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Icons on ammunition boxes: How Sofia and Oleksandr transform death into life

An icon of St. John, painted on an ammunition box and inscribed with names of fallen defenders of Ukraine, will be on display in the St. Sophia cathedral. Photo; Alya Shandra/Euromaidan Press
Icons on ammunition boxes: How Sofia and Oleksandr transform death into life
Tools of death are not only defeated in the symbolic act of icon-painting; they also raised funds necessary to support an entire Ukrainian field hospital

“Saint John, pray to God for Mykola … Yuriy … Oleksandr … Yaroslav … Volodymyr … Oleh … Volodymyr …”

The names of fallen warriors echo among the saints depicted on the sparkling thousand-year-old mosaics within St. Sophia Cathedral in central Kyiv.

From above, while a man reads out the names, the saints watch over a woman who carefully adds the names on to new icons of saints and angels.

Icons ammo boxes Ukraine
Icon painter Sofia Atlantova inscribes names of fallen soldiers into images of saints painted on discarded ammunition boxes. Photo: Alya Shandra/ Euromaidan Press

Orthodox icons have changed little since the times of the Byzantine Empire. Lines, colors and poses are prescribed by canon law and are full of symbolism. However, the husband-wife duo of Oleksandr Klymenko and Sofia Atlantova have brought innovation into this conservative art form: they paint new icons on to old crates of ammunition that have been discarded in the battle to fend off the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Eight years ago, in 2015, they held their first exhibition within the same walls of St. Sophia, built in the 11th century as a smaller version of the legendary Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, then the center of the world, and emulated by the medieval kingdom of Kyivan Rus.

In 2015, Ukraine had managed to fend off the initial Russian assault. For the next seven years, violence was confined to a small section of eastern Ukraine, until February 2022. That’s when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, aiming to seize the capitol, Kyiv, in three days.

St. Sophia Cathedral
New icons painted on ammunition boxes stand next to an 18th-century iconostasis inside the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv. Photo: Alya Shandra/Euromaidan Press

Sofia and Oleksandr’s icons, presented in the cathedral, honor those who prevented this from happening: the volunteer fighters from the Territorial Defense brigades of Kyiv Oblast, who stopped the Russian onslaught in February-March 2022, and who perished in later battles.

The fallen will be permanently remembered in the cathedral, by having their names written in graffiti-like inscriptions that mirror the thousand-year-old scribblings of churchgoers on the walls of St. Sophia: “God, have mercy on [name].”

“Oleksandr … Oleh … Oleksandr … ”

Ukraine Kyiv territorial defense
Dmytro Kulibaba, press officer of the 114th Territorial Defense Brigade, of the Kyiv Oblast.

One of the names read aloud is that of Oleksandr Polivodskyi, associate professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a well-known lawyer in the field of land law. He was head of a committee with the National Association of Lawyers of Ukraine and left a USAID project to join in the territorial defense when Russia invaded. He was killed in April 2023 in the rank of a junior sergeant in eastern Ukraine, where fighting currently.

Another is that of Oleh Horodashevskyi, head of the intelligence group of the Bila Tserkva battalion, a lieutenant colonel, who in September 2022, ensured the evacuation of his subordinates, giving his own life for the continuation of theirs.

Also remembered is Sgt. Oleksandr Romanov, who, in September 2022, freed a unit of the National Guard that had become surrounded. He was wounded and ordered his soldiers to retreat, while he stayed to cover them. He destroyed 20 Russians in battle, but he himself was killed.

He gave others the chance to live, at the cost of his own life. Usually, those who joined the Territorial Defense were civilians and having taken the oath, going to fight, they were already heroes to some extent,” says Dmytro Kulibaba, press officer of the 114th Territorial Defense Brigade, of the Kyiv Oblast.

 

“Sometimes, people made decisions to voluntarily give their lives for the lives of others. I consider this the highest heroism,” Kulibaba says.

icons ammunition boxes
An icon of St. Mary painted on an ammunition box is completed with names of fallen Ukrainian defenders. Photo: Alya Shandra/Euromaidan Press

The question could be asked, aren’t these new icons, these paintings made from objects associated with mass killing, a bit too … edgy, given the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill?”

Not for Oleksandr.

“Our project is based on the idea that tools of murder are transformed into something that is in no way connected with murder. That is, the symbol of death is transformed into a symbol of life, an icon.

