Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues on his epic transformative journey in compressed time: from comedian to comedian playing a president to president to shakedown subject to wartime leader and world-class rhetor. His videolink tour, having awed the parliaments of the United Kingdom, European Union, and Canada, came to America today.
From his location amid the strafing of the innocent, of which graphic evidence would be shown in a mini-documentary screened midway through his remarks, Zelenskyy made a lobbyist’s asks to Congress, President Biden, the corporate sector, and the American people. The Members were assembled not in the House Chamber, where shouted interruptions and ripped-up texts have confronted the last three US presidents. Instead they sat in an auditorium for tourists visiting the Capitol (back when that was permitted). They faced not a rostrum but a big screen that displayed the icons of a web browser framing the picture of a man wearing an olive drab tee shirt emblazoned with the insignia of the Ukraine Armed Forces. They heard a speaker whose words swapped out oratorical elocutions and diplomatic euphemisms for the everyday language of an actor in a realistic play. The performative tone was casual, but the word choices and topic sequence were anything but.
Zelenskyy began by weaving bonds between America and Ukraine through references to shared experiences and dreams.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends, Americans, in your great history you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians. Understand us now, when you need it right now — when we need you right now.
He bid his audiences to remember Pearl Harbor Day and 9/11, and pointed out that:
Our country experienced the same every day, right now, at this moment, every night for three weeks now.
He rang a change on the great phrase in the great speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered beneath the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
“I have a dream.” These words are known to each of you today. I can say, “I have a need: I need to protect our sky.” I need your decision, your help, which means exactly the same, the same you feel when you hear the words “I have a dream.”
He expressed gratitude to the US and Biden and pleaded for specific weapons and more. All politicians in the Russian Federation should be sanctioned, he said, and all American companies should “leave their market immediately, because it is flooded with our blood.” “Peace,” he told the capitalists, “is more important than income.”
He looked beyond the war, envisioning a new security framework named not after the number of countries involved nor the territorial region in alliance but the number of hours in the day:
We propose to create an association, U-24, United For Peace, a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflict immediately, provide all the necessary assistance in 24 hours…in addition, such association, such union could provide assistance to those who are — experiencing natural disasters, man-made disasters, who fell victims to humanitarian crisis or epidemic.
“Strength and consciousness,” a felicitous choice of words in a speech bejewelled with them. A United Nations that acts instantly (and is not subject to Russian vetoes) is a dream worth articulating and equating with the famous Dreams.
And then the video was screened, with its urgent edits and violin soundtrack and the end title “Close the sky over Ukraine.” When Zelenskyy resumed it was in English. He spoke of human rights, including:
the right to live decently and to die when your time comes, and not when it’s wanted by someone else, by your neighbor.
He concluded by wishing aloud that President Biden be “the leader of peace” in the world. Biden replied a few hours later by announcing an additional $800 million in weapons that the US would supply to Ukraine. Congress, to whom Zelenskyy had spoken by private link on March 5, had already appropriated $14 billion in aid to Ukraine.
It is astonishing to realize that this speech and the others in the tour have been written and delivered while under attack. I can only hope that Zelenskyy’s displays of defiant eloquence and the responses they have elicited so far might somehow protect him from assassination, in as much as the sky-high reputational cost to Putin of killing him could act as a deterrent. When Zelenskyy speaks of his impending death (as King did also) an aura of martyrdom becomes evident; perhaps this is not so much a death wish as a strategic warning to his potential killers, that as bad as things are getting for Putin and Russia with each day, dishonoring the universal human right “to die when your time comes” in Zelenskyy’s case would make them far worse.