Last week, on the eve of the Ukraine’s Defender Day, the Icon of Remembrance for Perished Defenders of Ukraine bas-relief was presented to Valentyna Lepetiukha, the wife of fallen hero Vasyl Lepetiukha, in the Saint John the Apostle Church in Kharkiv. Vasyl was 53 when he was killed in the battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014.
“We were looking for him for seven long months after he had first been reported missing. Once a body had been found, it took three examinations to establish it was him. Only after this, we were able to bury him in March 2015. For me, this icon is equal to state awards. So it is very important for each family that suffered such loss,” Valentyna confessed.
Volunteer Oleksandra Kharchenko, who was one of the event’s organizers, told about an unusual phenomenon. It was raining heavily on that day, but during the ceremony, the beam of light was shining straight on the icon.
This is not the first time the perished heroes’ relatives were presented with the icon in Kharkiv. In January 2016, it was given to Natalia Levchenko, mother of 36-year-old Lieutenant Yurii Lytvynenko who was a lawyer before joining the army.
Well-known Italian sculptor of Ukrainian origin Elena Karamushka created the icon to be given to all the families whose relatives were killed during the war in the east of Ukraine. She came to Ukraine and trained the group of volunteers to make these icons. Each one is unique and has a registered certificate with a number.
According to Elena, everything started as a result of Euromaidan. She followed it with great concern. After the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Ukrainian volunteers and patriots referred to the Ukrainian diaspora in Italy, and they joined their efforts to help.
“I am a sculptor and everything that I had learned resulted into this icon. It took me a week to complete it. I know that it is not perfect, as much can be improved, but something is better than nothing. The icon was needed on that very day. It was created on a wave of emotions I was filled with. Today, when I look at it I can see that it is more touching and emotional than the one made according to the laws of painting and sculpture,” Elena added.
“The icon symbolizes Mother Ukraine, who is hugging her perished son. There is a photo of a fallen soldier on each icon. The symbols of persistence are Donetsk airport, Kobzar, and the Bible,” head of the All-Ukrainian Association of Missing Persons and Perished Defenders of Ukraine Maryna Poliakova said. The icons are given to mothers of perished soldiers but, in exceptional situations, wives or other relatives can get them.
All-Ukrainian Icon of Remembrance for Perished Defenders of Ukraine project started on November 18, 2015, in the town of Vasylkiv, Kyiv region, where the first art workshop was opened, and volunteers started to make the icons.
Now, there are two workshops in Ukraine. The second one was opened in Kamianske, Dnipro region, in summer 2017. The volunteers have made 188 icons that were given to the families of killed soldiers. Two bas-relieves are on display at Palanok Castle Mukachevo Historical Museum and Ukraine’s first ATO Museum in Dnipro.
Seven people work full-time and about ten work part-time in Vasylkiv. Several volunteers assist with transportation of bas-relieves all around Ukraine. Three people regularly work in Kamianske, and they have a few assistants.
The volunteers’ team is going to open one more art workshop in Kharkiv and expects patrons to help them with providing premises. The coordinator of Kharkiv project is Maryna Poliakova. Oleksandra Kharchenko and Lada Salbieva will be creative masters in the new workshop. They also helped to organize a solemn ceremony to present the icon to Valentyna Lepetiukha.
The head of the all-Ukrainian project is Oleksandra Stakan. According to her, it is a volunteer project and is funded by voluntary contributions. Everyone who makes the icons work in their free time. A bit of help comes from everywhere. Someone brings brushes, others assist with rubber gloves. Sworn brothers of fallen soldiers sometimes make donations. Notably, the donations are also made by relatives of the perished soldiers, who have already received their bas-relieves.
The icon aims to become remembrance for future generations, to bring people together, to hold commemorations, to let the families who lost their relatives feel support. Furthermore, it is an art therapy for fighters and volunteers while creating icons, as well as patriotic education during the solemn ceremonies of giving the icons at schools.
Text: Natalia Ivanova