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The Month’s Speeches, Part 2: @ZelenskyyUA
An unexpectedly consequential leader keeps finding new ways to explain what is at stake, as his country fights for its future.
This post is about some of the video presentations that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has made since Russia invaded his country five-and-a-half weeks ago. It follows Part 1, about the appeal Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered to “my dear Russian friends” in a memorable recording in mid March. I plan to follow with at least one more installment.
(Why these headlines? I am using the speakers’ own Twitter handles — @Schwarzenegger for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and @ZelenskyyUA now. I am spelling Zelenskyy with two yy’s here, to match his official English-language bio.)
I intend these as parts of a series on persuasion, rhetoric, spoken-and-unspoken messages, and soft-power leadership during the current emergency. I mean to record them time-capsule style, at a moment when we don’t know how much more slaughter there will be and how things will finally turn out.
Last time I said that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent presentation should be mentioned in future classes on how people understood our crises as they were happening. Volodymyr Zelenskyy will obviously deserve much more than a mention. Again, we don’t know how his story will end. But what he has done and said so far will command careful long-term study on its own.
In addition to what they did, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill are remembered for what they said. The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. We shall fight them on the beaches. As another American president once put it, “In the life of the human spirit, words are action.” (Not to be coy: this was a speech by Jimmy Carter in 1977, on which I helped.)
Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s words have already become actions. Let’s look at two major presentations this past month to the world’s most influential legislative bodies.
In the beginning: ‘We are all here.’
As prelude to the speeches, consider the background of the videos Zelenskyy recorded in the first days of the war, I think the one below will be considered lastingly important.
Just a day into the attacks, Zelenskyy did a selfie-recording of himself and his government colleagues on the streets of Kyiv. When it appeared, many viewers might have feared it would be a last glimpse of Zelenskyy before he himself was targeted and killed. I thought so at the time. At comparable stages of other wars, other leaders of other countries have fled for their lives.
But Zelenskyy’s message, the more powerful for its blunt brevity, was: I am here. We are here. We will be here with you, no matter what. I don’t understand Ukrainian, but the message was so spare and clear that it was eloquent even in translation.
I mention this video before getting to the speeches, for two reasons.
—First, it was a early illustration Zelenskyy’s innate grasp of the communications systems of his era. As FDR and Churchill understood radio, as JFK and Reagan understood TV, Zelenskyy understands the power of the unpolished-seeming, in-the-moment brief video. Any staging or “production values” that might have been welded onto these few seconds would only have weakened them.
—Second, because an important premise for Zelenskyy’s more formal presentations in recent weeks is the world’s sense that, We know this man.
We know him (international audiences think to themselves) from “I am here” and subsequent videos. We know him from videos of him walking unafraid down the streets of besieged towns. We know him from his no-frills “This is war” attire. We know what he has stood for, and what choices he has made. Maybe we had never heard of him before—as of two months ago, I’d bet 99% of the people outside Ukraine who recognized his name would know him as a reluctant bit player in Trump impeachment dramas. But by early April, he has become one of the most recognizable leaders and communicators in the world. He does not need to explain or establish his (literal) skin in the game.
Let’s look at how he put these assets to work in two of his most consequential addresses in recent weeks. One was to the House of Commons in Westminster, on March 8. You can see the streamed video on the UK Parliament’s official site here. The other was to the U.S. Congress eight days later. A streamed version is here.
Two speeches that were similar in some ways….
The UK and US speeches were similar in some important ways. Both were “unpolished” in Westminster or Capitol Hill terms. Zelenskyy wore his trademark green T-shirt for both. As far as I can tell, his government didn’t release an “official” English-language version of either speech. The English texts that are available appear to be transcripts of the interpreters’ live renditions, which have the rough-and-ready quality of real-time interpretation. (A UK version based on ParliamentTV live translation, is here. The US version is here. I’ve left these transcriptions as is, and noted a few places where I’m not sure of the intended meaning.)
This in turn means that the speeches, in English, sometimes read like shaggy informal discourse, almost like a podcast, rather than like formal parliamentary oratory. To be clear: Zelenskyy’s government had a lot more on its mind than spending time on “for-release” honed translations. My point is that the nature of the translations added to the less-scripted-than-usual effect.
The informality carried over to the delivery. Formal addresses of this sort are known for dramatic pauses, for moves up and down the intensity-and-volume scale, for an actorly sense of performing as if on stage. Performance strategies differ, depending on whether you think you are mainly talking to a crowd in your immediate presence, or through the camera to a larger audience watching on TV. But in any case they are performances.
Naturally any rhetoric is harder when working through an interpreter. But Zelenskyy, trained as an actor, clearly has an icy-clear awareness of the tone, message, and identity he wants to convey. And the effect he must have been working toward was dead-earnest, sober, no-frills. If you saw that 32-second video, with its rapid-fire stresses on We are here, you had a preview of his delivery on these grander stages. In all cases his message was so powerful that flourishes in delivery would only weaken it.
But considering that the speeches occurred only eight days apart, they were surprisingly distinct in their structure and emphasis.
At Westminster: the timeline, and the references.
Zelenskyy’s speech to Parliament, a mere nine minutes long, had two notable aspects.
One was its timeline structure. At that point the war had been underway for less than two weeks. There is a built-in drama to timeline structures (“In the beginning…”), and the number of days was small enough that Zelenskyy could make them his organizing principle. Most of the speech was a simple, grim timeline chronicle:
On day one, at four o’clock in the morning we were attacked by cruise missiles. Everybody woke up, people with children, the entire Ukraine, and since then we have not been sleeping…
On day two, we have been fighting airstrikes and our heroic military servicemen on the islands have been trying to fight….
