“The fight is on. I need ammunition, not a driver”. These are these wordsspoken by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which laid the foundation for his reputation as a hero. This is how he apparently responded to the Americans’ offer to evacuate Kyiv shortly after the launch of Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Zelensky’s popularity has transformed over the past 12 months, both at home and abroad.
Despite that landslide victory in 2019the years following his election were marked by widespread disappointment in Ukraine. Her pandemic management and his inability to keep his campaign promisesin particular the repression of corruption and the end of the war in the Donbass, explained this observation.
In December 2021, opinion polls showed that only 27% of Ukrainians trusted him. And when more than 100,000 Russian soldiers were preparing to invade Ukraine, a widespread skepticism reigned in the West about Zelensky’s ability to lead his country in a conflict of this magnitude.
A comedian and comic actor, Zelensky was best known for his portrayal of a schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president in the popular Ukrainian television series servant of the people. But both Ukraine and Zelensky have exceeded expectations regarding their performance in this conflict.
In December 2022, the trust of citizens of Ukraine in their president had risen to 84%. Ukrainians — soldiers and civilians alike — have demonstrated that they are both willing and able to defend their country. Not only did they resist the initial attack on Kyiv, but they also succeeded in take back 54% of the territory captured by Russia since February of last year.
Zelensky’s display of personal courage and determination throughout the war sparked admiration in the whole world. Even the President of the United States was ready to face the air raids to visit Kyiv and stand by Zelensky.
Research on heroism and world politicswhich I conducted with my colleague Veronica Kitchen, reveals the political importance of heroes and heroic stories. Heroes and the stories dedicated to them have the power to inspire people to come together and stick together, especially in difficult times.
Certain actions are typically associated with heroes and heroism, including the willingness to risk one’s safety and even one’s life to champion a cause or protect the lives of others. Zelensky’s decision to remain in Kyiv and face the same dangers as his fellow citizens is in itself an important component of his heroic journey.
Another characteristic of heroism is the determination to overcome obstacles that appear or prove to be insurmountable. There is nothing heroic about an easy victory.
Although Western military strategists and policy makers have been impressed by the Ukraine’s success on the battlefieldno one expects this war to end quickly or smoothly. Zelensky’s vulnerability to relentless Russian attacks and repeated assassination attempts demonstrates that the outcome of the conflict and its own survival are far from assured.
But Veronica Kitchen and I argue that becoming a hero isn’t just about completing a series of tasks on a list.
According to the results of our research, context is everything. What makes the hero are specific times, places and audiences. In fact, the audience for heroic tales is just as important as the heroes themselves.
Our heroes have the ability to inspire us because they literally represent the best of us: ourselves, as we would like to be, and to be seen by others. Our heroes evoke the values we most admire and cherish.
To understand why Zelensky is so widely regarded as a hero, we need to understand the values he embodies.
In their recent book, The Zelensky Effectpolitical scientists Olga Onuch and Henry E. Hale say the president insists on the unity of all Ukrainians; it expresses a national civic identity shared by the overwhelming majority of its fellow citizens.
In other words, the loyalty of Ukrainians is to the state rather than to a region, a language or a religion. According to an opinion poll conducted in August 2022 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 85% of Ukrainians see themselves as citizens of Ukraine rather than being from the east or the west of the country, Russian-speaking or Ukrainian-speaking, Christian or Jewish.
But if the place given by Zelensky to the Ukrainian national civic identity explains his ability to get closer to his own fellow citizens, it does not explain the popularity of the Ukrainian president abroad. Here too, the key lies in shared values.
Zelensky consistently describes Ukrainian society as sharing the values of Europe and the West in general: democracy, liberalism, tolerance and freedom. He often refers to Ukraine’s aspirations to join Western institutions such as theEuropean Union and theNATOand asserts that authoritarian Russia poses a threat not only to Ukraine, but to the free world as a whole.
Zelensky’s ability to tailor his message to his audience also helps his speech be heard. By paraphrasing Winston Churchill when he addresses the House of Commons, or by referring to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the attacks of September 11 in his address to the United States Congress, he establishes links which encourage the public to recognize in the struggles of Ukraine.
A threatened image
Although Zelensky’s hero status seems firmly established, he is nonetheless vulnerable to challenge. We had an example of this earlier this year in the form of a corruption scandal affecting senior Ukrainian officials.
Zelensky moved quickly to clear many of the accused and reassure Western donors that their money was not wasted. But new such allegations could tarnish his notoriety in the eyes of Ukrainians and foreign observers.
Zelensky’s reputation as a hero rests not only on his personal courage, but also on his ability to articulate a message of shared values and determination to stand up to the massive invasion by Russian forces started 12 months ago.
Whether his heroism will continue to inspire or be quickly forgotten will depend on his ability to maintain this common goal among Ukrainians in the negotiations for peace and the reconstruction of post Ukraine. -war.