, what power the message has. It’s fascinating from a sociological perspective of where people’s heads are at, and the whole piece of it having religion in it.

“The other piece of it that’s really cool – and Rich had already done a lot of work in – is military studies. War has changed, what war is. So much of it is fought in digital spaces and what people share. Increasingly, I think that people who study war have to engage this space.”

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