A video of a duo singing “Endless Love,” the 1981 song by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, identified the singers as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife, Olena Zelenska. It immediately went viral.
On the phone with my sister, who had sent me the link, we both admitted we wanted it to be real, if only because it fit the narrative that Zelensky, an entertainer before becoming a politician, could do anything. To a world long starved of a hero, the Ukrainian president reminded us of the power of unyielding courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
Maybe part of our infatuation is that so few expected so much from Zelensky. Before becoming akin to Superman, he was a television personality and comedian — a funny guy. But signs of backbone were also plain to see: Zelensky had already proved himself to be a stand-up guy when then-President Donald Trump asked him to investigate Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, as the 2020 campaign approached.
A week before the call, Trump had frozen almost $400 million in military aid for Ukraine. Trump was running a squeeze play: Get me some dirt on Biden, he told Zelensky, and Ukraine can have its weapons. This improper hostage-taking of funds for personal political gain resulted in Trump’s first impeachment trial.
Note: Zelensky never did investigate the Bidens, a decision that must seem providential in retrospect.
In the present context, such gambits now seem almost quaint. Nearly three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 44-year-old Zelensky is Russia’s No. 1 target. Tuesday, as Zelensky likely was preparing for a scheduled virtual address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Olena Zelenska posted online: “Like all wives in Ukraine, I’m afraid for my husband’s life.”
Zelensky long ago mastered the art of simultaneously taunting Putin and inspiring the world. In one recent gibe, Zelensky showcased a photo of an apparent Russian missile fragment, found near his residence in Kyiv. “Missed,” Zelensky said to Moscow.
While requesting a meeting with Putin on March 3, Zelensky said, “I don’t bite. What are you afraid of?”
Citing Putin’s curious habit of sitting at the end of extremely long tables during meetings with aides, Zelensky said, “Sit down with me to negotiate, just not at 30 meters.”
Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and a professor of foreign affairs at Manhattan’s New School, told me recently that she believes Putin puts himself at the end of long conference tables to avoid being physically compared with other men. She also briefly considered the possibility that Zelensky had hired a public relations firm to help sharpen his mordant trolling of the Russian president.
“I thought he had hired a PR agent because it was so well choreographed,” she said.
But then, Zelensky is a comedic actor, an art that is serving him well. If he’s fearful, he doesn’t show it as he walks the shell-shocked streets of Kyiv. He has made clear he won’t leave Ukraine, inspiring his fellow Ukrainians to stand and fight. Equal parts Sam Elliott, Stephen Colbert and, in the romantic fantasies of at least two gullible sisters, a crooner, Zelensky has gone a long way toward redefining manhood in a time of gender muddle and animus toward men.
He is the modern-day warrior-artist — political and presidential, fearless and faithful, humble yet cocky, beautiful in his ordinariness. An Everyman in his trademark T-shirt and half-zip, Zelensky is David against Goliath, shouting to the world that he’s not afraid. We are riveted because this bird is so seldom seen.
Art and war have been companions through the centuries, but it’s rare to discover someone who combines the spirit of both disciplines. Zelensky has reminded us that a warrior’s strength isn’t measured in missiles; and that an artist’s soul (along with sharp wit) guards freedom as much as the point of a spear.
The best men in history have understood these imperatives and rallied others as their time commanded. Zelensky was made for this role in this moment. Bravo.