Review: A Message from Ukraine

I bought a copy of Volodymyr Zelensky’s collected speeches at an airport bookshop in December. It’s a small book, just the size to wedge into a suitcase, 118 pages at £9.99, of which President Zelensky’s personal income from the book (at least £0.60 per copy) will go to his charity, United24, in support of Ukraine.

I’ve been impressed by Zelensky: his absolute commitment to his country, his ability to lead his people in their struggle against a much larger, heartless, autocratic and immoral aggressor, his skill at coaching Western democracies to come to his aid, but perhaps most of all for his restraint in not criticising donors who pinch pennies. It would be so tempting to call Macron out as a egotistical, French, Putin-loving, tightwad. But whatever he may have thought of Macron, he kept it pretty much to himself. And now, low and behold, there is a transformation: France is backing a military victory for Ukraine and is going to send Ukraine light tanks, prompting Germany to do the same and adding Patriot missile batteries.

Zelensky’s Wikipedia page reads: “Born to a Ukrainian Jewish family, Zelenskyy (in Ukrainian, his surname is spelt with two y’s) grew up as a native Russian speaker in Kryvyi Rih, a major city in central Ukraine. Prior to his acting career, he obtained a degree in law. He then pursued a career in comedy and created the production company Kvartal 95, which produced films, cartoons, and TV shows including the TV series Servant of the People, in which Zelenskyy played the role of the Ukrainian president. The series aired from 2015 to 2019 and was immensely popular. A political party bearing the same name as the television show was created in March 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95.

Zelenskyy announced his candidacy in the 2019 presidential election on the evening of 31 December 2018, alongside the New Year’s Eve address of then-president Petro Poroshenko on TV. A political outsider, he had already become one of the frontrunners in opinion polls for the election. He won the election with 73.23 percent of the vote in the second round, defeating Poroshenko. He has positioned himself as an anti-establishment and anti-corruption figure. As president, Zelenskyy has been a proponent of e-government and of unity between the Ukrainian and Russian speaking parts of the country’s population. His communication style makes extensive use of social media.  His party won a landslide victory in the snap legislative election held shortly after his inauguration as president. During the first two years of his administration, Zelenskyy oversaw the lifting of legal immunity for members of parliament, the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession, and some limited progress in tackling corruption in Ukraine.

During his presidential campaign, Zelenskyy promised to end Ukraine’s protracted conflict with Russia, and he has attempted to engage in dialogue with Russian president Putin. Zelenskyy’s strategy during the Russian military buildup was to calm the Ukrainian populace and assure the international community that Ukraine was not seeking to retaliate. He initially distanced himself from warnings of an imminent war, while also calling for security guarantees and military support from NATO to “withstand” the threat. After the start of the invasion, Zelenskyy declared martial law across Ukraine and a general mobilisation of the armed forces. His leadership during the crisis has won him widespread international praise, and he has been described as a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. Zelenskyy was named the Time person of the Year for 2022 and opinion polls in Ukraine have ranked him as Ukraine’s greatest president.”

The speeches – there are 16 of them – were selected by Zelensky for the book, and range from his inaugural address to the Ukrainian parliament to Ukrainian Independence Day on 24 August 2022. There is a useful preface by Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian and Eastern Europe editor of the Economist. This is followed by an introduction by Zelensky in which he reflects on changing the past.

His speeches are focused on several themes. Ukraine is a free, sovereign, independent country. Russia is engaged in an illegal and immoral invasion. Russia must be stopped because ultimately, it is at war with Western democracy, its values and principles. If Ukraine loses the war, Europe itself will be next. Ukraine can and must win this war. It will end when all the Russian occupiers are gone.

The language and the images are highly motivational. This is an excellent, two-hour read.

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