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A Remarkable Man

Yesterday, I attended the most remarkable zoom call in my life. ‘I’ and hundreds of students and academics on one end, and on the other, Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine. I was there as a Visiting Lecturer at City University and a guest of the uni’s Ukrainian Society.

The president gave a short speech, during which he pointed out associations between Ukraine and a number of the cities / institutions present (his most poignant one was with Coventry), and reminded us that his country was fighting for liberal European values against an aggressor that explicitly rejected them. He also expressed his particular gratitude for what we in Britain had done, so far, to help him. Yes, ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he’, but he seemed sincere. He talked of a triangle between Kyiv, London and Warsaw. I’m no Johnson fan, but this does seem to be one area where our PM has actually called things right. (I’m not much of an Andrej Duda fan, either, but, here again, he’s got this one totally right.)

He then asked question from Ukrainian students around the country. Rather than go into them one by one, I shall pick out some general themes.

Zelensky was angry and sad about what he called ‘30 years of wasted opportunity’, the time from 1991 to now when the nation could have progressed and acquired a modern ethos, identity and economy, but didn’t. His speech was forward-looking, so didn’t go deeply into how that waste had occurred.

What kind of nation does he want? He is a liberal, but in the ‘1906’ sense that he believes that the state – a word he used a lot – has an essential role in the creation and maintenance of the institutions that keep the nation both efficient and fair. But his main point was that it was for the nation’s young people to decide. There is, I sense, the chance to build a truly modern nation here, beyond both old-style Socialism or the post-1979 obsession with markets.

Whatever form it took, the new nation would have major needs. The biggest one, as he saw it, was leadership, in all areas. Zelensky is clearly fed up with the levels of corruption that have plagued his country since 1991, and is determined not to go back to those. What else? Excellence in technology. He mentioned start-up businesses, too. (I’m on a train to Kyiv if they want some assistance with the latter.) Ukraine’s greatest enemy, once the Russians had been expelled, would be a ‘brain drain’. The new nation would need its brightest and best to serve it. The makers of Ukraine’s future, he said, were in this audience. (This, I assume, is why he took an hour out of his amazingly busy schedule to talk to us.)

Other points? He talked about the physical rebuilding of his country. Apparently, there is a scheme afoot so that Western European countries (? or regions) can effectively adopt a damaged part of Ukraine and help it rebuild, giving expertise, materials and cash. That is a great idea.

He was asked by Channel 4’s Matt Frei, a guest at the meeting,

what compromises he would be prepared to make to get peace. Zelensky agreed that ‘every war must finish with negotiations’, but said that his enemy, whom he would not name, was not negotiating, so he couldn’t. He was, he added, not prepared to give up Ukrainian territory. This sparked applause among our audience.

The last bit of the session featured a technical glitch, so we didn’t hear Zelensky’s parting words. We did see him, however, and when he was told (which we could hear), that he was inaudible, he simply smiled and gave a rather Gallic, existential shrug. This is not an ego-fuelled power-grabber, but a human being with a sense of humour and proportion.

At the same time, there’s something Churchillian about him. He has a lot more humility than the old bulldog, but shares Churchill’s courage, clarity of mind, humour and sense of mission. British prime ministers usually have a go at emulating Churchill, and always fail dismally. Zelensky does not try to – but succeeds. It was an honour to share virtual space with this remarkable man.


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