‘We are all here’: Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy becomes a hero for the ages – Toronto Star

This screen grab taken from a video made available on the Facebook account of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, shows himself speaking facing the camera on February 25, 2022.

Photographed in helmet and body armour, Zelenskyy said, in response to offers of his personal extrication from Ukraine, that what he needed was weapons, “not a ride.”

By Jim CoyleSpecial to the Star

Sat., Feb. 26, 20224 min. read

Article was updated 5 hrs ago

In a world full of sham tough guys, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has turned out to be the real deal.

The Ukrainian president, his country under siege by Russia, his capital of Kyiv battered by missiles, his own life in danger, has been over recent days the very model of calm, absolute composure, unshakable resolve, understated courage and, most important, inspiration.

No Hollywood producer could have made a war epic to top Zelenskyy’s selfie video from the heart of Kyiv. In it, the president’s percussive repetition of the word “here” told viewers where he was. And where he was staying.

“We are here,” he said. “We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine.

“Our army is here. Our civil society is here. We are all here.”

We are all here. Words fit for a motto, a bumper sticker, a thousand memes. Words to live — or die — by.

Photographed in helmet and body armour, Zelenskyy said, in response to offers of his personal extrication from Ukraine, that what he needed was weapons, “not a ride.”

He speaks to his nation not from a TV studio, not from a government office, but from the streets; streets they know and recognize, streets for which he makes clear he will shed his own blood.

It has been, to date, a virtuoso display.

Political leaders often use the rhetoric of war for their many crusades. The War on Drugs. The War on Crime. The War on Poverty. Fight of my life. Even Donald Trump — he of the blustering threats of fire and fury — fancied himself a “wartime president.”

But few of those who happily co-opt the language of war would likely care to be anywhere near it, save for quick photo opportunities.

Zelenskyy, however, has met his moment, putting his life where his words have been, in a way few contemporary leaders have been called on to do.

The challenge for his vastly outgunned country of more than 40 million is David and Goliath in proportion. But peoples fighting for their lives, heartened by inspiring leadership, have worked wonders from Thermopylae to Dunkirk.

Winston Churchill called the latter — the rescue of allied troops by a fleet of hastily-summoned merchant and fishing boats, pleasure craft and lifeboats — “a miracle of deliverance.”

As thousands of Ukrainian civilians pick up guns to help fend off Russian forces, Zelenskyy hopes such history of success against long odds can repeat itself.

It was Ernest Hemingway who defined courage as “grace under pressure.” And Zelenskyy has shown it. In the face of personal danger, he is matter-of-fact, with a hint of sly humour.

Here was a leader with boots and body on the ground; not a smirking technocrat speaking from lavish surroundings in the Kremlin.

“Our strength is truth,” Zelenskyy said. Four words. With the power of clarity, conscience, commitment.

His methods of communication have been as modern and perfectly rendered as his rise to his country’s presidency was unlikely.

Zelenskyy swept to power in April 2019 as a kind of Ukrainian everyman, promising to end corruption in his country and make peace with Russia.

He had entered politics from his place in a troupe of satirists who gave voice to his country’s frustration with the turbulent transition out of the former Soviet Union almost two decades earlier.

It might be, as Shakespeare wrote, that some are born great, some achieve greatness, “and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

Zelenskyy, 44, who grew up in a Jewish family, finds himself confronted with the most existential challenge any leader can face, and he is meeting it with greatness.

As an entertainer, he had studied political communication in order to mock it. “Politics is like bad cinema,” he once said.

Now, he uses that same understanding — of carriage and facial expression, cast of eye, intonation of voice — in his new occupation.

His messages in recent hours have been targeted to social media. His selfies are relatable to almost everyone on the planet who has ever made their own. His words have been a master-class in the power of the succinct to be unforgettable.

In modern history, the ideal of wartime rhetoric from underdogs — a message made from short words and simple phrases now cemented in history books — came from Churchill.

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The commitment to standing one’s ground was probably best put by the late Queen Mother in the early years of World War II.

“The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”

Zelenskyy stays in Ukraine. So, too, his architect wife, teenage daughter and nine-year-old son. By that decision, he repeats the promise: We are here.

In 2019, Donald Trump, through his shabby attempts to coerce the new Ukrainian leader into digging up dirt on political rivals, made Volodymyr Zelenskyy a name known around the world.

Three years on, Vladimir Putin, through his megalomania and inhumanity, has made Zelenskyy a hero for the ages.

Jim Coyle is a journalism instructor at Humber College and a former columnist at Torstar.