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‘Everyone Is Here’: Prose Poetry
The rhythmic and conceptual power of yet another important speech by Volodymyr Zelensky. Really, you should watch it.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the remarkable care and eloquence of Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. Four days ago, on New Year’s Eve, Zelensky released a 17-minute video presentation, so exactly timed that he ended with “Happy New Year” greetings a few seconds before the clock reached midnight in his home country.
The speech was in Ukrainian and addressed to Ukraine’s people. But it had English subtitles, and his office put out an official English version. That official English text is here; another unofficial English translation, on Facebook by Maksym Slavnenko, is here.1
For those interested in the history of our moment, rhetoric in time of crisis, and the arts of leadership and motivation in any age, I think that watching this video is 17 minutes very well spent. It should be part of future courses on how political leaders try to inform, inspire, and motivate their people.
-Some speeches have their power on the page. That is so for the pinnacle of U.S. presidential rhetoric, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.
-Others have power in the moment, and from being seen and heard. This is the case with Zelensky’s latest speech. Most of this post consists of its written text, and my comments. But his presentation is meant to be seen and heard.
The English subtitles for the YouTube video of the speech are skillfully synced with Zelensky’s clear, deliberate delivery. They are spare enough that you can follow along effortlessly as he talks.
Below I quote the English version of the speech, with highlighting in bold and my notations in brackets and itals [like this]. First, several general themes that struck me.
What worked in this speech.
1. Stagecraft — in a good way.
We all know that Zelensky was a TV actor before he became a politician—and a stand-up comedian, and a lawyer. Understanding how to “act” is part of any presentation. Acting means knowing about pose, and poise, and tone, and timing, and rhetorical tricks, and being ‘on’ and ‘off’ stage, and reading an audience large or small, and much more.
In varying ways we all act out the interactions in our lives. (Long ago Erving Goffman wrote a very popular book on just this theme.) It’s true of a discussion at a meeting, a closing argument in a courtroom, a presentation in a classroom, a first date or a 50th anniversary dinner.
So to call a public figure an “actor” or to say that an event is “staged” is not a criticism. Staging is bad only if the presentation is hypocritically at odds with some deeper belief. And in Zelensky’s case, in time of crisis, so far his words, “performance,” and “staging” seem completely in line with his beliefs and deeds.
Thus we can admire the stagecraft of this presentation. Look at Zelensky’s expression: resolute, rather than angry. Listen to his tone: firm and patient, and at no point desperate. Follow his intentional pauses, pacing, and emphases—apparent even to people who do not speak his language. Do these come from his standup-comic’s feel for a crowd? Maybe—although here he was speaking just to a camera.
Watch the background videos, depicting Ukrainian hardship and Ukrainian resiliency. Listen to the background music—generally a mistake for spoken presentations but appropriate to these fight-for-survival circumstances.
Watch how he stands.
Is this acting? Yes. Franklin Roosevelt was acting when he looked jaunty and confident while unable to walk and in severe pain. Theodore Roosevelt was acting when he gave a speech in Milwaukee in 1912 just after being shot in the chest. Performance consistent with values is admirable rather than meretricious. This was very well staged.
2. Orienting the audience, on a timeline.
Political leaders often want to remind their audience of where they stand historically. What went before; what lies ahead. “Four-score and seven years ago…” “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy..”
Zelensky’s speech comes at a conventional time marker, the end of a calendar year. But from its very first words he creates an entirely different timeline. This is the 311-day “Year of Ukraine,” reckoned from 4am on February 24, when the Russian attack began. He wants his audience to understand what their country has done during that “year.”
3. Confidence, without illusions.
This is the most necessary, but hardest, part of a leader’s message in bad times: Recognizing the darkness. But reassuring people that there will be light. “The only thing we have to fear” “The arc of history is long.” “This is not the end, or even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning …”
As in his other notable speeches, Zelensky manages to convey both themes. Realism about the scale of the threat, and the odds against Ukraine. But resolve about where the arc of history will lead.