 

“In Ukrainian tradition, an icon is a symbol of life, a symbol of resurrection. And when we try to turn what killed, into something that does not kill, that is, a kind of transformation of death into life.”

The transformation is not only symbolic but also real. Funds raised from the sales of hundreds of icons painted by Oleksandr and Sofia have financed the Mykola Pyrohov mobile field hospital with millions of dollars, for several years, covering up to 97% of its needs. Bringing volunteer medics to the least-accessible front line regions, its founder estimates that the hospital has treated 17,604 military and civilian patients in the last year alone.

mykola Pyrohov field hospital Ukraine war
A shift of Mykola Pyrohov field hospital staff heading for a rotation to the frontline. Photo: Gennadiy Druzenko / FB

Apart from that, funds from the sales of the icons also go to help the families of soldiers killed in action. There is also a plan to launch a project to support wounded soldiers after they are discharged from hospital.

“This is a broader conversation about good and evil, a broader conversation about life and death. The Christian tradition has been talking about life and death for 2,000 years, stating that death can be overcome. We are now in the week [after Easter], where we believe that death is defeated by life. And this week, we decided to commemorate those people who died, to give them … to respect their sacrifice,” said Oleksandr.

 

“Because what is the phenomenon of Ukrainian defense? These are people who did not hold a weapon in their hands, but with their bodies defended Kyiv, even defended this church from being destroyed and ruined.

 

“Kyiv would have repeated the fate of Mariupol or Bakhmut [razed to the ground by Russian troops], if not for them. Yesterday’s teachers, a musician, an art expert, people who never held a weapon in their hands, were ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. In principle, they, like martyrs, testified to certain ideals, the ideals of readiness to give your life for somebody else.

 

“It’s not about how many enemies they killed and how many liters of blood they drank, but how much of their blood they gave for you and me,” Oleksandr explains in between reading the names out loud.

St. Sophia Cathedral Kyiv Ukraine
The walls of the ancient St. Sophia Cathedral, where the icons are displayed, also bear graffitti-like inscriptions of names of churchgoers soliciting for mercy. In this way, the icons-on-ammo boxes project continues an ancient Ukrainian tradition. Photo: Alya Shandra/ Euromaidan Press

But if God explicitly forbade to kill, how can there be anything holy about it?

Well, the Lord said, ‘Don’t kill,’ but we are forced to kill. It happens that for the sake of love, you must kill. Look at the problem with Donbas. If in 2014, they would have driven Girkin and his crew out, instead of standing by, their men would now not be forced into ‘meat grinder attacks.’

 

“So the Russians that are being killed now, they are being killed not for the sake of being killed, but to prevent thousands of people from being killed in Ukraine and in Europe. Just look at history: Chechnya was conquered and they are now Putin’s dogs and are being called up to kill and be killed in Ukraine. Just like Donetsk locals, who are also now being summoned into Russia’s army.

 

“We have no choice to fight or not to fight. We have a choice only to fight for or against Europe. So, we are fighting to not end up fighting against Europe. We are fighting so this war would stop.

 

“Putin understands that in order to keep conquering, he needs to conquer the Ukrainians, so he would have somebody to do the conquering with. It’s a sacrificial war on our side: we are sacrificing our boys, our lives, and killing so that Kyiv, Dnipro, Poltava, Kremenchuk, Odesa would not turn into Bakhmut. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have perished, and there will be millions if Russia is not stopped. We are fighting for the people behind our back. And if we stop killing, then it will be the Poles, Lithuanians, Kazakhs, Georgians who will start being killed,” Oleksandr explains passionately.

Icons on ammunition boxes
Oleksanr Klymenko stands next to an icon painted on an ammunition box of his own making in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Photo: Alya Shandra / Euromaidan Press

In the end, it turns out there is actually no conflict between defending your homeland and the Sixth Commandment. “Thou shalt not kill,” is a commandment against criminal offenses, because the Torah, where it comes from, distinguishes between lawful and unlawful killing.

The commandment is not violated if done by a court order or during war. If a soldier kills an enemy, he does not violate the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

“But if I want to rob someone and kill the person to take his property, then I am breaking this commandment,” explains religious scholar Viacheslav Horshkov.

You can buy an icon by Oleksandr and Sofia here or contact them at olafclemensen (a) gmail.com

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