Volodymyr Zelensky in the Kharkiv region after the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive on September 14. // Ukrainian President’s website

Volodymyr Zelensky in the Kharkiv region after the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive on September 14. // Ukrainian President’s website

French art historian and writer of Russian origin, Olga Medvedkova analyzes the essence of Zelensky’s style and the exemplary courage of the Ukrainians. Where does this greatness of soul, combined with humor and fearlessness, come from?

On September 11, Volodymyr Zelensky broadcast on the Telegram network a video of the fire caused by the Russian bombardment of power stations in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions. It caused a total blackout in those regions. The Russians, as they have done since the beginning of their invasion of Ukraine, directed their “operation” against civilians: openly, cynically. Zelensky accompanied this video with the following commentary. For once he wrote in Russian, because this little message is addressed to the Russians:

You still think we are one and the same people? You still think you can frighten us, break us, make us accept your compromises? Have you really understood nothing? So you don’t understand who we are? What we are defending? What it means for us?

Then read our lips:

– Without gas or without you?
– Without you!
– Without light or without you?
– Without you!
– Without water or without you?
– Without you!
– Without food or without you?
– Without you!

Cold, hunger, darkness, thirst do not frighten us so much as your friendship and your brotherhood. But history will put things back in place. And we will have gas, light, water and food…, but WITHOUT you!

This text is exemplary of Zelensky’s style: a style quite particular and personal, always extremely concrete but, at the same time, fed by a poetic energy and — one would like to say — an almost psalmic impetus. This energy comes not so much from the rhythmic repetitions proper to it as from a leap which is performed regularly: from the concrete to the essential, from the anecdotal to the symbolic. One has the impression that this happens naturally in him, and it is by this great naturalness that one recognizes in him a man of politics and an orator of great talent. One day his speeches will be published and analyzed.

But we can already note this particular feature: the complete absence in him of slow and torpid explanation, of demagogy and stereotype. When a cliché seems to come along, as if through inattention, he transforms it immediately into its opposite. “But history will put things back in place,” he says, as if by habit. And we wait for the habitual: “The enemies will be punished.” But no, the most concrete thing possible comes, the clearest and most evident: “And we will have gas, light, water and food…, but WITHOUT you!” To say “WITHOUT YOU” is the beginning of liberation. And liberation is the condition sine qua non of life. Without life, what need would we have of light, of food? Thus, by a simple turn of phrase, Zelensky restores the order of things, the coherence of the world, the hierarchy of values.

With his longer speeches before the international public, and the briefer messages he has been addressing to the Ukrainians every evening for the past seven months, with his short texts on social networks, Zelensky is the striking example of a political style we have almost forgotten: a political word that has a nearly demiurgic energy and potential. You believe it: such a word can become flesh, in the same way that De Gaulle’s “Free France” became flesh. When he pronounced those two words, they did not apply to any sort of reality, one could not speak of any “Free France.” Then what did the words correspond to? To the same thing as Zelensky’s words: “So you don’t understand who we are? What we are defending? What it means for us?”

With Zelensky, I would like to put this question to the Russians: “Have you understood who the Ukrainians are? What it means for them?” I have the impression that they haven’t. And yet, since 2014, since the Maidan, they have been trying to explain it to them. They say it, they sing it in their national anthem, composed from the poem by Pavlo Chubynsky (1862), which they chant as if it were their favorite song, in the most natural way in the world. Shche ne vmerla Ukrainy ni slava ni volia“Not yet dead are Ukraine’s glory and freedom.” And then, to finish: “For liberty we will give both body and soul.”

I would put this same question not only to the Russians, but to the whole world, to us all: “Have we really understood who the Ukrainians are? What it means for them?” Just to be sure. I believe, I hope, that essentially we do. Seeing them saying and doing things for nearly seven months, we have understood them. As we all immediately understood, in 1980, what the Poles were made of: what Solidarnost was talking about. What’s more, it is a word of Polish origin (niezalezhnost) that the Ukrainians have been using to speak of their freedom. They use it in place of the words svoboda and volia, which are so close to Russian. In Russian, they have understood, these words today mean rather their opposite! They have given the name of Nezalezhnist to the Maidan square. This word is written in Cyrillic letters, like the whole of the Ukrainian language, except for the Latin letter i, which their language has kept and which today has become the symbol of its independence and its Europeanity. The resistants write it on the walls of houses in occupied towns. This one letter i is worth the whole word: Nezalezhnist — Independence.