There’s another angle to this, which is Zelensky’s twist on the idea of his country’s “losses.” No, we have not lost things he tells his audience—our loved ones, our buildings, our land. Those things have been taken from us. And we will take them back.
It’s an important emphasis. It is meant to convert mourning into resolve.2
4. ‘We do our part.’
In many passages in the speech, Zelensky emphasizes the wholeness of the nation’s effort. He lists the cities that have been attacked; the cities that have been freed; all the organizations and branches that have defended the country; all the other ways in which people have done everything they can.
We do our part was a famous New Deal motto during the Great Depression, and the title of a wonderful book by my journalistic mentor Charles Peters. It is an important theme of this speech: with admiration, looking backward, for what the country has done, and motivation, looking forward, for it must do next.
5. Prose Poetry.
The more you listen to Zelensky, the more you notice his skill with repetition. This is one of the main differences between speech meant to be heard—from actors on a stage, from a poet at the lectern, from lawyers before a jury—and speech meant to be read, on a page or screen.
When you’re following a line of text on the page, your eye naturally skips past repeated phrases. But when you’re listening, you have to absorb them in real time—and skillful speakers often use them for musical or poetic emphasis. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Or We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing fields, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets… we shall never surrender.
Zelensky is very, very good at this—in delivery even more than on-the-page. The first vivid illustration of his skill was the short phone-video he released just after the invasion began. People thought he would flee for his life. The video said: I am here. We are here. We will remain here. It was poetry. It was power.
Note carefully how this speech ends. Even those who know nothing about the Ukrainian language, like me, will understand that tut, rhyming with “root,” is the Ukrainian word for here.
Much of what I’ve highlighted in the text below is Zelensky’s skilled use of repetition.
Now the speech transcript, in full:
Zelensky’s New Year message.
This year started on February 24th. Without preface or prelude. Suddenly. Early. At 4 am. [A calendar year is ending; Zelensky is explaining why for his country the “year” began on a different date.]
It was dark. It was loud. It was hard for many, and fearful for some.
311 days have passed.
It can still be loud, dark and hard.
But we will definitely never be fearful again. [Realism about the dark; confidence that there will be light.]
Nor will we be ever ashamed. [In all of his recent speeches, Zelensky has stressed how the resolve of his people has changed the world’s view of them, and their own view of themselves.]
—It was our year.
—The year of Ukraine.
—The year of Ukrainians.
On February 24th, we woke up into another life. Different people. Different Ukrainians.
The first missiles finally destroyed the labyrinth of illusions forever.
And we saw who was really who, what our friends were able to do for us. What our enemies are capable of. But most importantly, what we are capable of. [We are showing who we are—and who “they” are.]
On February 24th, millions of us made a choice.
Not a white flag but a blue-and-yellow banner!
Not to flee but to engage. Engage the enemy. Resist and to fight.
The explosions of February 24 stunned us. Since then, we don’t always hear everyone, and we don’t always listen to what everyone says.
—They said we had no other option but to surrender.
—We say we had no other option but to prevail. [They said / we say.]
On February 24th, we started building toward our victory. From many different bricks, [metaphorical setup for the ‘everyone is playing a part’ details later on], from hundreds of different victories.
-We have overcome panic.
-We didn’t scatter but banded together.
-We have overcome doubts, despair and fear.
We started to believe in ourselves and our own forces: [Zelensky carefully spaces out each name in this list, as if asking for reflection on what each group has done:] The Armed Forces of Ukraine. Military Intelligence, National Guards, Special Service, Special Operations Forces, Border Guards, Territorial Defense, Air Defense, Police, and Emergency Services. All of our defense and security forces.
I am proud of all of you, our warriors!
Some might call this year a year of losses. For Ukraine, for Europe and for the whole world.
But that is wrong. We shouldn’t say that!
We haven’t lost anything. [Pause] They took it from us!
-Ukraine hasn’t lost its sons and daughters. Murderers took them.
-Ukrainians haven’t lost their homes. Terrorists destroyed them.
-We haven’t lost our lands. Invaders occupied them.
