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The exemplary resilience of Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainians are showing Vladimir Putin, and the world, what nationhood should mean.

By Jeremy Cliffe

It is still hard to believe that Volodymyr Zelensky, the man leading his country through Europe’s gravest threat since 1945, was as recently as four years ago a comic actor – known for romantic comedies, a role as the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukrainian, and most recently Servant of the People, a political satire in which he played a schoolteacher unexpectedly elected president. (He also won the Ukrainian version of Strictly Come Dancing in 2006.) He set up his political party, also called Servant of the People, with staff of the show’s production company and only a year later, in 2019, was himself unexpectedly elected Ukraine’s president. Even then the unusual meta-narrative struck international observers as an eccentric parable of our turbulent times.

Until Russia’s pre-invasion military build-up, Zelensky’s record as president had been mixed. I spent the night of his election at the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw, following the counting of ballots from the more than one million Ukrainian citizens living in Poland, a product of the country’s growing integration with the EU. Among the young, pro-European Ukrainians I spoke to opinion was divided between those who did not think the then 41-year-old entertainer sufficiently serious and those who saw in his clean-up-politics message a refreshing change. While Zelensky went on to preside over economic improvements and Ukraine’s continuing tilt towards the West, when I visited Kyiv in January this year the sense was that he had proved too close to some of the country’s oligarchs and too prone to populist, quick-fix policies.

But as Winston Churchill showed, indifferent peacetime politicians can make superb wartime ones. In retrospect there was always something more to Zelensky, who was born to Jewish parents in the Russian-speaking city of Kryvyi Rih (his great-grandfather died in the Holocaust). One person who had a long meeting with him shortly before the outbreak of the war recalls: “I will never forget his intensity. He didn’t break your stare. There was sangfroid there.” That impression has turned a mediocre president into a symbol of a country with a backbone of steel. To grasp the scale of the transformation in recent days of the Ukrainian president – confronted with an all-out attack by the murderous regime that happens to possess the world’s largest nuclear arsenal – try imagining a Hugh Grant or a Stephen Colbert changing into a Churchill or a Charles de Gaulle.

President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the positions of Ukrainian servicemen on the front line of defence, where intense shelling continues. (Photo by Ukrainian President’s Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service.)

Whatever happens over the next days and weeks, the Ukrainian president’s last-ditch appeal to the Russian people, made early on the morning of 24 February, will be remembered as a direct hit on Vladimir Putin’s nonsense pretexts for Russia’s unprovoked attack on a democratic country. But that address will also stand as an emphatic rhetorical contrast with the Russian president – a dignified counterpoint to the snarling, rambling rants emanating from the Kremlin.

Zelensky movingly invoked the close links between Russians and Ukrainians; his own grandfather fought in the Red Army. “Lots of you have relatives in Ukraine, you studied at Ukrainian universities, you have Ukrainian friends. You know our character, our principles, what matters to us… The people of Ukraine want peace.”

He showed much more respect for the Russian people’s capacity for decency and intelligence than Putin has ever done. “You are told we hate Russian culture. How can one hate a culture?… Neighbours always enrich each other culturally. But that does not make them a single whole. It does not dissolve us into you. We are different, but that is not a reason to be enemies.”

“We will defend ourselves,” the Ukrainian president said in that address, hours before the invasion began. “When you attack, you will see our faces, not our backs.”

Since then he has been as good as his word: his social media addresses to his people show that he remains in Kyiv, leading his country’s resilient response during these first days of the invasion. On 25 February he appeared above ground in the capital, flanked by other senior government figures: “We are all here, our soldiers are here… we are defending our independence.” He has made further such appearances routinely since, exhausted but defiantly cheerful, and has frenetically tweeted out calls on Western governments to provide more support, and praise for those that do. In Zelensky’s speech to the European parliament on 1 March the interpreter choked up as he translated the words: “Nobody is going to break us… we have a desire to see our children alive. I think it is a fair one.”

Ukraine’s president understands the danger he faces; when speaking to EU leaders on 24 February he said: “This might be the last time you see me alive.” The Times reports that there are more than 400 Russian mercenaries in Kyiv with orders to kill him and prepare for a takeover of government. And yet, to an American offer of evacuation on 26 February, Zelensky reportedly replied: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” They were the words of a leader rapidly becoming a global icon of dignity in the face of an unimaginable onslaught. This courage, too, contrasts favourably with Putin, bunkered away in some undisclosed location, paranoid about catching Covid-19 and seemingly in contact only with a small circle of minions.

