Monday’s dawn service, the 106th annual commemoration of the brutal assault on Chunuk Bair, left me in tears. Partly for my own dead, including two parents who spent the war years in the Allied war rooms of Algiers, North Africa and Naples, saw sea battles in three oceans, the siege of Malta and the Allied landing in Naples where Vesuvius was erupting. I still have, from my father who was on Mountbatten’s staff, the programmes of grand operas staged for troop morale annotated in his beautiful copperplate.
Both my mother and father were scarred for life, really. Service personnel returned to a Britain that had just turfed out Churchill and blitz survivors who weren’t going to resume the shackles of Britain’s feudal past or to make way for the homecomers, however decorated and heroic. Like many of their fellows, they joined the diaspora to Canada, Aden or New Zealand.
With these ghosts, the vicious war declared on Ukraine has felt significant and infinitely perilous. A denial of the lessons of two great imperialist wars, for which people fought in defence of the concept that we should have a new birth of freedom and universal prosperity; that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not, in words familiar from Franklin’s Gettysburg address, “perish from the earth”.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the international dithering of the US, United Nations, NATO, Germany, France, Europe and the UK, showing how far we have fallen down on Franklin’s “unfinished work”. Our slide into apathy as capitalism quietly strangled democracy and diminished the state so untouchable “elites” could accumulate nine tenths of the world’s wealth.
Not so blind to the hypocrisy and narrow interests behind the North Atlantic stand, countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America have often experienced the worse sides of the international order. They may largely sympathise with the plight of the Ukrainian people and view Russia as the aggressor but Western demands that they make costly sacrifices by cutting off economic ties with Russia to uphold a “rules-based order” have spawned an allergic reaction.
The hero in all this is Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has been nothing short of brilliant from the early days, when a shocked world first saw burnt-out apartment blocks and heard him order the evacuation of Ukraine’s women and children by train and the arming of the country’s men for all-out war on the aggressor.
The now overwhelming Western support for Ukraine is due to the brutality of Russia’s illegal invasion, but also to the astuteness and charisma with which Zelenskyy has made Ukraine’s case for aid in a struggle with far wider implications if we are to salvage the Rule of Law for future generations.
“Why do we admire Volodymyr Zelenskyy?” said foreign policy and domestic politics columnist Bret Stephens in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this month.
“We admire him because, in the face of unequal odds, Ukraine’s president stands his ground, he proves the truth of the adage that one man with courage makes a majority. He shows that honour and love of country are virtues we forsake at our peril. Because he grasps the power of personal example and physical presence. Because he knows how words can inspire deeds — give shape and purpose to them — so that the deeds may, in turn, vindicate the meaning of words.”
He reminds us of how rare these traits have become among our own politicians, said Stephens. “Zelensky was an actor who used his celebrity to become a statesman. Western politics is overrun by people who playact as statesmen so that they may ultimately become celebrities.”
Stephens said the Ukranian president had shaken much of the United States out of the isolationist stupor into which it was gradually falling; forced Europe’s political and mercantile classes to stop looking away from Russia’s descent into fascism and reminds free societies that there can still be a vital centre in politics, at least when it comes to things that matter.
“His public encounters with journalists, cabinet members, foreign leaders and ordinary citizens are in vivid contrast with the Stalinist antics of the Putin court. In the ostentatious trappings of Russian power we see the smallness of the man wielding it: the paranoia and insecurity of a despot who knows he may some day have to sell his kingdom for a horse.”
Zelenskyy, said Stephens, holds out the hope that our own troubled democracies may yet elect leaders who can inspire, ennoble, even save us. • Liz Waters
Editor’s note: Volodymyr Zelenskyy obtained a law degree from the Kyiv National Economic University before turning to comedy and creating the production company Kvartal 95 which produced films, cartoons and television shows including the immensely popular Servant of the People, in which Zelenskyy played the role of an accidental Ukrainian president. It aired from 2015 to 2019 and a political party of the same name was created in 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95. It is airing on Netflix.