Volodymyr Zelensky Is a True Hero. Only a Helpless World Can Make Him Tragic.
How remarkable that an ordinary guy meets his historic moment in such extraordinary way.
Volodymyr Zelensky treads that path: The former comic actor whose character’s rantings against government corruption propelled real-life Zelensky into his country’s presidency, now — beyond all things performative or political — leads his country, Ukraine, in its existential battle for simple survival against a foe, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, whose war machine is many multiples his own.
Doing so, Zelensky has ignited the world’s admiration, respect, even awe. The world “gets it,” instantly, that this contest is between David and Goliath, a Goliath who’s now — as we watch in horror — committing war crimes in killing innocent civilians, attacking refugee flows. A recent atrocity: Russia’s bombing of a theatre in Mariupol sheltering over 1,000 people including children, despite the word “KIDS” spelled out, in Russian, in letters visible from the air. This havoc, blood-stained and merciless, visited on a “brother” nation, is impossible to countenance.
Yet Zelensky, somehow instrumented by life-or-death struggle, is finding the words, the actions, the way — to mount the counterattack, rally his people, appeal to the world for help, all enabling that this outmanned David, as the war enters its fourth week, is still in the fight, not vanquished.
The world also “gets it” that what it is witnessing, is transfixed by, is something it has not seen in a long, long time: A hero — a true hero, one not out for personal exploit only, but who is fighting on behalf of his people and their nation’s very life — and he is ready to give his very life for both.
Likewise, the Ukrainian people: Where do ordinary people get the courage and steel to fight Goliath? Many, many say they are not afraid; they are sure they will win: this is not bravado, just bracing certitude (“just”?). They inspire with their grit, also, in a fractured world, with their unity. Clearly, the Ukrainians are inspired — compelled — by what they built these last 30 years since the Soviet Union collapsed: their democracy, their independence, their freedom.
For the nominally democratic parts of the world, Zelensky and the Ukrainians are breathing vivid life into these abstractions — democracy, independence, freedom — as they make the argument, both moral and mortal, for victory over the autocrat’s brute force. And they know they are making this argument — not only for Ukraine, but for the democratic world. The battle, Democracy vs. Autocracy, is now joined, in Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are “it.” Every fighting Ukrainian knows this, from Zelensky to the soldiers in combat to the constitutional law scholar now driving an ambulance to the citizen-soldiers taking up arms for the first time, ever.
At this fraught moment, the Ukrainians are the world’s most ardent democrats and, functionally, their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Leader of the Free World.
What a shame, then, that these heroes must plead — must beg — for more help from the West. Headlines following Zelensky’s virtual address to the U.S. Congress struck a beseeching note: “Invoking America’s darkest days, Zelensky pleads for more U.S. aid” (The New York Times), “Zelensky invokes Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as he pleads for more from Washington” (The New Yorker). Just now, at the emergency NATO summit following Zelensky’s virtual address, the Associated Press’ headline reads “Zelensky pleads with world leaders for arms to fight Russia.”
This is not to say the U.S. has stinted on its military aid. President Joe Biden turned on the spigot months ago, correctly calculating Putin’s aims in Ukraine. (Previously opposed to the U.S. as arms merchant, I’m now all in for gun-running to Ukraine.) Likewise NATO countries are transferring depots of materiel to Ukraine, while the European Union is funding these flows at historic levels. But, the terrible question becomes for our rules-based order: Is our military aid, considerable as it is, enough? And is it soon enough, before Putin goes fully medieval — surrounding Ukraine’s cities, laying siege, starving the inhabitants, pulverizing the landscape, and, crucially, cutting off the resupply of materiel.
Impressively, the Ukrainian army has fought its foe to “stalemate.” On the Russian side, morale both among troops and command ranks is reportedly low. Thus, the ominous question becomes: Will Putin now feel forced to use WMD, weapons of mass destruction? If this awful prospect becomes reality, and absent the West’s intervention, Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, through no fault of their own and owing only to their geopolitical fate, are rendered tragic — tragic heroes.
