Opinion: Ukraine’s new weapon against Russia? Lego

Editor’s Note: Roy Schwartz is a pop culture historian and critic. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and at royschwartz.com. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

From the US and Germany to Poland and Ukraine, creators have been volunteering their time and talent to support United24, Ukraine’s official fundraising platform, by recreating Ukrainian monuments as one of a kind Lego sets. These sets aren’t available for purchase; they can only be won through a raffle, by donating $24 or more to United24, with contributions going toward rebuilding destroyed structures and other relief efforts amid the country’s ongoing defensive war against Russia.

Roy Schwartz - courtesy of Roy Schwartz
Roy Schwartz - courtesy of Roy Schwartz

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky created United24 as a personal initiative to attract more international aid through mass appeal fundraising projects such as soccer games, art shows, music videos, celebrity ambassadors and even a donation center on Minecraft, with a virtual recreation of Ukraine’s Soledar salt mines.

According to United24 Coordinator Yaroslava Gres, the name United24 comes from the initiative’s “goal to provide 24/7 assistance…in support of Ukraine” — but the number 24 holds an even deeper connotation for Ukrainians. August 24 is Ukraine’s Independence Day, and Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Gres told me that United24 has raised over $650 million since they launched in May 2022, with donors from 110 countries helping rebuild and reconstruct five hospitals, 18 residential buildings, 24 bridges, and buy 240 ambulances and 659 hospital generators. Donations have also helped fund defense systems against suicide drones and tens of thousands of Ukrainian drones, and develop battlefield robots. 

Amidst concerns over Ukraine’s endemic governmental corruption, including a recent weapons procurement scandal, United24’s fundraising is assured by international accounting firm Deloitte, which has been volunteering its services pro bono.

Last month, the US sent Ukraine $275 million in military assistance as part of a $6 billion long-term military aid package announced in late April. So far, the US has sent $175 billion in total to the Ukraine. But according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, humanitarian support only accounts for $2.9 billion of that. The World Bank recently estimated that, between February 2022 and December 2023, the total damage to the Ukrainian infrastructure and economy was $152 billion.

Gres told me that 391 schools have been destroyed and 3,282 damaged, requiring nearly $14 billion to rebuild, with another $14 billion needed to rebuild and repair medical facilities.

Pictured in Lego miniature is Kyiv’s Golden Gate, released as part of United24's second wave of Ukrainian monument replicas. - UNITED24
Pictured in Lego miniature is Kyiv’s Golden Gate, released as part of United24's second wave of Ukrainian monument replicas. - UNITED24

As the war between Russia and Ukraine nears its 30th month in August, the world’s fickle attention has largely diverted to the Middle East and the upcoming US elections. United24 hopes to maintain focus on Ukraine’s fight for survival, a fight that isn’t going well — in recent months, Russia has captured and recaptured strategic locations, in its fastest advance since the beginning of the war.

Lego is arguably the best toy ever invented, but a toy is still a strange choice for a war fund campaign. And yet, it has helped support Ukraine from the start. In March 2022, a month into the war, and again in September 2022, the Lego Foundation donated around $30 million to help rebuild schools and other education institutions in Ukraine, as well as provide educational assistance for Ukrainian refugees in other countries.

In March 2022, Chicago-based toymaker Citizen Brick raised over $145,000 for Ukraine with a custom Lego-based minifigure of Zelensky.

The inspiration for a Lego campaign came from these initiatives and from Lego Architecture, an adult-oriented line of sets recreating iconic landmarks. According to Gres, “If it includes the … Eiffel Tower, London Bridge and Statue of Liberty … why can’t it have Kyiv’s Motherland Monument?”

United24’s first wave of sets, released in November 2023, is titled #LEGOWITHUKRAINE, which includes Kyiv’s Mother Ukraine, Crimea’s Swallow’s Nest and Mariupol’s Old Water Tower. The second wave, #UKRAINEinLEGObricks, released last month, includes Kyiv’s Golden Gate, Crimea’s Khan Palace, Lviv’s Oblast’s Pidhirtsi Castle, Odesa’s National Academic Opera and Mykolaiv’s Astronomical Observatory.

Mykolaiv’s Astronomical Observatory is featured in Lego's second wave of monument recreations. - UNITED24
Mykolaiv’s Astronomical Observatory is featured in Lego's second wave of monument recreations. - UNITED24

All models are made from authentic Lego bricks, though the Lego company isn’t affiliated with the project nor the artists building the sets. Each of the second wave’s five models is available in three sets, meaning donors have a chance of winning 1 of 15 sets.

Donors can choose which of the set raffles they want to enter and, Gres says, which of United24’s five goals their donation supports — defense, humanitarian demining, medical aid, rebuilding Ukraine or education and science — though proceeds from the second wave all go toward the reconstruction of the Velykokostromska School, a kindergarten and grade school in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, which was bombed in October 2022.

Mark Segedie is an American Lego artist from Chicago and the creator of the Pidhirtsi Castle set. “This was such a unique way to combine my passion for Lego with a very worthy cause — help rebuild a destroyed school … Thanks to this project, 250 children in Ukraine will be able to return to studies,” he told me.

It took him about 80 hours to design and build the set, once he selected the landmark he wanted to recreate, and five months to finish the project. “It was incredibly challenging to get the scaling and the angles of the castle correct,” he says. “It really challenged me. I feel that I was able to expand my Lego building skills while contributing to a great cause.”

Eric Law, another American Lego artist, created the Golden Gate set. He told me that he’d first heard of the project on a Lego fan site called The Brothers Brick and “joined because when I saw the Golden Gate I thought it would be an interesting building to build. … but after I read the history on it, I fell in love with the idea of building it.”

It took him a month to design it digitally, his first time doing it on a computer, then another week to build the actual set. “The shape is full of arches,” he told me, “and getting the shape right took six times of rebuilding.”

“I live in an area near Tacoma that has a large community of Ukrainians. I also work with many,” Law continued. “When I had the model I showed it off to them and seeing the look on their faces really is a joy.”

Gres says that, though she hopes there’ll be a third wave of Lego sets, “for now, we are concentrating on attracting attention to the second drop.”

The road ahead for Ukraine is difficult and uncertain, but it can rebuild with the help of little toy bricks.

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