Churchill with a smartphone
On Churchill and Zelenskyy: Two peas in a pod
It would be no crude exaggeration to say that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, has a Churchillian streak. In one of his most recent videos, he starts with a view of Kyiv at night, then points his phone's camera at himself to narrate a walk down a hallway. Within less than a minute, without breaking stride, he takes a seat at his desk and commences a formal speech to his country. The video cuts to a customary camera view in mid-sentence, so the viewer watches a seamless transition from selfie to state address.
■ If Winston Churchill had lived in the era of the iPhone, he would certainly have tipped his cap in admiration. Churchill knew the power of broadcasting a message to the country. In the BBC's words, "It is hard to quantify the significance of Churchill's wartime speeches in bolstering national morale during the long years of the war. But more than half the adult population tuned in to them".
■ It is self-evident that Zelenskyy knows the power of communication. With credits as a writer, director, and producer, as well as an actor, he's aware that there is more to reaching people than just looking good on camera. His use of a clever quick-cut in mid-sentence from the authenticity of a selfie to the authority of the presidential desk isn't just good television work: It's a powerful proof of life, and it's a dramatic way to say, "These are my own words; I am nobody's puppet".
■ But his use of words matters, too. He praises the armed forces, but he shows respect to others, too: "The servicemen are in positions. Our heroes! Doctors, rescuers, transporters, diplomats, journalists." And, further, "Everywhere people defended themselves, although they do not have weapons there. But these are our people, and that's why they have weapons. They have courage. Dignity. And hence the ability to go out and say: I'm here, it's mine, and I won't give it away." Even if the translation to English is choppy, the meaning runs deep.
■ Try to imagine Vladimir Putin praising journalists or lauding the "dignity" of unarmed protest. One cannot. Nor can one imagine the same from other authoritarians around the world -- not Assad, nor Xi, nor Lukashenko. Zelenskyy doesn't have to be perfect to have clearly aligned himself with the interests of human freedom and against repressive power.
■ There is clearly a long road ahead, and much could go wrong along the way. And what Zelenskyy wants, he may not get: He wants membership in the EU and a no-fly zone overhead. Those may not be deliverable. Churchill spent a long time pleading for American arms and even opened himself to the prospect of an Anglo-Franco civil union as a way to stop Nazi Germany. He eventually got the weapons, but the Lend-Lease Act took a lot longer than hoped.
■ But, for now, Zelenskyy keeps marshalling his words (and his Twitter account) to the cause of a peace won through victory. He is using media better amid a crisis than any political leader in at least a generation, and probably better than any head of government since Churchill himself.
■ Whether he's familiar with the words or not, he has tapped into a sense once expressed by Dwight Eisenhower: "We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism. From the evidence, it would appear that the Communist leaders also believe this; else why do they attack and attempt to destroy the practice of these concepts?" Eisenhower was right then; Zelenskyy is in the right today.