Zelensky’s courage is one prominent element of a much wider story: the stoicism of the Ukrainian people at large. In eve-of-war Kyiv I heard often that Russia was underestimating the sheer will to resist of the country’s army and citizenry – eight years of war following Russia’s first assault on Ukraine in 2014 had hardened its armed forces and stiffened the nation’s sinews. One MP proudly showed me photos on his phone of the sorts of Kalashnikov rifles that ordinary Ukrainians would wield to repel any invaders. I admit that at the time I wondered how much of this was just blithe bombast. Little-to-none, is the incontrovertible lesson of the past days.

Admittedly, we are only days into a conflict that may last months, and Russia’s capacity (and Putin’s homicidal willingness) to crush resistance with the most brutal means imaginable should not be underestimated. At the time of writing a 65km Russian convoy of military vehicles is closing in on Kyiv. But experts and Western governments reckon that the invasion has so far been slower and more difficult than Putin anticipated.

This resilience goes well beyond inflicted casualties. Many examples of Ukrainians’ gutsy fortitude have caught the world’s imagination. There was the woman caught on camera confronting a heavily armed Russian soldier with the unforgettable line: “You should put sunflower seeds in your pockets so that they will grow on Ukrainian land after you die.” There were the 13 defenders of Snake Island in the Black Sea, now believed to have been captured, who responded to the crew of a Russian warship ordering them to surrender with a blunt entreaty to “go fuck yourself”. There is the footage of brave Ukrainians, young and old, from all walks of life, queuing up to fight.

Some of these instances are martial, like the urban legend of the “ghost of Kyiv”, an unconfirmed MiG-29 ace credited with shooting down six Russian planes on 24 February; or the burly Klitschko brothers, both former heavyweight boxing champions and one now the mayor of Kyiv, vowing to take up arms; or a TikTok video of a Ukrainian influencer showing her compatriots, switch-by-switch and lever-by-lever, how to drive an abandoned or captured Russian tank. But other powerful cases are non-combatant.

Oxana Shevel, a professor at Tufts University in the US, shared on Twitter news of friends sheltering in a village near Kyiv: “The village residents and their dacha community self-organised and now hold regular meetings. They look after each other’s needs and now go on regular patrols together.” Another such example has been the communal spirit of Kyivans sheltering in metro stations – photos emerged of a large screen erected in one so that children could watch films while the bombs and shells rained down. Olexander Scherba, a Ukrainian diplomat, shared footage of a deserted street in Kyiv’s outskirts, the silence broken by an unseen trumpeter playing the national anthem, which elicited an equally unseen chorus of “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”) from neighbours down the street.

A Ukrainian service member patrols the empty road on the west side of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the morning of February 26, 2022. (Photo by Daniel Leal / AFP.)

Some may be tempted to dismiss these cases as sentimental symbolism, especially if Putin – as some Western governments fear – now moves to crush this unexpectedly spirited Ukrainian response with a horrific, indiscriminate escalation of his attack. Yet such a dismissal would be a mistake.

First, because symbolism matters a great deal in war. It is primarily for this reason that Zelensky deserves the comparison to Churchill and De Gaulle that would until recently have been preposterous. Both leaders understood the morale-boosting power of resolute, stirring language and inspiring individual acts in moments of profound darkness. So, it seems, does Zelensky – truly a “servant of the people”.

The second reason is that the power of this symbolism is changing the facts on the ground. Western governments have been taken aback by the emotional force and communications savvy of Ukraine’s government and people, especially on social media. Insiders attribute the unexpected speed and scale of the response to the comprehensive way Ukraine has galvanised public opinion abroad.

The third reason is that underestimating this Ukrainian spirit of resilience may have played a role in Putin’s military miscalculations. The Russian president has made it repeatedly clear in his garbled discourses that he considers Ukrainian nationhood an empty and malign artifice. As the military expert and New Statesman contributor Lawrence Freedman puts it: “If it is the case, as Putin has consistently claimed, that Ukraine is a non-state, an artificial creation, with a government that is illegitimate and controlled by Nazis, then it would not be surprising if he also supposed that ordinary Ukrainians would not fight hard for such an entity.”

At first glance this seems paradoxical. Putin is a nationalist, obsessed with notions of national pride, history and destiny. How could he not recognise the unifying and cohesive forces of nationhood in a country as close to Russia, and dominant in his own dyspeptic brooding, as Ukraine?

