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Ukraine president, unlikely and unbowed, galvanizes the West

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a video message to the people joining a rally on the Remember square in Frankfurt on Friday.Michael Probst/Associated Press

He’s a 44-year-old former comedian, a slapstick performer who cemented his celebrity by playing a sitcom character who accidentally finds himself elected president of Ukraine.

Now, in a real-life role where the specter of catastrophe has taken center stage, President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a singular embodiment of Ukraine’s fierce resistance to the invading Russian juggernaut.

“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelensky said recently when American officials offered to take him out of the country.

And so he stays in Ukraine, likely targeted for death as Russian forces near, in the performance of a lifetime that reminds an often jaded and cynical West of the inspirational power that a single leader can bring in defense of a cause.

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A sleep-deprived Zelensky moves secretly among bunkers in the capital, Kyiv, as he shares his defiance — and, by extension, his country’s — with a riveted global audience via video selfies and social media. His chin is dotted with stubble, and he wears drab military T-shirts in a mark of solidarity with Ukrainian soldiers who have mounted an unexpectedly stubborn defense.

By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears wooden, remote, bloodless.

In Zelensky, “there’s this sense that it’s still possible to stand up for the values that you ostensibly believe in,” said Paul Christensen, a Boston College political science professor. “He has acted quite heroically under incredibly adverse circumstances, and that’s the thing that people obviously respond to.”

Many observers have compared his impact to that of Winston Churchill, the pugnacious British prime minister who became the face — and especially the voice — of his embattled nation in its lonely resistance to Nazi Germany in the early years of World War II.

“It became clear to the rest of the world that Britain really did have a tough leader and would be willing to fight the Nazis,” Tizoc Chavez, a Colby College government professor, said of Churchill. “That narrative not only rallied his people, but it helped abroad and made it easier for a country like the United States to provide aid.”

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And so, it seems, has Zelensky. The United States and its NATO allies are not sending troops into Ukraine, but their quickening pace of military aid, and across-the-board unity in condemning and sanctioning Russia, have been striking.

Zelensky’s emergence as the face of Ukraine “makes things easy to understand,” Boston College history professor Seth Jacobs said. “The Ukrainian situation is confusing, and this is all the moral clarity you can ask for.”

Besides Churchill, Jacobs said, several other 20th-century figures captured public attention for courage in the face of oppression. He cited Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who helped topple the Communist regime there; Lech Walesa, the shipyard worker who did the same for Poland; and Nelson Mandela, who fought for decades against apartheid in South Africa.

“The most relevant and pertinent recent example is Boris Yeltsin in 1991,” Jacobs said.

Yeltsin, a Russian reformer and politician, stood on a tank in Moscow to protest a coup by Communist hard-liners against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union dissolved soon afterward.

Even in Russia, a distant comparison to Zelensky exists.

Michael Kort, a Boston University social sciences professor, pointed to the exploits of Kuzma Minin, a 17th-century meat merchant who helped lead an army that expelled Polish invaders from Moscow. A monument to him stands in Red Square.

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“I wonder how many Russians these days are thinking of Kuzma Minin, who came from unexpected origins to become a heroic national leader facing a foreign invader during a time of crisis, just like Volodymyr Zelensky,” Kort said. “The ironies are enormous.”

What separates Zelensky from many comparable 20th-century figures is the combination of an escalating existential threat to a democratic country, and the grave, imminent danger that he personally faces.

“We don’t know when or if we’ll see him again, and that’s on people’s minds,” Christensen said.

What’s also on people’s minds is the example of Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president who fled his country in August as the Taliban advanced on Kabul. Ghani chose to escape “to save Kabul,” he said. Zelensky, on the other hand, appears willing to die if it will help save Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine.

“Our nation will fight to the end,” Zelensky told Reuters recently. “This is our home. We are protecting our land, our homes. For the sake of our children’s future.”

On Tuesday, Zelensky told the European Parliament via video: “Do prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you indeed are Europeans, and then life will win over death, and light will win over darkness.”

The words have been searingly effective. Ordinary citizens have responded to his call to take up arms to protect the country.

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“The fact that he stayed there, and the resistance has been as ferocious as it is, that’s why it’s galvanized so many people,” Christensen said. “Being able to focus on a symbolic figure makes the conflict much more real and much easier to respond to.”

Zelensky obviously knows this.

“When he goes on the street to prove he’s still in Kyiv, he has his smartphone running and looking for all the world like a wartime, on-the-ground leader. You have to believe that’s a conscious choice,” Christensen said. “This is really enabled by the fundamentally new environment of social media.”

Part of Zelensky’s appeal, several observers said, is its contrast with leadership in many Western democracies, including the United States. Political rhetoric in the West often is not matched by performance, they said, and the concept of democracy has become indistinct.

“In today’s world, we all become incredibly cynical about political leadership. They lie to us; they lack political courage,” said Chavez, the Colby professor. “When we see a leader who comes around and demonstrates courage and puts himself in harm’s way for the country, it resonates.”

Not that Ukraine has been a consistent model of democratic government. For much of its three decades of independence since the Soviet Union splintered, the country has been plagued by corruption and a yawning disparity between elites and the general public.

Zelensky previously faced criticism for his performance in a job that seemed over his head. Former president Donald Trump attempted unsuccessfuly to pressure the novice leader to announce an investigation into then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, a move that led to Trump’s first impeachment.

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“But having your country invaded changes things,” Christensen said.

For now, and for however long he survives, Zelensky has made a rare and indelible mark.

“You are told this flame will bring freedom to Ukraine. But the people of Ukraine are already free,” he told the people of Russia just before the invasion. “In attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.