The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Watching the war from afar prompted a Chicago artist to help. So he built a Zelensky ‘Lego’ to raise money.

Custom Lego creator Citizen Brick designed a figurine of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to raise money for the war-stricken country. (Joe Trupia/Citizen Brick)
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For weeks, a Chicago-based artist has watched in horror as cities are destroyed and millions flee war-stricken Ukraine.

Joe Trupia has no personal connection to the conflict raging some 5,000 miles from his home. But with every heartbreaking photo and gut-wrenching video, he became more certain that he had to do something — anything — to help Ukraine. So Trupia, who owns the toy-manufacturing company Citizen Brick, started making miniature figurines in the likeness of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to raise money for the country.

“I just felt that I had to act using what I had,” Trupia said.

Since the Russian invasion began, countless stories have surfaced about people doing what they can to help Ukraine. Thousands booked Ukrainian Airbnbs to directly help those living through the war. A baker in Texas sold cheesecake to raise money for the Ukrainian army. In California, two kids propped up a lemonade stand.

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Trupia’s creative way of helping came in the form of custom Lego figurines — an initiative that raised $145,388 for Direct Relief, an organization providing medical aid to Ukraine.

Citizen Brick specializes in printing “wildly inappropriate unique designs” on Legos — for example, concocting a slew of miniature bongs and even a meth lab inspired by the “Breaking Bad” series. For his Ukraine fundraiser, Trupia said he chose two symbols that epitomized hope, resistance and the country’s “bravery in the face of tyranny”: Zelensky and a molotov cocktail.

Citizen Brick is not affiliated with Lego, which itself donated $16.5 million to humanitarian aid efforts in Ukraine and paused product shipments to Russia. Lego has strict corporate rules about manufacturing realistic modern weaponry, but the company appears to tolerate the underground market of customized Lego sets like the ones Citizen Brick creates.

Zelensky’s trademark look — military-green shirt, hoodie and unshaven face — made it easier to turn him into a small, yellow figurine, Trupia said. A comedian turned wartime leader, Zelensky has emerged as a larger-than-life figure since the war began, garnering international praise for his stalwart presence and defiance despite grave personal risk.

“He’s a guy who could’ve fled the country with a suitcase full of money and instead he’s sticking by his people,” Trupia said. “I was just so impressed by his steadfastness and the hope he seems to give to people.”

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As for the molotov cocktails — the homemade weapons a Ukrainian official urged citizens to assemble to help resist Russian forces — “the irony of selling a little toy incendiary device in order to buy medical supplies for refugees isn’t lost on me,” Trupia said.

Employees at Citizen Brick worked on their day off to assemble as many figurines as they could in “a frantic 24 hours,” Trupia said. On March 5, the company held its first sale — offering the Zelensky figurine for $100 and the molotov cocktails for $10 each. They sold out in a matter of hours and raised $16,540.

The reaction to the initiative was such that Citizen Brick released a second batch on Wednesday with a goal to raise $100,000. Once again, the supply vanished in less than 24 hours — and an additional $128,848 was collected.

Owning a small boutique with a “very niche” customer base, Trupia said the frenzy far surpassed his expectations — and Citizen Brick’s capacity to produce the Ukraine-themed figures.

“I really wish we could do more, but we weren’t really outfitted for it,” he said.

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For now, there are no plans to relaunch the custom toys. But the news of their existence has quickly rippled across the world, making its way to people directly affected by the conflict. Many of them, Trupia said, have shared their stories with him.

“Some kids have written saying, ‘I really like Lego and I had to leave my Lego collection behind. I know I can’t get one now, but do you think you can hold a President Zelensky figure for me until after we win the war?'” he said.

Those are the messages Trupia does not always know how to respond to — and the ones that ignite his desire to help.

“I know I can’t get them one for now,” he said. “And I’m hoping that I can do so in the future, but there seems to be this kind of real thread of optimism from the people there. They’re really very resilient, and it just kind of makes us wish we could do more of this for them.”