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24 March 2022updated 20 Aug 2022 11:40am

The Zelensky myth

Why we should resist hero-worshipping Ukraine’s president.

By David A Bell

The story might just sound familiar. The leader of a country on the periphery of Europe, one fighting against impossible odds to preserve its independence against ruthless foreign aggressors, achieves international fame. He is handsome, brave and heroic. His own people adore him. Western commentators compare him to legendary figures of the past. So appealing is he, and so insistent his calls for military intervention, that some of these same commentators even seem ready to risk global war to support him. He is the essence of charisma.

The story is about Volodymyr Zelensky – but not only him. Many have played much the same role, going back quite far in time. Consider a man now largely forgotten outside his homeland. In the mid-18th century, a soldier named Pasquale Paoli led Corsica in a struggle for independence, first against the Republic of Genoa and then against France, which defeated him and annexed the island in 1768 (and still rules it today). Dashing and brave, handsome and popular, fighting against superior French forces, Paoli sent foreign observers into raptures. The English poet Anna Barbauld called him a “godlike Man”. Pitt the Elder mused that he was “one of those men who are no longer to be found but in the Lives of Plutarch”. In 1765, an as-yet unknown young Scot named James Boswell travelled to Corsica to meet Paoli, and nearly melted in his presence. He went on to publish a wildly popular and breathlessly adulatory portrait of the man, full of quirky details (Paoli’s amazing memory, his inability to sit still). Boswell claimed he had no more believed such a person could exist in the world than “seas of milk” or “ships of amber”. The Scot led a funding effort that raised more than £14,000 – a huge sum at the time – to purchase arms for the Corsicans and he also mounted a publicity campaign to urge British intervention in the struggle. Cooler heads prevailed in the ministry. “Foolish as we are,” wrote the Quartermaster General Lord Holland, “we cannot be so foolish as to go to war because Mr Boswell has been in Corsica.”

Between Paoli and Zelensky, many other figures have received similar treatment in Western media. George Washington was one of the most prominent, especially during the dark moments of late 1776 when the American revolutionary cause seemed lost (“the times that try men’s souls” as Thomas Paine put it). Washington made such a positive international impression that even in Britain, the country against which he was leading a violent rebellion, press coverage of him skewed towards the highly favourable. He was, the Scots Magazine solemnly pronounced, “a man of sense and great integrity”. A few decades later, it was the turn of South American independence leader Simón Bolívar, who fired imaginations across the Atlantic world, and drew thousands of Europeans to fight in his armies (many, admittedly, were soldiers left unemployed by the end of the Napoleonic Wars). Admirers in the United States saw Bolívar as a new Washington and named no fewer than five American towns after him, as well as hundreds of babies. And the tradition continued. Giuseppe Garibaldi, in his campaigns for Italian unification between 1848 and 1860, inspired enormous international adulation, and so, in the 20th century, did a long string of anti-colonial revolutionaries. The worshipful coverage of Zelensky bears particular resemblance to what the media, 40 years ago, showered on another humble eastern European defying Russian power (albeit of a different sort): Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Polish union Solidarity.

It in no sense diminishes the real heroism shown over the past month by Zelensky to note that, appropriately enough for a trained actor, he is playing a familiar role. He is ubiquitously described as “charismatic” but charisma is a more complicated phenomenon than is often realised. It is not just a matter of a person’s innate qualities. It also depends on admirers perceiving a person as exceptionally gifted and appealing – as in some way touched by grace (the word charisma literally means a gift of divine grace). This perception in turn is shaped by the admirers’ world-view, and by their expectations. The qualities that make a person look charismatic to one group of onlookers may strike another group as overbearing and obnoxious. Charisma always resides, at least in part, in the eye of the beholder. And this should make us cautious about being too easily swept away by the emotions that it inspires – including in Zelensky’s case.

[see also: Zelensky’s effective campaign for Western support]

The appeal of charismatic figures such as Zelensky derives in large part from the perceived contrast between them and the leadership class in the admirers’ own countries. In Britain in the 1760s, Pasquale Paoli appealed especially to radical Whigs disgusted with what they saw as the endemic corruption, pettiness and lack of principle in their own politics. To quote one representative poem of the period:

Ye who are slaves of power, or drones of peace
Ambition’s tools, or votaries of ease…
Stand forth; on CORSICA reflect and see
Not what you are, but what you ought to be.

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In Paoli, they saw a man willing to sacrifice his life for the principles of liberty and independence. And in marked contrast to the constant squabbling and frequent paralysis of British political life, they found in Paoli someone seemingly capable of changing the course of history through sheer, indomitable willpower.

A similar cult is now flourishing around Zelensky. He has been hailed in a new pop song (by singer-songwriter Five For Fighting) as a “Ukrainian Superman” with “an Eastern heart the West has lost”. The song itself is called “Can One Man Save the World?” The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, drawn like a self-aggrandizing moth to the flames of every geopolitical crisis since Bosnia, has of course flown to Kyiv, and boasted of his intimacy with Zelensky in terms reminiscent of Boswell depicting Paoli. “The free world,” Lévy recently wrote, “which is also at stake in the battle for Kyiv, and the Europe of principles have found a new, young and magnificent founding father.”

