Man of the moment

He is the very model of a modern major general

There can’t be many out there – with a few Russian exceptions – that don’t have a full-blown crush on Volodymyr Zelensky. I wrote this before I heard the Ukrainian President’s speech to the House of Commons yesterday evening – an unprecedented event in itself as foreign leaders are usually only given space in Westminster Hall (Barak Obama, Nelson Mandela eg) or the Royal Gallery (Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping eg). Zelensky’s speech was positively Churchillian. Sorry, Boris, Winston may be your hero, but Zelensky’s the man.

This former comedy actor is everything you want a President in the 21st century to be. He’s Jeff Bridges in Independence Day, he’s Justin Trudeau in fatigues, he’s Jed Bartlett made young again.

This is a man whose political instinct has not, like that of so many UK politicians, been forged studying PPE at Balliol. This guy was an actor, whose most prominent role thus far had been playing a history teacher who accidentally became President.

Zelensky is out there. Playing the role of his life. He’s not holed up in the Kremlin, or in some Summer Palace on the Volga, surrounded by opulence, dictating moves from a distance. He is on the streets with his fellow citizens, being seen to be fighting alongside them and calling Putin out on his bullshit, about the invasion being to protect the Ukrainian people from the Nazification of the government. Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Jewish man, hasn’t been bundled out of the country, despite the offer for that to happen:  “I need ammo, not a ride” . He updates his Twitter feed daily, in Ukrainian and in English, understanding the imperative of controlling the narrative. His plea to the Russian people just before the invasion started was moving and powerful, as was his speech to the European Parliament which made  the interpreter cry, and probably most of the audience.

They say that countries often get the politicians they deserve and the fact that there are so many Ukrainians of all shapes sizes genders and ages prepared to be out there on the streets to try and ward off the Russian aggressors backs that up.

Could we be seeing the emergence of a new blueprint for a political leader? One that doesn’t just bumble and bluster their way through the usual rhetoric in Parliament but who is out there, expecting nothing more of his people than that which he himself is prepared to give.

This is the guy, let’s not forget, who stood up to Donald Trump who tried to blackmail Ukraine into proving non-existent election fraud. Trump clearly thought that a fellow celebrity President would be a kindred spirit. Wrong. Big mistake. Huge.

The guy has cojones the size of Saturn; Putin’s must be the size of ping-pong balls, shrivelling with every failed assault. No wonder he’s pissed off.

Zelensky won the Ukraine version of Strictly Come Dancing and voiced the Ukrainian version of Paddington Bear. It’s like we voted for Hugh Grant after seeing Love Actually, only to discover we’d got Son of Churchill. (Full disclosure: that’s not my line. I stole it from a man on Twitter. Sorry, Sam)

The narrative is changing hourly, and I am scared beyond belief for this man and his family. I hope to God he got them out of Ukraine while he could. Am I the only one whose first act every morning at the moment is to check his Twitter feed to see if he’s still there?

It’s hard to know exactly what the status is in Ukraine and thank goodness for the courage  of the journalists and their teams still there bringing us the updates. The bravery of people standing in front of tanks and soldiers with guns, stopping them from going any further fills me with joy, admiration and dread for what happens next, all at the same time.

When all this is over – and I pray that it will end the ‘right’ way – the UK and Europe and, indeed, the US, need to take a long hard look at the relationship with Russian money. We pussy-footed around for too many years and allowed Putin’s power base to build uncontrollably. There’s a great piece in the Times last week about how the weakness of Angela Merkel is partly to blame. In essence, we allowed this to happen. This has to stop. Putin has to be stopped. Zelensky is standing up for Ukraine and the Ukrainians are standing up for whoever will come next if he isn’t stopped.


PS: We still need to find joy where we can. So here is Voldymyr Zelensky on Dancing with the Stars (aka, Ukrainian Strictly)

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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