Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is “Borges and Me,” a memoir of his travels in the Highlands of Scotland in 1971 with Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine fabulist. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal and wholly unjustified invasion of Ukraine has transfixed the world in horror.
It is an unprecedented conflict in modern times, as Thomas L. Friedman notes in The New York Times. Citing TikTok and other social media platforms, along with satellites and live traffic data on Google Maps, Friedman writes, “Welcome to World War Wired – the first war in a totally interconnected world.”
It’s a large-scale invasion that’s being “livestreamed, minute by minute, battle by battle, death by death, to the world,” as Daniel Johnson, an Iraq War veteran and journalist wrote in Slate. Those of us who are lucky enough to be miles away from the missile strikes, gunfire and shelling are watching the events unfold in real time on smart phones and other screens.
And the heroic figure at the center of this war is none other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and comedian who rose to prominence playing a character on a popular TV show who accidentally becomes the Ukrainian president. Zelensky then parlayed his success into politics, running for office in 2019 on the back of a political party named after his show, “Servant of the People.”
Imagine a country where a television star could become president and emerge as a beacon of courage!
Ukraine has interested me as a country since my first visit there as a college student in 1969, when it was an unhappy member-state of the Soviet Union. I recall making the mistake of calling Ukraine a “Russian satellite” and being quickly slapped down by a patriotic gentleman, who told me in no uncertain terms that Ukraine had its own beloved language, literature, history, music and cultural traditions.
In August 1991, Ukraine officially and proudly withdrew from the Soviet Union, but the transition to a full democracy has not been easy, as corruption has hobbled the government for decades. At the time of Zelensky’s election, I felt rather skeptical. The character he played in the TV show was a reformer, and the show skewered the political classes in Ukraine as well as neighboring Russia, Belarus and Georgia. His fellow Ukrainians elected him to do in real life what he did on television – sweep away corruption with a big broom.
But Zelensky’s success was limited and his popularity went into decline after a couple of years. By October 2021, polls showed his approval ratings had gone into freefall.
But sometimes history comes to the rescue of a politician, and the past week has transmogrified Zelensky from a rapidly dwindling presidential figure into a national hero on a massive scale. He has shown himself to be a man who has dug into himself and found an inspiring store of courage. When the United States offered to evacuate him from Ukraine, he stood his ground, saying, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
He has posted several videos online, and they’ve inspired a fierce defiance among the Ukrainian people. In one video titled “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine,” Zelensky can be seen surrounded by his top advisers. “We are all here. Our army are here. Citizens and society are here,” he says. “We are defending our independence, our state, and it will remain so.”
Zelensky, a fluent Russian speaker, has also appealed to Russians in another video, urging them to “just stop those who lie, lie to you, lie to us, lie to everyone, to the whole world. We need to end this war. We can live in peace, in a global peace.”
His gifts for communication and his remarkable grasp of social media make him a formidable opponent for Putin, even though the army he commands, in sheer numbers and resources, pales beside Russia’s.
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One can’t, at this point, even begin to imagine the eventual outcome of this war. But we certainly know that Zelensky has proved himself a hero of his time and a worthy spokesman for liberal democracy and Ukrainian freedom.
He has boldly challenged the logic of Putin’s unrestrained aggression, laying the groundwork for a future where the Ukrainian people once again possess the right to self-determination.
Hats off to you, Mr. Zelensky. The world is behind you.