Zelensky: the de Gaulle of Ukraine

The Ukrainian president is a supreme national leader in the mould of the great French general

March 26, 2022
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Ukrainian Presidential Office / Alamy Stock Photo

Volodymyr Zelensky has become the de Gaulle of Ukraine. He hasn’t—yet—done it from exile and he may yet defeat his own age’s fascist nemesis. But like Charles de Gaulle when he created the “Free French” in 1940, he has become the supreme leader of national resistance with only fleeting prior evidence that he would rise to this feat. They are both different from Churchill, who had the essential attributes already and the question of 1940 was whether a defeatist British establishment would let the lion roar.

The easiest bit to explain in Zelensky’s armoury is that he is a brilliant performer, for he won his left-field election as president three years ago on the basis of little else. Previously star of popular television series Servant of the People, he played a school history teacher in his thirties who, after a viral video showed him ranting against state corruption, wins surprise election as president.

As Ukraine’s real president in its hour of national trial, his performances have been almost faultless. The military fatigues, the handheld videos from the streets of Kyiv, the address to the Russian people in Russian, the constant exhibition of fortitude, fearlessness, sacrifice and heroic leadership—even de Gaulle, in exile, didn’t show such range and dynamism hour by hour and day by day. Zelensky even manages a pithy sense of humour at the Russian dictator’s expense: “Good Lord, what do you want?” he said in early March. “Leave our land. If you don't want to leave now, sit down with me at the negotiating table. But not from 30 meters away, like with Macron and Scholz... I don't bite.”

Then there is the series of pitch-perfect international speeches. Zelensky pushes the “emotional nuclear button,” wrote journalist David Shribman in Canada’s Globe and Mail after Zelensky echoed Shakespeare and Churchill to the House of Commons, then cited Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” to the US Congress. Less well received by its audience was his blunt address to the German Bundestag—“never again” is now “worthless”—but that was more a case of home truths being unwelcome, although Chancellor Scholz had said much the same in his address three weeks previously, announcing a revolution in German military and foreign policy.

However, the brilliant oratorical and dramatic performances alone do not explain Zelensky the saviour, nor are they his especially surprising quality, just as de Gaulle’s inspired guerrilla resistance to Hitler’s occupying legions wasn’t a surprise coming from the most assertive French military strategist of the 1930s. What raises Zelensky to national leader supreme is the way that, as with the French resistance leader, who created a huge political and social movement of national salvation and renewal from what started as a guerrilla campaign, all under his leadership, so Zelensky has risen above his previous craft as an actor to do the same in Ukraine—with a huge, unanticipated degree of courage, vision and fearlessness.

There is nothing about being a celebrity TV star which makes you an exemplary national leader—or Donald Trump, elected on the back of 14 seasons of the Apprentice, would have been up there with Lincoln and FDR. Equally, if compelling fluency in international political forums were the path to courageous resistance, Ashraf Ghani wouldn’t have fled Kabul last summer in a helicopter stashed with banknotes before the Taliban even arrived. Zelensky had—and still has—ample opportunity to flee Kyiv, and he is manning his post to the last.

Nor can other obvious bits of Zelensky’s past be said to have presaged this heroic leadership. A career actor and comedian since his days as a law student, he never served in the army and never led any organisation outside the arts. This showed in his first two years as president, where he often appeared weak, isolated, ideologically inconsistent—and increasingly unpopular. All of which encouraged Putin to think he would be a pushover who could quickly be replaced with a puppet leader like Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin president ousted in 2014 and now in exile.  

So how did Zelensky become the de Gaulle of Ukraine? Matching his present to his past, three things stand out.

First, it turns out that Zelensky really meant what he said about being a “servant of the people,” not only as actor but as president (it is the name of his party, after all). The fact that before the invasion he wasn’t great at the art of government doesn’t impugn his basic beliefs and motivation. Trump’s media celebrity was built on a Himalayan narcissism and disregard for decency and public service, which only increased and coarsened with power. Zelensky, by contrast, rose to power on a crusading assertion of public service and public duty, and made it a genuine mission which transfigured him at the moment of supreme crisis. Tellingly, since taking office in 2019, accusations of corruption and enrichment, while not entirely absent, have been chickenfeed compared to the record of Yanukovych and Poroshenko, whom he defeated in 2019.   

Of course, you never know whether leaders believe what they say, but it helps if they say it before they come to power and great leaders generally do so. Lincoln was hostile to slavery and a passionate supporter of union as a rising Illinois politician long before his presidency, just as FDR’s commitment to liberalism at home and abroad long predated his. My wisest history tutor at university said that a much-underrated reason why leaders do things—good and bad—is that they believe them, and this turns out to be true of Zelensky too. In my Prospectprofile of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another cult salvationist leader, I noted that his dangerously divisive brand of Hindu nationalism, couched in public ambiguity, was his hallmark long before he came to power, so what followed should have been no surprise. It tuns out that the same principle holds for Zelensky, servant of the people.

Secondly, Zelensky’s willingness to take on the corrupt Ukrainian establishment, and his skill at doing so, was evident too in his rise to power, which in its fearlessness and strategic boldness was in many respects a pre-run for taking on Putin, and sticking at his post even as the Russian tanks roll in. This includes his political skill at keeping all sides guessing as to his next tactical moves, and a heightened pragmatism in achieving his goals, qualities both evident in his presidential bid. 

Although members of his TV production company had registered his “Servant of the People” name years before he ran, Zelensky only formally declared four months before the election in 2019, after a year of ambiguous statements. His eclectic appointment of ministers from across the political spectrum was equally true to form, and frustrating for more zealous supporters. But like Lincoln and FDR, he was pragmatic and tactical about means, not ends, and so too now.  

The third striking aspect of Zelensky is the way he combines Ukrainian nationalism and profound internationalism. Everyone now knows he is Jewish and his family a victim of the Holocaust, which sticks in the craw of Putin’s neo-Nazi claims, but reading of his past I was at first surprised that he is culturally so Russian. He grew up as a native Russian speaker and almost all his acting was in Russian. His addresses to the Russian people in their own language are so heartfelt because he really does believe in peaceful coexistence, for all the radical Ukrainian nationalism swirling in his midst. If he survives to negotiate a rapprochement with Putin or his successor, this could be his ace of spades, his ascendancy giving him a scope for conciliation which nationalist predecessors rarely enjoyed.

To note just one among so many incidents: during the war in the Donbas, Zelensky’s TV company made a substantial donation to the Ukrainian army, which led Russian politicians and artists to petition for a ban on his works in Russia. Yet even as this happened, Zelensky spoke out strongly against designs by Ukraine’s own Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine.

In saving his country, de Gaulle famously rebirthed it as a proudly independent yet modern and democratic European nation, which had reached peace with its perennial enemy Germany. This was his “certain idea of France.” Maybe Zelensky has a certain idea of Ukraine—one that isn’t dissimilar in respect of his own neighbours.