The answer is that there is more than one way of recognising and valuing nationhood and the nation state. For as much as recent Western political discourse has often divided the world into open and closed, nationalists and globalists, citizens of somewhere and citizens of nowhere, the truth is that the politics of nation and nationhood is not a binary. It is a spectrum.

At one end of that spectrum is what we might call “hollowed-out nationhood” and on the other “fleshed-out nationhood” (here I am borrowing from the political scientist Mark Garnett’s distinction between two forms of liberalism).

Putin’s understanding of nationhood might be considered closest to “hollowed-out”. It imagines the nation as a framework for a politics of “them and us”, of fear and suspicion, of exclusion, purism and walls, all of it sustained by regular bouts of communal hate at whichever “other” is being scapegoated for the failures of a venal elite. Such a vision of nationhood provides cover for the insidious forces of sectarianism, greed and megalomania. In today’s Russia it is an instrument of private opulence and public squalor.

By contrast, very much of what we have seen from Ukrainians in the past days is at the “fleshed-out” end of the nationhood spectrum. This is the nation as an expansive, generous and civic entity of community and inclusive constitution; as something not just to die for but something, fundamentally, to live for too.

Such nationhoods are confident enough both to belong to something bigger and to encompass multitudes themselves – politically, ethnically, linguistically and culturally. To witness Zelensky, a Jewish native-Russian speaker, delivering his stirring addresses, switching easily between Russian and Ukrainian, to his primarily Christian Orthodox and Ukrainian-speaking people, is to see that fleshed-out nationhood take life. It refutes Putin’s blood-and-soil vision.

The battles of its pro-democracy Orange Revolution (2004) and Maidan protests (2014) and now its noble resistance to the Russian attack have helped burnish Ukraine as a heroic example of this sort of nationhood. Wars do that to a nation. Entirely by chance, I am writing this article from Courseulles-sur-Mer, the small town on France’s northern coast where De Gaulle first returned to French soil in June 1944 following his long exile in London. Looming above the beach is a towering Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of his Free French and with it a universalist and sovereign France. It is also tempting to see a certain kinship between Zelensky and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and indeed the wider generation of 1848 radical and liberal patriots. Fleshed-out nationhood has a deep heritage indeed.

The Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of France Libre, Free French Forces during WWII, in Normandy, France. (Photo by Jeremy Cliffe.)

And it can surge forth everywhere. We have seen that in Russia itself in recent days in the remarkable bravery of the thousands who have protested in the country’s cities at enormous personal peril. Putin is not Russia, a point that Zelensky has made repeatedly in his addresses, thanking notable Russian public figures who have spoken out. “Your conscience has been heard, and it’s been heard loudly,” he has told them.

We are, to reiterate, in the early days of this war. But it is well known that support for Putin has fallen in Russia in recent years as economic mismanagement and corruption have taken their toll. He has taken an enormous domestic gamble by launching this war. A proportion of young Russians in particular, who grew up not in the Soviet Union but in an age of social media exposing them to alternative models of society and politics, seem to be bridling at this (a reality that the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, harnessed with his anti-corruption YouTube videos, a service to the nation for which he was poisoned and now languishes in a penal colony).

Might there now in Russia too be something stirring, below the stultifying layers of autocracy and repression, like the wisps from some deep volcanic force rising through cracks in the earth? We shall see. Recent history should inoculate us all against everything but the most realistic and sober interpretations of events, let alone optimism.

A screengrab shows emergency service workers carrying a person at the site of a damaged multi-storey residential building in an aftermath of shelling, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in south-west of Kyiv, February 26, 2022. (Reuters TV)

As for Ukraine, the spirited displays of fleshed-out nationhood do not change the country’s extremely dark horizon. It may emerge from this as a merely weakened and bombed version of its former self; as a smouldering, rubble-strewn vassal of Putin’s Russia; as a chaotic rump state comprising just the western parts of what is now Ukraine; or even as a post-geographic diaspora state strewn across its current territory, Poland, Germany, the US and elsewhere. Very little is certain now. But one thing on which I would bet is that its sense of nationhood will be strengthened enormously by this nightmare.

Zelensky has simultaneously crafted a narrative and channelled one emerging organically from his people: a tale of defiance, resilience and survival. The stories that nations tell themselves and others can be the last thing to die. There is no scenario, however grim, in which those now being written in the shelled and traumatised streets of Ukraine will be forgotten. Sunflowers will grow, somewhere. Bright yellow sunflowers against a deep blue sky.

(See more: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything)

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times