When the Man Meets the Moment
Why Zelensky matters, in Ukraine and the world.
On the evening of February 25, two days into the Russian invasion of his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stood beside his senior staff in a capital under fire, and recorded the simple video below:
His words, translated, are direct, and they rocketed around the globe:
Good evening to you all. 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.
Since that message Zelensky has been back in the streets of Kyiv, refuting rumors that he’s fled. He has flatly refused a reported American offer of evacuation, declaring “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
It’s worth repeating, this is a capital under active attack. As I write this newsletter, Russian tanks are reported to be on the city’s outskirts, it’s suffered repeated air and missile strikes, and there’s been fighting reported in the city’s streets. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that killing or capturing Zelensky is a key Russian war aim.
Yet he stays.
It’s sometimes hard to gauge in real time whether any given moment, no matter how dramatic, is truly culturally or historically significant. Not every viral video matters, and we’re quick to create (and forget) both heroes and villains.
But there is something about Zelensky’s stand that is different. There’s something about it that’s penetrating far beyond his country’s borders and touching the hearts of Americans across the political spectrum. It means something real, something we should remember.
Part of the importance rests in Zelensky’s identity. Nothing about his past suggests that he was ready to potentially become Ukraine’s Churchill. Indeed, in the run-up to the Russian invasion itself, there were a lot of reasons to wonder whether he was, in the words of a New York Times essay by a Ukrainian journalist, “seriously in over his head.”
I’ve spoken to a number of knowledgeable people who questioned not only Zelensky’s presidency (Has he done enough to root out corruption? Has he surrounded himself with friends and cronies?) but also his preparation for the Russian invasion. Did he downplay the threat of Russian attack for too long? Did he mobilize too late?
The best argument for Zelensky was that he was an ordinary man caught in extraordinary times. Because evil often leaves virtue with few good choices, he had no clear path. Mobilize too soon, and you can cripple your economy and perhaps provide pretext for a Russian attack. Mobilize too late, and you’ve granted the invader a military advantage.
Moreover, when exactly do you tell your people that the Russians are coming? After all, there were disagreements about the likelihood and extent of the Russian attack right until the moment it launched.
But extraordinary times are also when ordinary men can become heroes. We’ve become accustomed to dealing with brand-managed politicians—men and women who sometimes act more like messaging machines than leaders or legislators. We’re just as accustomed to moral cowardice. Politicians fold to Twitter mobs. They say one thing in green rooms and another thing on television because they’re terrified of the activist base, or mean words from Mar-a-Lago.
It’s not that we’re even experiencing a political class full of ordinary people in extraordinary times, but rather too often it seems as if they’re small people, who shrink even smaller the bigger the moment. There are exceptions here in the United States, but they’re exceptions. There is a reason why public trust collapses. There is a reason why angry cynicism grips our land.
In these circumstances it is breathtaking to witness actual courage. It’s even more breathtaking when that courage is 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.
And this reminds us of something important about leadership. It’s one thing to say, “I will lead you.” It’s another thing entirely to say, “I am with you,” and to demonstrate it by laying your own life on the line.
I truly hesitate to use this comparison, because the story is not yet fully written and the stakes are not (yet) quite so high, but there is a reason why I mentioned Winston Churchill. Before 1940—and before the Battle of Britain—it was hardly inevitable that he’d be the leader the moment required.
Yes, Churchill was prescient about the threat from Adolf Hitler, but he had a checkered past. He made mistakes that could have ended his career. He bears responsibility for the bloody British defeat at Gallipoli, one of the worst military mistakes of World War I.
He could be spectacularly wrong. When powerful evil confronted him with tough strategic or tactical choices, he sometimes chose poorly. He often chose poorly.
But Churchill did get the most important thing right—and it’s the same thing that Zelensky gets right today. When evil does come to your national door, you stand against it. Not just morally, but physically as well. More than once, Churchill stood outside during the Blitz. He walked the streets of London after raids. Was it foolish for the prime minister to expose himself to German bombs? Would his loss have been more than Britain could bear?
I’m reminded of a moment in the Battle of Princeton, when George Washington rode within 30 yards of the British line. One of his aides, John Fitzgerald, reportedly “pulled his hat over his eyes,” afraid that he’d witness Washington’s death. Could our young nation have survived Washington’s loss?
Perhaps the better question is whether nations can survive without such courage.
This is not a movie. No happy ending is guaranteed. A happy ending isn’t even likely. Zelensky’s future could be grim indeed. He might be assassinated or captured between the time when I go to sleep Saturday night and this newsletter automatically sends at 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning. He might eventually have to retreat from the capital to continue the government. He may have to make peace to end his nation’s suffering.
Indeed, for all the optimism surrounding early Ukrainian resistance, a nation that is winning a war is not arming middle-aged women and preparing them to fight:
When he was a young man, Winston Churchill reportedly memorized Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. Think of these words as you remember his stand and the stand of Volodymyr Zelensky and the men and women of Ukraine:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.
The future is opaque. The fog of war has descended over the battlefield. Much is unknown, but this much is clear: An ordinary man has answered the call of an extraordinary time, and he has sparked hope in his own people and in a cynical and weary west.
One more thing …
I haven’t seen any coverage on this point yet, but there is a stronger and deeper bond between Ukraine and America than many realize. Across the United States, Evangelical churches have been sending mission groups to Ukraine for years. There are now permanent relationships between American and Ukrainian churches. Thousands of American Christians are talking to Ukrainian Christians every day. This conflict is hitting home in unexpected places in the United States. Friends of mine have walked the streets in the cities they see under attack on the news each night.
I don’t yet know the long-term political or cultural impact of those ties, but they’re very real, and they’re one reason why this war (and Zelensky’s courage) is hitting so very many Americans straight in the heart.
Another thing …
In this week’s Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I talk to my friend, Anglican priest and New York Times columnist Tish Harrison Warren about praying during wars, real and imaginary. The conversation goes directly to the question of the propriety of praying directly for Vladimir Putin’s complete defeat, and doesn’t slow down from there.
One last thing …
Speaking of Ukrainian Christians, I was profoundly moved by this short video, of a Ukrainian family singing the hymn, “He Will Hold Me Fast.” Here’s the Ukrainian family, followed by the same wonderful hymn, in English. He will hold us fast.