I really like Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. What an amazing man. How did a Jewish comedian who won the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars, and who performed the Ukrainian voiceover for the animated feature, Paddington, become a renowned leader? No one really knows. Was it simply being in the right place at the right time? Was it providential?
People all over the world are praising Zelensky. More importantly, the people of Ukraine are praising their president, a man who, just a few months ago, they were calling a lackluster, ineffective leader. What accounts for this metamorphosis? At the very least, one can say that he has risen to the occasion.
I didn’t know much about Zelensky prior to Putin loosing the dogs of war on Ukraine. I knew a lot more about Putin, always seen on camera alone in a dark suit, looking grey and grim. Putin, making solitary summary decisions to destroy a sovereign nation. Putin, using the doublespeak of lies and misinformation to obfuscate his obsession with wreaking havoc on those who would dare to choose democracy over his fascistic version of control.
Zelensky is a hero now and may one day be considered a great man. Because he decided to step up and lead. He did not form a government in exile. He is not issuing condemnations from Paris. Zelensky is couch surfing all over Ukraine to avoid capture. He is with various members of his cabinet, making decisions about how to respond to a monster without conscience or empathy.
It may be that Zelensky and his people are arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fighting against the Russian army, preventing the brutal crushing of Ukraine may all be futile. But Zelensky does not flee.
Zelensky delivers simple messages to his people and to all of us. He says, over and over, that democracy is precious. He inspires us with his unequivocal reading of the equation, that it is preferable to fight for freedom than to capitulate.
I’ve been around, so I know that today’s hero can quickly become tomorrow’s discredited bum. The press is always eager to take down an iconic leader. Zelensky may become a scapegoat for whatever emerges as this terrible war rages. So, for now anyway, I think of Zelensky as a mensch, a man who looks into the maw of destruction and does not blink. He knows he may be murdered or tortured, but he will not back down.
We observe this brave man and his extraordinary ability to inspire. Many Americans find Zelensky’s passionate advocacy for freedom and democracy to be thrilling. It’s a reminder that some Americans have lost a passion for freedom and democracy as others have arisen to fill that anxious void with fascism and hate. Zelensky is teaching a lesson right now to all of us. We would be wise to learn from him.