Why Volodymyr Zelensky’s courage has captured the Western imagination

By Jonathon Van Maren

For the past week, the world has been riveted by the performance of a former comedian and TV actor as he faces off with the world’s fifth-largest army. Forty-four-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky, who became president of Ukraine in 2019, has captured the imagination of the West by refusing to leave his capital city as the Russians close in and mercenary teams are sent to hunt him down. This unlikely politician has rallied his nation, inspired them to resistance, and is leading by example. He is a top target for the Russians, and it is not unlikely that he will be killed. Zelensky certainly knows this.

I suspect our collective fascination with Zelensky is due to the fact that real courage casts a harsh light on the imitation. The example that sprang to mind was Ted Cruz promising to bomb ISIS until “the sand glows in the dark,” or bellowing “Freedom!” in Braveheart fashion from the stage of a conference. You’re not quite sure why this all comes off as performative until you see someone utter similar words while willing to pay the price. When Zelensky told the Americans that “I need ammunition, not a ride” or EU leaders that it might be the last time they saw him alive, his words were not cheap.

Bravado is not bravery, and machismo is not masculinity. Zelensky, a comic-turned-politician, has ironically exposed many of his counterparts as performative clowns.

I see that others have already made the Churchill comparison—it is irresistible at this point. An unlikely leader rallying his nation with genuine courage—Churchill stalking the roof of his quarters while his underlings took to the bunkers, smoking a cigar while London lit up with the bombs of the Luftwaffe; Zelensky and his advisors remaining in Kiev, determined to stand with their fellow Ukrainians in the face of the Russian threat. Churchill became a symbol of defiance and mobilized the English language on behalf of his people, growling: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

When it was claimed that Zelensky had fled, he posted a video of himself and his team outside the government administration buildings in Kiev:

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. 

It reminded me of the slogan Winston Churchill had planned to use if the Germans had successfully invaded England: “You can always take one with you.” Like Zelensky, he cared more about his honor than his safety. Honor is hard to define, but we recognize it when we see it.

In 2017, Rusty Reno of First Things penned an essay titled “Return of the Strong Gods” (published as a book in 2019). Reno argued that after World War Two and “the staggering slaughter of back-to-back world wars,” the West embraced the ideal of the “open society,” actively attempting to suffocate “the old attachments to nation, clan, and religion.” Completing this, the theory went, we could “build a prosperous world without borders, freedom from dogmas, and managed by experts.” The rise of populism and the backlash to the elites, Reno posited, heralded a return of the strong gods and the beginning of a new era.

Whether or not Reno’s bold thesis accounts for all of our recent upheavals, we know that the old gods stalk the streets of Kiev while the world watches it unfold from their smartphones. On the radio, I heard Ukrainian resistors chanting Glory to Ukraine! Glory to our heroes! as they stacked sandbags across one of their roads to slow the Russians. It didn’t sound cheap or kitschy—glory and heroes are being found and made here, and their love of country, family, culture and heritage are exposing the farcical nature of our Western discourse on such things. Westerners call all sorts of people “courageous” these days—pro athletes coming out of the closet, men claiming to be women, gender dysphoric kids—while rejecting the traditional attachments as toxic. Our fascination with the Ukrainian resistance reveals that the old gods can still pull strong.

I don’t care for the way many pundits are attempting to immediately make the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine about their pet culture war issues or their politics, but there is something blindingly stark about the contrast between the ordinary Ukrainians taking up arms and the actual head of the UK’s MI6 worrying aloud that their heroism might distract us from our focus on the LGBT agenda:

With the tragedy and destruction unfolding so distressingly in Ukraine, we should remember the values and hard won freedoms that distinguish us from Putin, none more than LGBT+ rights. So let’s resume our series of tweets to mark #LGBTHM2022

The old virtues—courage, self-sacrifice, valor, and love of family, nation, and people have been on display for the whole world to see in Ukraine. In a culture that worships autonomy and the self, the sight of so many willing to offer themselves up for their country and loved ones is a rebuke to much of our postmodern Western way of life. We recognize this courage as a rare thing, and most of us would have to admit that we do not know if we could display it if called upon (although we hope we would). It is even rarer for this courage to become a common thing, but—led by a politician who was a TV actor just a few years ago—it can be seen everywhere in Ukraine.

I don’t pretend to have any expertise as to whether or not various nations should intervene and what the Russians might do in response, and most of those offering their takes don’t, either. But I do know that the courage of President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken deeply to many of us. We are attracted to what he displays, and the mocking voices deriding “toxic masculinity” and scoffing at the concept of honor are rightfully silent now. It is possible for one man to pose a threat to the ambitions of a dictator by displaying the virtues that were once held up by the ancient pagans as well as the Christians after them. Volodymyr Zelensky is doing that right now.

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7 thoughts on “Why Volodymyr Zelensky’s courage has captured the Western imagination

  1. Mark Zbylut says:

    Twice now I have seen comments on FB that Volodymyr Zelensky has Nazi elements in his government. The statements were from average people and these opinions go back years. Is there any truth to these rumors and where did they come from?

  2. Joyce says:

    Watching Zelenksy writhe and dance in leather and high heels and play piano with his penis makes it hard to associate the man with honour, but ok. At least the effectiveness of the propaganda machine doesn’t appear to be one of COVID’s casualties.

    • Jonathon Van Maren says:

      As it turns out, flawed and sinful men can rise to meet the moment. If you find that shocking, wait til you hear about the private lives of many great leaders through the centuries. Many of them make Zelensky’s gross entertainment shtick look calm.

  3. Joyce says:

    Right. Well, maybe not the hero that we wanted, but the hero we deserved. In an age that appears to be light on journalistic integrity and heavy on emotional manipulation, it’s hard to take anything seriously these days. I think I’ll just stick to gardens and babies and things like that.

  4. Ann says:

    At least Zelensky was elected with 73% of the vote – not put in power through a neo-Nazi coup like his predecessor. He seems like a relatively nice guy, who told Ukrainians to look to their children for leadership, not to him. I don’t know what to make of that, frankly. He’s handed out machine guns to 14 year olds and sent them into war against the Russians– is that a good thing? Also, I heard he has agreed to meet with Putin near the border with Belarus– as if he were ready to strike a deal. Was that just a rumour?Mixed messaging? If the western media are lionizing him now, chances are it’s because they desperately need an anti-Putin whom they constantly portray as an irrational murderer. Listen to Putin explain the reasons Russia went to war against Ukraine: it’s about the bioweapons labs and child Trafficking, as much as the missiles in Crimea pointed at Russia. I get the feeling you haven’t really looked at the recent history– the CIA-backed Orange Revolution that overthrew a legitimate elected President in 2014 and threw Ukraine open to control by criminal gangs, Monsanto and the NWO.

    An actor is an actor imho- maybe he’s heroic or mahbe he has an exit prepared when the time comes.

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