Who could have imagined a television comedian elected in a fit of humour would prove to be a great statesman? (Although you say the same of Boris Johnson.) Vladimir Zelenskiy has proven to be the hero his country needs in its greatest distress: head and shoulders above any politician.
He seemed an odd choice for the mantle of ‘statesman’: he has been known for prancing about the stage in knock-about sketches on the box, and starring in comedy programmes. Stuck in a political office, one would think him a pushover, and maybe the other Vladimir thought so so. Instead we have a ‘servant of the people’ in amongst the people, shunning offers to help him flee, as any politician in circumstances would, but appearing on the streets, encouraging resistance to the dictator to the north.
There is a bit more to the man than his slapstick television clown persona: this an entrepreneur, creator and mainstay of a media business. It is not like dragging someone from TOWIE and sticking them in the chair. That depth may have been missed by his opponent.
The Black Earth of the Ukraine, the open steppes and the once lawless Zaparozhe lands tug at the hearts of those who live there. It was from here that a Cossack tradition grew which drove east and south to conquer and settle Russia’s vast empire, and this was inseparably a tradition of freedom from outside control and all the promises of endless frontier lands. This was also a land once filled with little, distinct Jewish villages scattered across the steppe in their own form of independence – they are no more since the SS swept over the land exterminating them, and Zelenskiy will feel that too, as his family were lost to it. The dictator’s boot is unwelcome here.
At the same time, the Ukraine is a part of wider Russian culture. It was in attempts to break it away that Moscow’s wrath was kindled. Here it meets a contradiction in the soul of the Rus’ though: the freedom of the frontier against the autocracy of the ruler. Here too is a paradox that will cause the campaign to fail: if the Ukrainian and the Russian are all one people, then how can one fight the other?
This land at the edge of empire is a threat to the autocracy of the centre because it has shown, with whatever imperfections, that those of Russian culture can have a democracy and freedom to speak and work. If that is allowed to continue, it gives the lie to the nature of the Muscovite norm of autocracy. Previous Ukrainian presidents have played the same game as their neighbours, crushing opponents, playing an oppressive Sprachpolitik and allowing corruption to run riot. In Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaker himself, but an outsider to all sides, it has been possible to imagine another way – people are free to live, to speak and to work. It is work in progress. Local nationalism is nihilistic and artificial, but freedom; that is worth defending.
- The Russian Enigma
- Putin it like that, no
- The Wrong Side of History
- Putin: we’re coming for you
- A Future for Freedom
- By Mark Galeotti:
- Putin: Russia’s Choice by Chris Hutchins
- A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, Stephanie Sandler