Volodymyr Zelensky leads the defense of Ukraine with his voice
In Europe’s most defining hour since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a vengeful and erratic autocrat invades Ukraine darkly alluding to the scale of its nuclear arsenal, a comedian has taken on the role by Winston Churchill. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, has relied heavily on his voice to inspire resilience in his country. Much of a discouraged and fractured world has also answered his call.
Vladimir Putin’s attempt to conquer Ukraine, depose his democratically elected government and absorb the state into his imperial and mystical conception of a Russky Mir, a Russian world, is in its infancy. The assault has already resulted in thousands of deaths and a colossal refugee crisis. However, the first days of the attack revealed the weaknesses of the Russian army. Some accounts may prove inaccurate, but it is clear that Ukrainian soldiers and armed civilians shot down Russian helicopters, destroyed Russian tanks and generally slowed Putin’s efforts to overwhelm major cities within days.
Zelensky galvanized his people with the clarity of his language. Churchill, in his essay “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” wrote: “Of all the talents granted to men, none is so precious as the gift of eloquence. He who enjoys it wields a more lasting power than that of a great king. Churchill used the radio, using cadences of blank verse to rally the will of his fellow Britons and his foreign allies. Zelensky uses a smartphone and the simplest rhetoric to assert his presence on the front line. “Ya tuthe told his fellow Ukrainians as he stood on the street in Kyiv. I’m here. From his bunker in the capital, he described a Russian missile strike and civilian casualties to members of the European Parliament with such ringing force that even the English-speaking interpreter could not contain his emotion.
Zelensky is an unlikely tribune. He grew up in Kryvyi Rih, a raw steel city in the southeast where thousands of Ukrainians, especially Jews, were killed during the Nazi occupation. A mediocre student, he led a comedy troupe called Kvartal 95, and in 2015 helped develop a sitcom called “Servant of the People.” And that’s where postmodernism comes in: Zelensky starred as Vasyl Holoborodko, a high school teacher whose life changes when he launches into a tirade on corrupt politicians. A student films it and the video goes viral. His plaintive honesty strikes a chord with the Ukrainian people and . . . he is elected president.
“Servant of the People” was a comedy of unabashed breadth, more Benny Hill than Noel Coward, and it was a hit. After a few seasons, it occurred to Zelensky that fiction could be realized as fact, that the character he was playing on television might just be what his country needed. “I started making fun of politicians, parodying them and in doing so showing what kind of Ukraine I would like to see,” Zelensky told Joshua Yaffa. the new yorker.
In 2019, Zelensky attracted far more attention than he ever wanted when Donald Trump, with all the finesse of a mafia gift, called asking for a “favor”: digging up dirt on the Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine’s energy sector or the United States would withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance. It was hard not to remember that blunt demand, a key piece of evidence in Trump’s early impeachment hearings, when the former president last week said Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a “awesome”.
Before the war, Zelensky’s popularity had declined. The oligarchs continued to exert influence over Ukraine, especially in the media. Just before the invasion, he seemed at odds with President Biden, who insisted on releasing intelligence estimates that an attack was imminent. Zelensky preferred to downplay the prospect of war. But, when the tanks rolled on, Zelensky began to deliver his message to his people: he would never give up on Ukraine. “He has an artist’s sixth sense of what people want – he senses their approval or their disapproval,” Igor Novikov, a former adviser, said from his home in Kyiv. “In times of crisis, he is a lens that channels the energies of the people into a single beam of light.”
There should be no illusions. Even the most penetrating rhetoric is not a missile defense system. Kharkiv, Mariupol and other cities are bombed. Russian troops attacked nuclear power plants. What mercy is Putin likely to bestow on Kiev? The precedent is not comforting. Twenty-two years ago he annihilated Grozny; thousands of civilians were killed. And he’s never sounded so fiery as he does now.
Unlike Zelensky, Putin is increasingly out of touch and delusional. His high approval ratings are inflated by relentless propaganda, coercion, and the projection of national stability through shirtless strength. Acknowledging the world’s lukewarmness to his military adventures in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea and the Donbass region in 2014, Putin conducted the operation with seemingly serene confidence. He clearly believed that he could count on the modernization of his armed forces and the distraction, weakness and division of his enemies. He was wrong.
The set of economic sanctions launched against Russia is hardly symbolic. The ruble fell sharply. To avoid a colossal sell-off, the Russian stock exchange was closed all last week. Swiss banks froze many Russian accounts. Germany abandoned its cautious post-war stance, increasing defense spending and working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy. The International Olympic Committee, the various football bureaucracies and countless corporations – entities rarely known for their moral bravery – cooperated to sanction Russia.
Thousands of Russians, especially among the urban elite, anticipate the end of a tolerable existence and leave for Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and beyond. Those who remain in Russia – the vast majority – risk ending up in an isolated and deeply authoritarian country, possibly under martial law. “The state is collapsing before your eyes,” said Misha Fishman, one of the main broadcasters of TV Rain, Russia’s last independent television channel.
The only person capable of stopping the invasion is the man who caused it. An optimist would point out that with at least a small number of energy executives and oligarchs expressing their displeasure, Putin could be vulnerable to a revolt. But, in the short term, he will do all he can to suppress dissent in the streets and among his cronies and satraps. Zelensky knows this only too well. It is a voice that is not only inspiring, but strikingly realistic. “It’s not a movie,” he said. Spoken like a man who knows he may not live to celebrate the liberation of the country he is sworn to defend. ♦