When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, known to us then in the US mostly as the untried people’s-choice president whom The Former Guy had tried to extort for manufactured dirt against Joe Biden (and escaped conviction in the Senate for it), took to social media with a firm reassurance:
One hundred days later, President Zelenskyy posted his latest nightly address thanking President Joe Biden for the US’s continued material support for Ukraine’s defense of their sovereignty:
Between Night One and Night One Hundred Zelenskyy was put through a public crucible of leadership. When the US offered to airlift him to safety, Zelenskyy’s retort — “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride” — signaled to us the quality of independence we’ve come to recognize as a Ukrainian passion; but it also signaled to Ukraine that unlike previous presidents, he wasn’t going to cut and run. It was time to stand and fight back. Ukraine has taken his cue, counted the cost, and decided it was worth paying.
The rest of us are still counting.
While we were counting, Ukrainians fought the might of Russia inch by inch away from Kyiv. The latest address above is recorded in the presidential palace proper, with the lights on: but this is recent. Most of Zelenskyy’s evening addresses were recorded in a bunker, in dim light, in moments snatched during his sleepless slog from emergency to emergency. Nor did he only speak to Ukraine. He gave address after address to every governing body within Zoom’s reach: in one early teleconference with EU leaders, he said, “This might be the last time you see me alive”; later, he crafted appeals to every country’s parliament, legislature, and council with analogies to their own history. But the core appeals to each were nearly identical.
He wanted the world to acknowledge, explicitly and on record, that Ukraine is a sovereign nation with the right to exist independently of Russia. And he wanted “ammunition”; weapons to fight Goliath off their homeland and put a stop to the indiscriminate carnage being inflicted on his people.
Goliath, meanwhile, was demonstrating that they were both inept and cruel in the prosecution of their illegal war. As the Ukrainians drove them back, they saw what Russia had left behind. Zelenskyy, visiting Bucha after its liberation, was captured on camera with his face an open depth of rage and grief.
I recommend this 60 Minutes interview with Zelenskyy for its portrait of the things I am talking about here. It’s the end that stayed with me: Scott Pelley finishes the interview with, “Mr. President, we wish you all the luck in the world.” Zelenskyy switches from Ukrainian to a halting English and says with a painful smile: “I need half of it. Even half would be enough.”
We wish you all the luck in the world.
I only need half.
Not too long after that, I downloaded the Duolingo app and started to learn Ukrainian. Going over these videos now, I can actually pick out words, though after only 44 days of the curriculum I’m not quite at the point of fully grasping everything that’s being said. This is a country that has a deep, mordantly funny, stubborn character. Ground between the millstones of empires for centuries like the wheat grown in their fields bound for parts elsewhere, they’ve been fighting for their independence (and their unity) for almost as long as we’ve had ours. They understand their own peril; they understand they are standing in the gap for everyone else’s democracy. I’m not sure we really understand either of those things, but I know whose example I want to follow.
This war isn’t new — Russia started the process in 2014 after Ukraine got fed up with Russia’s meddling and swept in a new government not beholden to Putin and his encroachments. There’s a picture somewhere of a fight that broke out in the Ukrainian parliament during these troubles; I thought it very quaint, then, to see political disagreements reduced to fisticuffs. I did not know it was the first manifestation of a malice that would finally show itself in our country with The Former Guy and the January 6 insurrection. Nobody died in the Verkhovna Rada as they did in our capital: but Ukrainians are certainly dying now. Our whole country has turned into Bleeding Kansas. The war isn’t new.
Zelenskyy was new, though. But one can only admire how quickly he understood his assignment. He became the avatar of his country to us, and a mirror for the Ukrainians themselves. He pushes Ukraine’s asks aggressively with one hand (“He has the list,” Zelenskyy said of Biden when Scott Pelley asked him what weapons he wanted sent), and dishes out sincere gratitude with the other:
He throws shade on Russia not as a slam line looking for applause, but as if he expects any Ukrainian sitting in his seat would employ the same devastating skill:
And I believe they would! After all, the Snake Island soldier’s defiance is now a Ukrainian postage stamp, and the Moscow — that very Russian warship he told to go fuck itself — has been promoted to submarine in the Black Sea fleet.
Zelenskyy knows how to use his art, too. Here he is (in a two-parter; do watch them both) juxtaposing the May 9 Victory Day with the slogan “Never Again”:
And the next day, rallying Ukraine to envision its future victory:
There is one benefit of war to set against its evils: it can be a rough but effective sieve for our priorities. And I think our first priority is to stop talking about, thinking about, and revolving about other people who are doing it wrong. They might be! Who cares? Find someone who’s doing it right, and imitate them. To the hilt.
This year I have resolved to say nothing about what is or isn’t being done in political circles if I do not have something I am doing to put next to it. Seriously, it just darkens counsel. I wonder what would happen if for 24 hours nobody in this country could post anything to social media, no “what he said!” or “can you believe this?” or anything. Would we be able to peer through the cloud of dust and see who we are?
Likewise, if your plans for Bleeding Kansas this year involve trying to make some individual or group feel ashamed of themselves for whatever they’re doing: you’re gonna need to make another plan. Like Russia at the Olympics, this year’s bad actors live in the conviction that shame is something that happens to other people. No plan depending on any of them having a change of heart or making an honest agreement is a plan that will work. Even those people who can be reached — is this really the best use of our time? I don’t think we have as much of that commodity as it seems. Be like Ukraine: surmount what you can, and when you can’t, trade space for time and fight smarter, not harder.
There are lots of op-eds proliferating in mainstream media right now, warning us that supporting Ukraine is going to get “complicated” and that we had better get used to the idea of letting Russia have its way at least in part if we want to save lives. Whose lives? Not the Ukrainians, a population destined for liquidation for the sin of refusing to think of themselves as “Little Russians.” They don’t want us to do their fighting for them. In all the ways that matter, they are doing our fighting for us.
I can think of lots of ways we could be less lost, less unfocused, than we are now. But I shudder to think of where we’d be without Ukraine, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, its willing avatar, to raise the standard.