Every evening, Zelensky speaks to his people, to the Ukrainians. Like almost all Ukrainians, this native Russian speaker today speaks perfect Ukrainian. He thanks them, a hundred times and more, he repeats their word of gratitude: dyakuyu, thank you. He is not afraid to repeat it. If only to hear and understand it, it is worth learning Ukrainian. I hope the Ukrainian language will soon be introduced in French schools, because we need it: this language of freedom, of resistance, of solidarity. Because it is in this language that nezalezhnist is spoken today, from the head of state to people in the street, with so much energy and faith.

“Izyum, Balakliya, and another three hundred towns and villages. With houses destroyed, but people who are not destroyed. They are not forgotten by Ukraine. They are liberated by Ukraine. They will be rebuilt by Ukraine. And they are Ukraine forever.”

I listen to Zelensky and try to pierce the enigma of his political being: not only of the style of his speeches, but of his performance. Even if he is playing, he is a very great actor, on the level of Spencer Tracy in Judgment at Nuremberg, of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, or of Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor: of these great actors who believed in what they were playing. If Zelensky is a performer, he belongs to a very particular type: the human content and commitment of the actor is even stronger than the role they play.

But there is more. And to grasp it, we must call upon one of the most original of French philosophers, Vladimir Jankelevich (1903-1985). In the first part of his Treatise on Virtues, entitled Seriousness of Intention, there is a chapter “Inevident Evidence of Freedom” which may help us to decipher not only Zelensky’s style, but, more broadly, the “style” of Ukraine today: their concentrated and concrete attitude, their serious humor. As always, in coming ever closer to human experience, in going ever deeper into the contradiction of being human, Jankelevich explains to us that courage and freedom are one, and that — despite all — they do exist. Only, for them to become manifest, one must abandon the before and after and put oneself in the realm of the Present. The great during is the only time — the kairos — when courage and freedom become suddenly possible. “Freedom is recognizable neither in anticipation nor in a posthumous manner, neither before nor after: it must be seized during. Freedom, like courage, is a flagrant occurrence… More than courage or any other intention, freedom, to be recognized, demands a very fine and punctual contemporaneity…” Limp conformity and conventional intellectualism rest on the “before” (experience or the historical past) and the “after” (anticipation). The before and the after block courage, freedom, disinterest: it is this complacent intellectualism, alas, that certain of our colleagues are guilty of today.

Vladimir Jankélévitch en 1985

Vladimir Jankélévitch en 1985. // ju.org.ua

But not Zelensky and not the Ukrainians, for whom the great kairos — that particular time, that winged Greek god of the opportune moment — was opened, like a wound, but also like a saving breach, on February 24, 2022. “After the fact,” Jankelevich goes on, “innumerable determinisms offer to explain and reduce the mystery of the instant. However, freedom always survives on the horizon of an infinite regress: freedom is at every moment the power to go beyond, to do otherwise, to refute the predictions founded on determinism.”

Vladimir Jankelevich knew what he was talking about. Of Jewish origin, descendant of a family from Odessa, he was the son of Samuel Jankelevich, who fled from the pogroms and was one of the first translators of Freud into French. During the war, Jankelevich was one of the most vehement resistance fighters: “… thus, seeing the anonymous heroes of the Résistance agreeing to total sacrifice for a better world that they would never see, we, too, have the wish to say, despite all the quibbles: still, pure abnegation and pure courage exist! They existed in the mass graves of Mont Valérian. Here it is the analysis of motives that is simplistic, and naïveté that is lucid and profound. Such is the inevident evidence of disinterested action.”

By their extreme attention to the word and the symbolic gesture, the Ukrainians today are ensuring the maintaining in themselves of this feeling which their life depends on, a life impossible without nezalezhnist. Of course, they don’t say “special operation,” which is the absolute Russian lie, but they also don’t say “war,” a word that might imply reciprocity, that would demand the preposition “between.” They say the “invasion” of Ukraine by Russia. They say: the Liberation of Ukraine from the invader. They reject, and rightly so, any image of a fight between equals. Because they have demanded nothing. They were and are in their own home. They are defending their house. Here and now. They are liberating their country, and they know that if they do not seize this occasion (this great kairos) to liberate it, they will be slaves to those who, as Jankelevich says, “are men only by chance.” That is the miracle of the Ukrainian defence. That is the “why” behind Zelensky’s style.

Translated from the French by Richard Pevear.

First published in French.

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