-The world hasn’t lost peace. Russia destroyed it. [Note the deliberate sequence here: murderers, terrorists, invaders, Russia.]
This year wounded us in the heart. We’ve cried out all our tears. We’ve yelled out all of our prayers. For 311 days.
We have a word for every minute, but most of the words are superfluous. They are unnecessary. No explanations or embellishments are needed.
We need silence in order to start hearing. We need pauses in order to comprehend.
Morning of February 24th. [This begins a long video and photo sequence of destruction-and-resistance scenes. Zelensky pauses between each of the names below, as he narrates the images.]
Hostomel. Bucha. Irpin. Borodianka. Kharkiv. Mriya Kramatorsk. Railway Station. Chernihiv. Mariupol. The Drama Theatre. “Children” sign. Olenivka.Odessa. Apartment Block. A girl three months old.
Vilniansk. Maternity Hospital. The baby. Two days old.
This is impossible to forget, and it is impossible to forgive. But it is possible to win. [Impossible / possible.]
We remained on our feet because there was something that supported us. Our spirit. [Now another long segment of video and photos of battle-and-resistance scenes.]
Defense of Kyiv.
Russian Warship… ( “go f* yourself” in the background)
Izyum, Balakliya and Kupyansk
And we pray that these are next to come:
Kreminna and Svatove
Melitopol, all of the Donbas, Crimea
We fight and will keep fighting for one main word — Victory.
It will definitely come. We’ve been heading towards it for 311 days. We’ve dedicated much effort, but at the exact moment when you start thinking that you can’t go any further, remember what we have gone through already. [We see the darkness; we will see the light.]
I want to tell you all:
Ukrainians, you are incredible!
-Look at what we have done and keep on doing.
-Look at how our warriors from day one have been smashing into pieces that “Second Strongest Army in the World”.
-How our people stopped their military convoys [Videos accompanying all of this]
-How an old man used his hands to stop a tank
-How a woman knocked down a drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes
-How during the occupation, people were stealing enemy tanks, APCs, a helicopter and ammunition.
-How, in hours, we raised money for “Shahed” hunters, naval drones, armored vehicles, ambulances and Bayraktars.
-How we withstood all threats, shelling and cluster bombs, cruise missiles, darkness… darkness and cold!
-How we supported one another and supported the state. [Note the how / how / how sequence here, building from the very specific to the general.]
In war time, everyone is important. [We do our part.] The one who holds a weapon—or a steering wheel, or a ship’s or plane’s helm, a scalpel or pointer.
Everyone who’s at their laptop or who drives a harvester. Everyone who’s on the roadblock and on a power plant. Journalists and diplomats, utility workers and emergency service workers.
Those who work or study at a university or a school.
And even those who are just learning to walk. All of this is for them. For our children, our people and our country.
In a big war, there are no small matters; there are no unnecessary ones. Each one of us is a fighter. Each one of us is a frontline. Each one of us is a basis for our defense. We fight as one team, the whole country and all our regions.
I admire you all and I want to thank every unbreakable region of Ukraine. [Another narrated long video section follows. In political rhetoric you learn that few things matter more to people than being *named* and recognized in public by a leader. Again Zelensky is naming and recognizing organizations, communities, and people.]
-Kharkiv. Tormented but unconquered. You proved to the enemy that even being close territorially does not mean being close mentally.
-Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city, a Hero City.
-Unbreakable Mykolayiv. Heroically withstands all blows. A city on the wave that gets through any storm.
-Sumy and Sumshchyna. You were one of the first to feel the full-scale invasion of the occupiers. Sumshchyna became a bone in the throat for them. Ordinary people made Molotov cocktails, burned military convoys, captured the first prisoners of war.
-Sumshchyna is strong!
-Dnipro. The basis and the strong back of our frontline. You hosted people. You brought our wounded fighters back to life. Despite continuous shelling, Dnipro lives on!
-Odessa. Sunny and welcoming. It is now a stronghold. A world’s stronghold that defends us and the world. Odesa feeds the world by sending millions of tonnes of rescue by sea every day! Because this is Odesa-Mama.
