Ukraine’s president could have been another Trump. Instead he became a Churchill.

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Photo: Courtesy: Ukrainian Presidential Palace

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touring the trenches.

By Camilo Fonseca, Editor-at-Large

Before his election, he was a nobody. A celebrity, sure, but not a politician, and certainly not a serious presidential candidate. He was a complete outsider with no political experience. Nobody could have predicted his rise—least of all those close to him.

And his name, thankfully, is not Donald Trump.

There is actually precious little that Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy shares with the former president of the United States. Both are former television personalities, initially dismissed by the ruling class as harmless rabble-rousers. 

Ukrainian media suggested his candidacy was “a big joke,” and simply “trolling for the election cycle”—and for someone who got famous on a television sitcom where he played the accidental president of Ukraine, why wouldn’t it be? It’s comparable to Julia Louis-Dreyfus running for the presidency with the same platform as her character from Veep.

If Zelenskyy was laughed at in Ukraine, he was all but unacknowledged in the West. An article in Newsweek, one of a few centering on his election, dismissively connected him to Trump.

“Zelensky [sic] makes a virtue of his political inexperience and courts anti-establishment voters,” read the article. “Critics have accused him of exploiting people’s anger.”

Yet in the last week—almost literally overnight—Zelenskyy has gained a platform not just in the West, but across the world. His defiant resistance to the Russian invasion of his country has stunned even his most ardent detractors. Grainy videos of him touring the frontlines, drinking coffee with soldiers, and walking through the bombed-out streets of Kyiv have captivated millions.

The one-time television comedian has become an icon. In a few short days, he has seemingly cemented his place in the historical pantheon of freedom fighters, from Charles de Gaulle to Judas Maccabeus—the latter being an especially fitting comparison to Ukraine’s first Jewish president.

All of these comparisons, though accurate in their own particular ways, are not so dramatic nor so complete as that of the British Bulldog himself—Winston Churchill.

Churchill, as every middle schooler recalls, led Britain through the darkest hours of the Second World War, where the nation’s survival—let alone its eventual victory—seemed all but impossible. His country was completely alone against the Nazi war machine, with few allies and little else than moral support from the rest of the world.

Eight decades after Britain’s darkest hour, Ukraine is facing its own—and Zelenskyy, despite all his foibles and inexperience, seems more than up to the challenge.

This writer is far from the first to point out the similarities—in fact, it almost seems trite to bring it up at this point. But given the challenge which Zelenskyy faces—standing firm against an onslaught of superior numbers and technology—I don’t think it’s unwarranted.

“The way [Zelenskyy] talks directly to the people, the way he doesn’t underestimate the dangers and the perils, the way he is in the capital, ready to fight and die,” said historian Andrew Roberts, a biographer of Churchill, to the Daily Mail on Wednesday. “It’s all pure Winston.”

The comparison with Churchill, of course, is not without its baggage. For all the respect history has accorded Churchill, he was not a perfect man. In terms of social policy, he was decidedly conservative—something borne out of his rabid anti-communism. He was also a diehard colonialist, and led an impassioned defense of British empire for nearly all his life.

In the same way, we must be careful our admiration of Zelenskyy does not turn into hagiography. It might be argued, though somewhat cynically, that Ukraine would not be in this situation had there been someone more politically-adept at the helm. Perhaps, they might have been less eager to entreat the West for integration with Putin on their front doorstep. 

Yet even the late Christopher Hitchens—a central figure in the dismantling of the “Churchill legend”—acknowledged that the man’s greatness surpassed his guilt. Churchill was “not a figure in history” so much as he was “a figure of history.”

This is the figure that Zelenskyy is becoming. Someone who seemed completely unsuited for the colossal task at hand. Someone who defied all expectations and became the figure that his citizens pinned their hopes to.

It took the famed Dunkirk speech to immortalize Churchill, where he proclaimed that Britain, ready to fight the Nazis on the beaches, the hills, and the streets, would “never surrender.” 

Besieged in his capital from all sides and pressed by allies to evacuate, Zelenskyy could have turned tail and fled. He could have taken a page from his American counterpart and hidden in the bunker of the presidential palace—and certainly, he had good reason to.

Yet he managed to immortalize himself too, in fewer words than Churchill: “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition.” Separated by language, culture, and decades of history, he captured the same Bulldog spirit that helped England persevere—and if history tells us anything from that, his country needs him.