Zelensky, the Jewish lawyer-turned-comic-turned-actual president who pulled off a military miracle

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    Nat Quinn

    Extraordinary times in Eastern Europe deliver both the good guy and the villain of a dramatic year. Volodymyr Zelensky emerged clearly as the claimant of international hero status.

    Not so long ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was just one more leader of a struggling, often chaotic, squabbling, former Soviet republic. True, his nation was trying hard to shuck off any remnants of old-style Soviet economic policy, even as crony capitalism had taken hold in many sectors.

    Nevertheless, the contrast with the successes of the Baltic states or in many of the former satellites in Eastern Europe remained palpable, although the country had become one of the world’s great grain exporters – helping to feed much of the population in Asia and Africa. Still, Ukraine had a long way to go before the toxic legacies from its past were finally expunged.

    Politically, Zelensky had come into office through an election that was largely free and fair, even as the politics of his country remained significantly tainted by the behaviour of earlier presidencies, especially Viktor Yanukovych, the president prior to Zelensky’s immediate predecessor.

    Yanukovych’s corruption, avarice and cravenness towards Russia had brought on a revolution that, at its peak, drew perhaps a million people into Maidan Square in Kyiv to protest against his rule until he fled the country in 2014.

    In 2019, Zelensky decided to make a run for president as a kind of an insider life-imitates-art joke. But the man was, and is, obviously a patriot who felt strongly about the difficult circumstances of his nation and thought he could do something about them.

    A lawyer by training, he had become a comedic hit with his TV series about a high school history teacher who, angry about corruption in high places, runs for president – and wins. Inspired by this fictional, Walter Mitty-esque life, Zelensky seems to have decided that if his fictional self could do it, why not his real one as well?

    He did run, and won convincingly. Immediately, Zelensky was confronted by the challenges of coping with a nation still divided by the legacies of its complex history – as well as the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its surreptitious support for a separatist movement in the country’s easternmost provinces.

    The westernmost part of Ukraine, the region most influenced by and attracted to Western ideas a century earlier, had been the Habsburg Empire’s most distant province. The remainder of Ukraine had had a more distant history of being a Cossack realm and then living under Polish overlordship. But more recently, it had become a part of Czarist Russia from the end of the 18th century onwards.

    In Ukraine’s easternmost regions, people often said they felt more Russian than Ukrainian, and those were territories that had become significantly industrialised in the early part of the 20th century.

    Meanwhile, in Crimea in the south, there had been, until the end of World War 2, a large population of Crimean Tatars. Odesa was a cosmopolitan port city in the southwest that continued to host a more polyglot population than most of the rest of the nation.

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    Throughout the country, even after the genocide of World War 2, there remained a significant, albeit relatively small, population of Ukrainian Jews, including Zelensky.

    His first big challenges included continuing governmental and economic reform policies to further free up the economy, even as he needed to move aggressively against rampant corruption. Behind those challenges was a hope of being able to bring Ukraine into the sphere of Western European institutions, pre-eminently the European Union and then, more distantly, Nato.

    This desire, not even a formally articulated government policy initiative, was used as the pretext for the Russians to make their military move that would, in turn, transform Zelensky into a compelling global figure and not just a hopeful reformer confronting Sisyphean tasks.

    Sheer grit and imagination

    On 24 February 2022, a Russian military juggernaut rolled into Ukraine’s northern reaches, en route to its goal of capturing the capital, Kyiv. They planned to rout a weak military, seize governmental infrastructure and then, presumably, remove Zelensky and his government.

    But in a military miracle, through sheer grit, imaginative tactics and a resolute defence by an army whose capabilities had been denigrated by the invaders, Ukrainian defences largely held. Then, slowly and painfully, they repelled the invaders from their movement towards the capital.

    Thereafter, each Russian advance has eventually been stalled and slowly reversed – in part through a combination of Ukrainian military adeptness and a growing flood of hi-tech Western weapons.

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    But the crucial catalysing element for all of this turns out to have been a Jewish lawyer-turned-comic-turned-actual president. Right from the beginning of the crisis, he refused to leave the country despite offers from various nations to take him and his family in as special refugees.

    He spoke to his nation, and the rest of the world, in speech after speech, stiffening national resistance to the invaders. He could be found walking the streets of his capital city and in territories reclaimed from the Russians, offering reassurance and hope.

    Inevitably, there was Zelensky, eschewing the trappings of high office, and wearing a simple military-style T-shirt and jacket – and often unshaven. More than any other factor, it was his insistence on preserving his nation’s freedom that helped stiffen resistance by his countrymen and women.

    His speeches have also helped provide the crucial stiffening for Western nations to provide military and economic assistance as well as moral support. Along the way, Zelensky has forged connections to the feelings of foreign presidents, prime ministers, legislators and ordinary civilians about how they must commit themselves to helping Ukraine roll back the invader in preserving his beleaguered nation’s independence.

    A few years ago, who would have guessed this would become his greatest acting role. But, for defending both his nation and the rest of us, he is our International Person of the Year. DM168


    The Jewish lawyer-turned-comic-turned-president behind… (dailymaverick.co.za)

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