One of the most iconic episodes of the nearly 12-week war in Ukraine took place during its first hours, when the crew of a massive Russian missile cruiser demanded the surrender of a small contingent Ukrainian troops stationed on Snake Island, a rocky Black Sea outcrop measuring less than a square mile.
In a radio transmission that later went viral, one of the defenders delivered a profane and pungent response that was most often translated as: “Russian warship, fuck off.”
Coming at a time when much of the world expected Ukraine to quickly collapse in the face of an invasion by its larger neighbour, the searing, almost flippant expression of defiance helped fuel the narrative of the ‘outsider who proved invaluable to the country’s war effort.
It also brought unexpected fame to the young Ukrainian illustrator who designed a much sought-after postage stamp commemorating the event.
Launched on April 24, the stamps were greeted by huge queues at the post office, punctuated by occasional scuffles between potential buyers. The initial series has become a treasured collector’s item. The national post office, Ukrposhta, has had one million stamps printed, and they remain in high demand.
“I never thought it would be so popular,” said artist-designer Boris Groh, 27, who lives and works here. He moved first to the capital and then to Lviv after his studies and education in Crimea, the peninsula seized by Russia in 2014.
Like so many of his countrymen, he was left speechless by a dramatic twist in history that occurred weeks after his design was created, just 10 days before the stamp was released. The menacing warship, which turned out to be the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, was sunk by a Ukrainian missile attack that Moscow never acknowledged.
“It was… well, that certainly turned out to be good marketing for the stamp,” said Groh, who has a shy demeanor and classic young artist looks: tall and thin, with floppy hair and sideburns. high cheekbones, long slender fingers and a flowing overcoat.
Even before the stamp, art school-educated Groh was building a reputation for his illustrations that included album covers for the classic metal musical collective Lost Symphony. He entered the Post Office’s design competition on a whim and said he spent perhaps five hours over several days on a pen-drawn digital composition featuring a solitary figure in the foreground, middle finger raised and silhouette of a towering warship offshore.
“Like everyone else, I was quite distracted by the news at the time,” he said.
The slight vulgarity of the character’s gesture was intended to convey the spirit of the coarser language employed in the real-life episode, alluded to with tiny letters along the perforated edge of the stamp: “Russian warship, go… ”
Everyone knows the rest.
After the sinking, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comedian before turning to politics, hinted at the provocative obscenity without actually uttering it. In a video address after Western analysts and officials confirmed the Ukrainian account of a missile strike on the ship, he cited evidence that “Russian warships are going” – strategic pause – “deep into the sea”.
Groh, whose work tends toward melancholy and dystopia, said he set out to create an image that would reflect the David versus Goliath ethos that permeated the conflict, galvanizing international condemnation of Russia.
“I wanted it to be artistic, but also true to life. I started researching the ship, learned the dimensions and profile of the Moskva. I wanted the image of a small person standing up against this great unknown enemy, facing a giant.
Representing the shore and the sea, he incorporated the colors of the Ukrainian flag, yellow and blue.
The history of Snake Island and the Moskva unfolded in chapters that continue today. The Ukrainian soldiers on the island were reportedly all killed initially in the Russian assault, but some were instead captured and later freed in a prisoner exchange.
Russia retains control of the island, and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank monitoring the fighting, says Moscow is using the strategic land spot to try to “block communications and Ukrainian maritime capabilities” in the region, in particular the approach to the main Black Sea port of Odessa.
Ukraine claimed this month that it used an armed drone to destroy another Russian vessel near Snake Island, this one a Serna-class landing craft. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry also said a Russian missile defense system on the island was hit.
The sinking of the Moskva also featured in the controversial disclosure leaked earlier this month that the United States provided intelligence that aided in the Ukrainian missile attack on the ship. Amid fears that Washington is drifting into a direct conflict with Moscow, the Pentagon stressed that it had not given Ukrainian forces “specific targeting information”, and President Biden issued a stern warning to the leaders of the intelligence about leaks that could be construed as boasting or unwarranted provocation by the Russian president. Vladimir Putin, or both.
The Moskva had a crew of around 500, and the fate of the crew remains largely unknown, although many are thought to have been killed in the missile attack and a huge fire on board. After the sinking, Russia released a video showing what appeared to be a large number of surviving crew members, but reports circulated that at least some of the Russian sailors shown in the footage failed to get in. contact with their families, suggesting that the video may have been shot before the ship was lost.
While Moskva and Snake Island have become part of Ukrainian national lore, Zelensky, among others, exercised a modicum of caution about mythologizing war events, even as a means of boosting morale in a country marked by the number of deaths and displacements of the invasion.
The battle, he warned, would have its ups and downs. In a recent address, the president urged compatriots, “especially those in the rear, not to spread excessive emotions”, adding: “We must not create an atmosphere of particular moral pressure, when some victories are expected every week and even every day”.
Still, the theme of unlikely victory is powerful. The West has rallied in support of Ukraine, pumping billions of dollars in aid and weaponry into what was once a backwater on Europe’s eastern fringe. But US and European officials and analysts also warn that the war could turn into a bitter, bloody and protracted struggle.
In the meantime, displays of spontaneous patriotism abound. Flags fly from homes and businesses. When street musicians launch into a rhythmic version of the national anthem, young and old in the crowd sing along shamelessly. Old Ukrainian poetry that people last heard in elementary school is being repurposed into rap songs. High-end clothing stores feature racks of blue and yellow colored jackets, dresses and pants.
And the post office is set to commemorate the fate of the Moskva again, with a new stamp to be released this week depicting the sunken warship bowing, Titanic-style. It provides for a series of 5 million, with the purchase of stamps available online internationally.
As for Groh, he is no longer in the business of stamp design, but he takes pride in his work. His post office salary, he said, was only “token”, but he still owns his image.
In Ukrainian currency, a sheet of six stamps, war-themed or not, sells for 44 hryvnia, about $1.50, for international postage and 23 hryvnia, about 78 cents, for domestic postage. On a recent weekend, an antique dealer at Lviv’s largest open-air market was selling sheets of the original series of the Groh-designed stamp for around $250.
With what he hopes will be a long artistic career ahead of him, Groh says his main thoughts for the future focus on ending the war.
“I was happy to help, as a Ukrainian citizen,” he said. “About what happened with Snake Island, with the Moskva, I just felt what we all felt.”