-Kherson. You are heroic people. You were under occupation for more than 8 months without news or communication and being torn off from Ukraine. Thousands of you went out to the street protests against ruscists [sic]. You didn’t know whether those were noticed in Ukraine. The occupiers lied to you that Ukraine abandoned you and that it would not fight for you. But you believed, and despite all you waited through it.
-The face of Kherson is shredded by the shell fragments, but the main thing is that we welcome the new year together and free under the blue-and-yellow flags. Thus, we will restore and rebuild everything.
-The same goes for Chernihiv and Zaporizhzhya, and Kramatorsk and Bakhmut. And Those cities that became a shelter to millions of Ukrainians: Rivne and Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Vinnytsia. Thank you!
-Those who get and transfer millions of tonnes of aid from Europe and the world: Lviv, Uzhgorod, Chernivtsi, Lutsk. Thank you!
-Those who shelter evacuated businesses, enterprises, and universities: Khmelnytskyy, Zhytomyr, Kropyvnytskyy, Poltava, Cherkasy. Thank you!
-Those who are waiting for Ukraine and will wait through it! Donbas, Luhanshchyna, Crimea. Thank you, our warriors!
-And, of course, Kyivshchyna and Kyiv, our heart that always beats thanks to you, all our Ukrainians! We are all one family. One Ukraine.
This is the year when Ukraine changed the world and the world discovered Ukraine.
-We were told to surrender. We chose to counterattack.
-We were told to go on with concessions and compromises. We chose the European Union and NATO.
The world has heard Ukraine. [Setting up a repetition sequence. The following section has videos, of supportive crowds around the world.]
EU Parliament, Bundestag, the UK Parliament, Knesset, the US Congress.
The world has felt Ukraine.
Ukraine is in the media, in people’s hearts, in the top of Google search.
The world has seen Ukraine.
On the main squares of Toronto, New York, London, Warsaw, Florence, Sydney and other cities.
Ukrainians surprise, Ukrainians are applauded
-Is there anything that can frighten us? No
-Is there anyone who can stop us? No. Because we are all together.
This is what we are fighting for. One for each other.
The best fireworks for us are the ones in invaders’ warehouses. The best present is the numbers in General Staff Report.
We don’t know for sure what the new year 2023 will bring us, but we are ready for anything.
-New Achievements? We will be happy.
-New blows? We will remain unshakable.
-Continuation of the struggle? We will fight.
And when we win, we will embrace.
[The peroration or ‘in conclusion’ section:]
There are a few minutes left till the New Year. I would like to wish all of us one thing — Victory. And this is the main wish for all Ukrainians.
-Let this year be the year of return. [Setting up a sequence, about the coming year.]
-The return of our people. The return of our warriors to their families.
-The return of our prisoners home.
-The return of the displaced to their Ukraine!
-The return of our lands and the temporarily occupied lands will become forever free.
-The return to normal life, to happy moments without curfews, to worldly pleasure without air-raid warnings.
-The return of what was stolen from us. Our children’s childhood, our parents’ peaceful old age. So that during holidays grandchildren could visit their grandparents. To eat watermelons in Kherson, cherries in Melitopol. So that our cities were free, our friends were faithful, so that next to the figure of 100,000 killed enemies and thousands of destroyed enemy equipment, there was our main figure and our main success — 603,628 square kilometres, the area of independent Ukraine as it has been since 1991 and as it will remain forever.
May the New Year bring all this. We are ready to fight for it, which is why every one of us is here.
[Significant pause, and then return to the here theme of his very first video:]
—I am here.
—We are here.
—You are here.
—Everyone is here.
All of us are Ukraine.
Glory to Ukraine!
Happy New Year!
When people rise to an occasion, it should be noted. That is why I am spending such time and space on the achievement of a leader and his country.
I’ve used parts from each version as the English text of the speech. In a few places I’ve improvised, based on my sense of what sounds most natural in English, and what the translators “meant” to say.
And, as Zelensky has warned, inevitably into revenge, which is the bitter harvest Putin will produce.