Zelensky Is Human, but Ukraine’s President Is More Than Just a Man Now

Source: The Daily Beast / www.thedailybeast / By Matt Lewis /

Hero worship can be dangerous, but in dark times, you need someone to believe in.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the hero we need, even if Donald Trump and Joe Biden are the heroes we deserve.

Just when you thought that the good guys only triumph in the movies, and that all that matters in the real world is raw power, a 5-foot-6-inch former comedian has emerged as a towering symbol of defiance in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s naked aggressions. In the process, he has stymied Putin’s plans for a quick victory.

Zelensky’s response to the U.S. offer to evacuate him from the capital city of Kyiv has become an instant classic: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

The key to inspiring others is to lead by example.

Whether it was Winston Churchill enduring the Blitz or John McCain refusing an early release from a Vietnamese P.O.W. camp, these displays of character and strength—real strength, not mere performative displays of toxic masculinity—make people want to be their bravest selves. And in an asymmetrical insurgency where the goal is to endure, hope can be as powerful as deadly weapons, and courage is contagious.

Putin understands all too well what Zelensky’s refusal to cut and run means. During Operation Barbarossa, Nazi troops got within a few miles of Moscow—so close, it is said, they could see the spires of the Kremlin.

As historian Andrew Roberts wrote, “Stalin, who seems to have suffered some kind of mental breakdown when told of the invasion, even had his personal train made ready to spirit him out of Moscow and behind the Urals.” This might have been the only time where the Soviet Union actually benefited from Stalin’s presence, but he stayed. Had the General Secretary fled, “the collapse in Soviet morale might well have allowed the Wehrmacht to win the war in the East,” according to Roberts.

Not only has Zelensky not evacuated, but he has also leveraged social media to reinforce his presence and dispel contrary rumors.

“Good evening to you all,” Zelensky said in a video on Friday. “The head of government is here. The head of the president’s office is here. Prime Minister Shmyhal is here. Adviser Podoliak is here. The president is here. Our soldiers are here. Our citizens are here. We are all defending our independence—our country—and it will stay that way. Glory to the men and women defending us. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”

It’s tough not to view Zelensky as a hero, but it’s still wise to remember that, for someone who is now a symbol, refusing to evacuate can have tragic consequences.

Consider what would have happened if the British Royal Family had been captured by the Nazis during World War II. Imagine the potential for leverage, never mind the potential for humiliating and demoralizing propaganda. There were plans in place for the royals to be shepherded to Canada, should Germany make a land invasion. Fortunately, those contingencies were not needed.

I must confess that I am worried about something similar happening to Zelensky. This might sound dark, but the Ukrainians need Zelensky to be either the conquering hero or the martyr. He cannot be captured alive. Zelensky’s heroism isn’t just vital for Ukrainian morale, the West needs him too.

The Ukrainian president is just a 44-year-old man with a family. He is just one of the billions of human beings on this planet. But after his resolute defiance of a nuclear-armed madman, he is now much more than that.

Czech playwright, poet, and dissident Václav Havel endured prison and constant harassment from his country’s Soviet-backed communist regime. In 1989, he led the Velvet Revolution, toppling the dictatorship without firing a shot. He soon became the country’s first democratically elected president.

It’s hard not to see a bit of Havel in Zelensky—even if the latter has been forced by circumstance to fight bloody.

That’s not to say Zelensky is perfect. Nobody is. But imperfect heroes sometimes come in surprising shapes and sizes, and otherwise average men can meet their moment. At this critical juncture, Zelensky is providing the kind of moral leadership that nourishes the human spirit. When is the last time we all had someone to cheer for and something to believe in?

Whether it’s U.S. businesses refusing to stand up to China (lest they lose money) or Republican politicians refusing to stand up to Donald Trump (lest they lose votes), examples of cowardice abound.

In such a toxic political environment, cynicism and selfishness reign, and some people eventually conclude that only the “losers” and “suckers” are willing to die for their country. This mindset is demoralizing, and can eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Contrary to the supposed political courage that has been all too scarce in modern America, Zelensky’s courage is, as David French writes, “both moral and physical. He’s not just speaking against evil, he’s quite literally standing against evil—when evil seems to possess all the power, and virtue feels so weak.”

In the process, Zelensky, a diminutive former comedian, is providing an authentic example of heroic masculinity and servant leadership. To state the obvious, he is the antithesis of Donald Trump—the man who tried, and failed, to extort him.

Once again, Zelensky is rising to the occasion. I just pray he can endure.