Before becoming President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky played the role on television. He created and starred in a comedy series, servant of the people. His character, a high school history teacher, is surreptitiously recorded by one of his students as he passionately rants against the tyranny of corruption in his country. Unbeknownst to him, the video goes viral. Without campaigning or even wanting the job, the teacher is unlikely to be elected president of Ukraine. The humble man, out of his depths in almost every way, becomes a heroic ruler of his country.
Artists who enter politics are rightly treated with suspicion, as they are experts in the most dangerous part of the job, manipulating mass emotion. And in Ukraine, any foreigner who comes to power engenders even greater suspicion, because it is assumed that he must obey some dark force or other. As Zelensky stumbled in his political career, those doubts dogged him. It sometimes seemed like he ruled like an amateur doing his best, someone just playing the part.
But in life, as in the fictional version he created, the slightly diminutive, gravelly-voiced Zelensky was put to the character’s most intense stress test. During the past terrible week, he revealed himself.
Yesterday, Zelensky told a video conference of European leaders that they would probably never see him again. The whole world can see that his execution is most likely imminent. What reason does he have to doubt that Vladimir Putin is ordering his assassination, as the Russian leader has done with so many of his bravest critics and enemies? Zelensky’s fate is so clear that Washington has offered to root him out of Kiev so he can form a government in exile. But Zelensky brushed aside the promise of security. He would have prefer that Washington delivers him more weapons for his resistance: “The fight is there. I need ammo, not a round.
His will to die testifies to the new Ukraine, which his people are now mobilizing to protect. Born in the Russian-speaking industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, a grim metropolis of blast furnaces, Zelensky broke free from grime with his talent for broad, physical comedy in the style of Benny Hill. With a group of his friends, he created a comedy troupe that became one of the most beloved acts in the post-Soviet world. He built an entertainment empire in Russia and could have remained successful in this field. But in 2014, after Putin invaded his homeland, he donated money to the scruffy Ukrainian military, an act that put him on the wrong side of the Russian government.
Zelensky moved his production company to Kiev and began to really master the Ukrainian language. It was not out of attachment of blood and land to the native land. It was an affirmative endorsement of the country he saw becoming Ukraine – the easternmost outpost of cosmopolitan Europe, a place that could elect a vaudevillian Jewish president. That a relative outsider has come to rule this nation – and is willing to die for it – is perhaps the most moving validation of the cause.
When Zelensky rejected Washington’s offer of exile, he was not making an obvious decision. After the invasion of France by Germany, Charles de Gaulle goes to London. Or to take a more recent example: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani boarded a helicopter from Kabul when he heard a rumor that the Taliban had entered the city. And, really, who could blame them? Most human beings would rather their enemies not hang their corpse by a traffic light, the kind of historical antecedent that is hard to get rid of from the mind.
In Ukraine, the decision for a leader to flee would be the expected choice. That’s what his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, did in the aftermath of the 2014 revolution, leaving behind his palace full of exotic cars and ostriches for the safety of Moscow. The enduring failure of Ukrainian democracy has been the gap between the code of conduct that applies to the elite and that which the rest of the country must follow. It is the elites who profit from the state, who hide their ill-gotten fortunes in French villas and Cypriot bank accounts, while their compatriots stagnate. By staying put, Zelensky has erased this gap. There is no airlift waiting for his fellow citizens, so rather than accept the advantage of his position, he suffers the same terror and deprivation they are forced to endure.
A week ago, it was by no means clear that the world would rally behind Ukraine’s cause. Nor was it clear that the Ukrainian people would mount collective resistance to the invasion of their country. There are of course many reasons why the tide has turned the way it has. But it’s hard to think of another recent instance in which a human being defied collective expectations for his behavior and provided such an inspiring moment of service to the people, clarifying the terms of conflict through his example.
Last night, Zelensky posted a video of himself standing in the street, speaking into the humble recording device of the smartphone, his face stubbled, surrounded by the nation’s leaders, stripped of all trappings of office. “We are still here,” he told the nation. I pray that will be the case tomorrow.