Arguments for the West’s restraint are well-known: that a no-fly zone over Ukraine and transfer of Polish MiG jet fighters are “no-go,” lest they “provoke” Putin into wider war with NATO — never mind Putin’s own heinous provocations. Regarding Putin’s nuclear threat, it could manifest as tactical “in-theatre” nukes — as if it’s O.K. if Ukraine is that theatre. Regarding biological or chemical weapons, Russia’s threshold for using them is low, comparatively. Again, it’s O.K. such attack is restricted to Ukraine? These are the narratives on offer to this Gordian knot of a dilemma. But narrative, over-rehearsed, can trap, can overlook the humanity and heroism lashed underneath.
To date in this war, I have endeavored to keep an operational focus, in the here and now: How to aid democratic Ukraine’s must-win mission in this History-upending moment, when brute force could force a new Dark Ages. Conversely, I’ve assiduously avoided anything “post-Ukraine,” counseling against treating Ukraine as expendable, or a “teaching moment,” or as the mechanism of “lessons learned.” Here I realize that, in touching on heroism rendered tragic, I am touching on the “post.” But I mean to stay in the operational here-and-now, by ensuring we properly value what the heroic Zelensky and the Ukrainians are doing — for themselves and for us. Besides, Zelensky and the Ukrainians know precisely their tragic situation — and they fight on.
Heroes — authentic heroes — are few enough: I mean heroes like Zelensky who work their sword-arm on behalf of their people. The heroes of Greek tragedy — Oedipus, Ajax, Medea, Electra — are brought down not in battle defending their people, but by their own tragic flaws (hubris, anger, jealousy). Even William Shakespeare, greatest playwright of all time, did not create people-driven heroes. Many are more Putin than Zelensky — Macbeth, Richard III. Others — Hamlet, Othello, Lear — are done in by internal flaws, with little to no thought to the people. Henry V is indeed a people’s warrior, rallying his troops with “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech; while Coriolanus, victor in battle urged to enter politics, disdains the people (and ends up fighting for the enemy).
Modern drama’s “heroes” could care less about “the people.” See: Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Nora Helmer, Peer Gynt. The conscientious Dr. Stockmann does warn his town of its poisoned waters but is defeated by the town’s authorities and branded “an enemy of the people.” Chekhov’s three sisters mourn their lives, not the people, as does Vanya, though Dr. Astrov, proto-environmentalist, grieves in advance for the planet’s welfare. O’Neill’s characters all slog the long day’s journey into night; Miller’s Willy Loman mourns not making it as a salesman; Tennessee Williams’ characters get nowhere near heroism. In today’s drama and film, the anti-hero now rules (sort of), caring little for people or even much for himself. (“Casablanca” is my favorite film, in part because Rick starts out anti-heroic, not caring for any cause but himself, but ends heroic, rejoining the fight, World War II.) Only in popular movies (versus art film) do we find a people’s hero, like “Braveheart,” about the Scot who led his people’s fight against the English king for their independence. It is an anomaly of this wild moment that the portrayer of the “Conan the Barbarian” movies (emphasis mine) messages the Russian people that they’re being lied to by Putin about their war in Ukraine, but if one barbarian can get through to another….
All of which may be why Volodymyr Zelensky rivets. He is something new under the modern sun: a people’s hero.
In a world full to the breaking point with lies, inauthenticity, bilge, and now, the evil of naked aggression and brute force unleashed on a sovereign people, the world sees “the real deal”: a hero. Anti-hero, he is not! To recur to his early career, he takes “stand-up comedian” to a whole new realm. Zelensky radiates an utterly natural courage and calm, as one refined in the most searing of crucibles — missiles crashing onto his people, Putin’s Spetsnaz (special forces) hunting him (several attempts have been foiled), no cavalry coming from the West to his beleaguered land’s rescue (it sends materiel and best wishes). Young people especially embrace him: In an age of extreme narcissism, they see in Zelensky how selfless leadership shines, inspires, and, we must hope, wins.