As this hyperbole suggests, so intense is the longing for charismatic figures, especially in moments of crisis, that their images can easily take on lives of their own and float upwards, straight into the realm of myth. In American history, the man who most clearly illustrates the process is Washington. After his victories at Trenton and Princeton saved the young republic from disaster in the winter of 1776-77, an admirer wrote that “if there are spots in his character, they are like the spots in the sun, only discernible by the magnifying powers of a telescope. Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he had been worshipped as a god.” In a biography published soon after the first president’s death in 1799 by a talented preacher-turned-huckster named Mason Locke Weems, Washington’s story started with the impossibly virtuous boy George incapable of lying to his father after chopping down a prized family cherry tree, continued with God speaking to the heroic young general in his dreams, and ended with his entrance into heaven (“swift on angel’s wings the brightening saint ascended”).

Historically, this sort of charismatic authority has almost always been a double-edged sword. Charismatic leaders can inspire powerful collective action. They can unite fractured nations around their persons. Indeed, they can help forge strong national identities, and convince people to put their trust in new, unfamiliar political arrangements. Without the heroic, charismatic and widely trusted Washington available to serve as the first chief executive of the USA, it is unlikely that the American states would have ratified the constitution of 1787, and the powerful presidency it created. He did much to solidify a new American identity, and in that respect, at least, deserves the title “founding father”. Although it is far too early to tell for sure, it is possible that Zelensky may accomplish something similar in Ukraine.

But the process is also laden with danger. The bond between charismatic leaders and their followers does not depend principally on shared beliefs and values, or on a shared commitment to a given set of rules. It is deeply emotional, and usually grounded in an idealised image of the leader. This is then shaped by the conventions of the period’s dominant media. In the 18th and 19th centuries followers could read adoring accounts of their heroes in newspapers and in books like Boswell’s and ponder engraved portraits. In the 20th century they could hear and watch speeches and carefully curated radio and television programmes. In the 21st century we follow our charismatic leaders on social media and watch video clips. But in all these cases, the experience can generate emotions more powerful than the ones that bind us to written constitutions and systems of law. Witnessing the reactions to George Washington in 1777, his fellow revolutionary John Adams warned the Continental Congress about treating the general as superhuman and paying him “superstitious veneration”. The “idolatry, and adulation” showered on Washington, he privately mused, could easily become “so excessive as to endanger our liberties”.

Washington turned out to be a scrupulous observer of republican, constitutional proprieties – Cincinnatus rather than Caesar. He resisted repeated calls for him to become dictator, or king, and stepped away from the presidency after two terms. But many other charismatic leaders have had a far harder time avoiding temptation. Napoleon Bonaparte came to power claiming to have no interest other than the salvation of the French Republic from chaos, and five years later crowned himself emperor. Simón Bolívar actually took the title of dictator on more than one occasion and staged a coup d’état against an elected government. What historians often call the Age of the Democratic Revolution was just as much an Age of Charismatic Authoritarianism. The history of the 20th century is likewise replete with examples of charismatic revolutionary leaders who have taken power with real popular support only to become authoritarian (Fidel Castro, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Robert Mugabe, and so on). These transitions have been all the easier when foreign admirers, still under the thrall of the leader’s original charismatic reputation, continue to provide support and reinforcement.

The pattern has continued. It is worth noting that some of the principal qualities which Zelensky’s Western admirers perceive in him – strength, physical courage, a determination to stand up to powerful foreigners – are similar to those that have made Vladimir Putin appear charismatic to much of the Russian population over the past 22 years. This popular backing helped Putin steadily erode the freedoms that Russia achieved with such difficulty after the Soviet Union collapsed. For that matter, the same qualities made Donald Trump appear charismatic to his die-hard Republican supporters, leading them on 6 January 2021 to storm the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election as president. All too many charismatic revolutionaries, applauded around the world for overthrowing vicious, corrupt dictatorships, have ended up as vicious, corrupt dictators themselves (think, recently, of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua). It becomes all too easy for them to believe the hyperbolic praise heaped on them in moments of despair by anxious followers desperate for a saviour. They too start to believe the myth.

None of this implies that Volodymyr Zelensky, if he and his country survive the Russian onslaught, will abandon his devotion to Ukrainian democracy. We can hope that the comparisons to Lincoln and Churchill prove accurate and enduring. But history does imply that we should resist being swept away by the myths now growing up around Zelensky, especially when they might lead Western nations to dangerously downplay their own interests and security. It is one thing to provide humanitarian assistance, and a limited degree of military assistance to the desperate Ukrainians. But to paraphrase the wise Lord Holland, foolish as we are, we should not be so foolish as to go to war with Russia because Bernard-Henri Lévy has been in Ukraine.

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