On day four, we started taking people captive. We have not been torturing them – we remain humane even on day four of this terrible war.
On day five, the terror against us took place against children, against cities, and constant shelling has been taking place around the country, including hospitals, and that didn’t break us, and that gave us feeling of big truth.
On day six, the Russian rockets fell on Babi Yar…
He built up to the then-current day thirteen, by which point Russians had already killed more than 50 Ukrainian children. “These are the children that could have lived but these people have taken them away from us.” I wish I knew how these people came across in Ukrainian.
Then Zelenskyy moved to a concise, very powerful, “written” conclusion. I mentioned before that Arnold Schwarzenegger knew Russian people and culture well enough that he could casually throw off resonant examples of his long connections there. Volodymyr Zelenskyy appears to have a more formal, book-learning exposure to U.K. culture, but he put it to superb use.
The interpreter’s version of his conclusion was what you see below. In a polished “for-release” version the rhetoric might have been dressed up. But as is, the meaning is absolutely clear. (Emphasis added):
The question for us now is to be or not to be, this Shakespearean question. For 13 days this question could have been asked but now I can give you a definitive answer.
It’s definitely yes, to be.
And I would like to remind you the words that the United Kingdom have already heard [in a for-release version, this might have been “words familiar to every one of you” or “word that ring through your country’s history”], which are important again.
We will not give up and we will not lose.
We will fight until the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.
We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets. [Of course a reference to this, from an address 82 years earlier also to the House of Commons: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”]
I’d like to add that we will fight on the banks of different rivers and we’re looking for your help, for the help of the civilized countries.
The closing word civilized stands for a crucial connecting theme in all of Zelenskyy’s recent presentations. He has been saying: In Ukraine we aspire to return to normal, and to what you would recognize as normal as well. And we stand for something precious—something shared by much of the world, and imperiled by these rampaging troops.
He ended to a standing ovation.
In Washington, a more pointed appeal.
Zelenskyy’s address to Congress, only eight days later, had the same thunderous reception but was a surprisingly distinct presentation.
Zelenskyy has been giving a lot of these world-stage speeches. In the past month alone, he has spoken to the United Nations, to the European Union, to NATO, to parliaments in Australia and Canada and Germany and beyond. But the speeches are individually tailored. That is, he has not settled into a politician’s set “stump speech” routine. Partly that is because history is changing so quickly. Partly it is because he and his team have taken great care in matching message with audience.
The speech live-streamed from Kyiv to American legislators on March 16 was nearly twice as long as the one for the House of Commons. And it was distinct in three ways. Those were: the appeal to shared national experiences; the emphasis on brutality and atrocity; and the nature of the “ask.”
—First, when addressing the House of Commons, Zelenskyy linked Ukraine’s fate to Britain’s mainly through the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve. When addressing the Congress, he emphasized, in addition to shared democratic ideals, the shock of being attacked from the skies. As the real-time translation put it:
Remember Pearl Harbor. Terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it.
Remember September 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories in battlefields [not sure what this means].
When innocent people were attacked from air, yes. Just like nobody else expected it, you could not stop it….
These are days in which the US was attacked from the sky. Our country experienced the same every day…. Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.
Of course this was part of Zelenskyy’s request for a “no-fly zone” or other protections against attack from the air. But it was also an effort to explain how a huge, mighty, geographically protected country, like the United States, could imagine the terror Ukrainians felt under shells and bombs.
—When addressing Parliament on Day 13 of the warfare, Zelenskyy could tell them about children being murdered and schools and hospitals being destroyed. By the time he came to the Congress on Day 21, he could show them the toll. (For reference, today is Day 39.)
Near the end of his presentation, Zelenskyy displayed a two-minute video of Ukraine before-and-after. The “after” did not yet contain the scenes of apparent genocide-style executions and massacres by retreating Russian troops that have come to light these past few days. But they were stark enough: downtown explosions, maimed and bloody children, civilian bodies being tossed into mass graves. In fact they were so grim that C-Span and YouTube have warnings on videos of Zelenskyy’s whole speech and restrict how it can be spread. (I can insert a link to the speech, here, but can’t embed it, because of these restrictions.) In real time it was seen by hundreds of Senators and Representatives, and it was powerful enough that Zelenskyy had to say nothing at all about it, before closing with a brief appeal that the U.S. assume its duties as “a leader for peace.”
—The “ask,” of course, was for U.S. enforcement of a no-fly zone, to guard against death from the skies. This was a request he knew the U.S. would deny. So how could he present it, so as to end on a note of unity and resolve, not friction and disagreement?
He did so by framing the request in terms he thought would be appealing to Americans as Churchill’s were to Britons. “I have a dream,” he told them. “These words are known to each of you. I have a need: I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help, which means exactly the same as you feel when you hear the words ‘I have a dream.’ ” And he suggested other solutions. “If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative,” ranging from other weapons supplies to tighter sanctions.
He closed the speech, after the wrenching video, by switching to English, accented but completely understandable. He appealed to one of America’s flattering views of itself—that it sometimes stands up for larger causes—and that his citizens were aspiring to a normal life.
Today the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine, we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, in the name of the future.
That’s why today the American people are helping not just Ukraine, but Europe and the world, to keep the planet alive, to keep justice in history.
This was met by sustained across-the-aisle applause as well.
What will happen to Ukraine, after the latest horrific revelations? Can Volodymyr Zelenskyy live up to the standard of word and deed he has set in these past tumultuous 39 days? Will we look on these weeks as a turning point for better in the defense of all the values Zelenskyy was describing as “civilized”? Or for worse?
We can’t know. But it’s worth observing the ways an unexpectedly consequential leader has discussed what is at stake in our times.