Operationally, this is a hero for our volatile, cynical, nihilistic times.
Zelensky connects with and inspires his people as a person, not a pol. Pre-war, his presidential approval rating was in the 30s, for not curbing corruption as promised; now approval appears rock-solid, with Ukrainians up and down the line expressing their devotion. As commander-in-chief, Zelensky “gets down” with his “band of brothers,” sharing coffee, talking; more, he leads a military far superior in daring and strategy to the Russian foe whose only advantage is numbers and brutality. As manager, he has enabled a cabinet and team to prosecute Ukraine’s war against the Russian bear in myriad creative ways — and maimed the bear.
As communicator, Zelensky is masterful, issuing daily messages via selfie posts to his people, and to the world, in symbolic assurance “I am here, we are together.” He now turns moral philosopher: “Indifference kills” and “You cannot mediate between good and evil.” Out in the world — where he cannot be now — Zelensky is a coalition-builder par excellence: In his virtual addresses to the U.S. Congress, the British and Canadian parliaments, and the European Union, he evoked images and historical references meaningful to those audiences, all leading to standing ovations. (One can imagine Zelensky’s soliloquy after these sessions: “I slay, yet I myself may still be slain.”)
Conversely, Putin: the depraved, killing, anti-human face of evil. In his mad dream of restoring Imperial Russia, by restoring the crown jewel (Ukraine) to its proper Russian setting, he shows himself a reactionary of the most rabid ilk, in denial of the growing worldwide demand for justice, dignity, respect, instead hell-bent on a sick pursuit of power at absolutely any cost. In executing this mad dream, Putin is inept at military strategy, command leadership. His only tool is fear; his only instrument, the lie: State media disgorges lie upon lie about the “special military operation” in Ukraine, which by ginned-up law can’t be called war. (How Putin thinks he can hoodwink History takes a special psychosis.) As to heroic: What’s heroic about a sledgehammer? The mad, uni-faceted Putin recalls Captain Ahab, in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, whose “monomania” — avenging himself on the Great White Whale that had “dismasted” him of a leg — drives him to such fatal overreach, that everything goes down: the crew including Ahab, all but Ishmael, and the ship itself, the Pequod, leaving only “chips” swirling in the “vortex.” In all, Putin is a pox; as the stoic Marcus Aurelius, who was also an emperor, wrote: “The soul of man does violence to itself, first of all, when it becomes an abscess and, as it were, a tumor on the universe.”
To venture a post-crisis note: In the world to come, after the Ukraine crisis is settled, I pray we rethink our fascination, even fetishization, of the “bad boy,” the “disrupter,” the “transgressor,” in politics and culture. I note it now, mid-crisis, when we see how heroism thrills and evil repels.
Back to the hard present: It is possible that, by not losing, Zelensky and the Ukrainians could still win. But Putin, now desperate, wields his sledgehammer ever harder, compounding his war crimes with atrocity after atrocity and atrocity. And: We watch, and watch, and watch. At what point, at what bloody marker, is Conscience compelled to act, to say, “No more”? At what point in the carnage will our “Don’t provoke Putin” narratives get pitched, will “complexity” clarify? At what point will brute force get complete free rein, with all heroism rendered tragic? This is a test, this is a test — for the rules-based order. For in addition to Ukraine’s suffering, there is the moral injury done to such order: If the injury is grievous enough, there will be no recovering.
In his virtual address to the U.S. Congress, Zelensky spoke of creating a “new international organization” that would come immediately, within 24 hours, to the aid of any member state under attack — an implied criticism of the failings of the West’s rules-based order. In that new organization, one precept must be: No nation, not matter how small, is expendable.
If there is any Justice, and if the West acts from its humanity, Volodymyr Zelensky, representing the valiant Ukrainian people, will be present at the creation of that new world. And Tragedy will be vanquished by the Hero, resetting our stage anew.
The writer is author of the play, “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks.” For more of my commentary on Ukraine, see here.