Columns | Locomotif
Alone In Kyiv
Once the cameras stop clicking, Zelensky returns to the bunker in Kyiv, as freedom’s last solitary hero
24 Feb, 2023
THIS WAR IS ELSEWHERE, and no earnest headline can reduce the distance between the call of conscience and the urgency of diplomacy. Flashes of human drama and the bare romance of resistance may shatter the ordinariness the world has come to bestow upon this war. It may have brought together nations in a rare display of international morality, and still the solidarity of the outraged is not matched by the scale of action against the invader. On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what sets this war apart is the enormity of our failure in uniting against the aggressor. This failure cannot be compensated by arming the victim with weapons and symbolism.
And it is what differentiates this war from its genetic predecessor, World War II, when, eight decades ago, another dictator swayed by his self-portrait as a national redeemer with arbitrary powers over the destiny of others thought that controlling geography was the surest way to own history. Then the response, shared by the last leaders of active moral idealism, was powered by a consensus on evil. Today we let Vladimir Putin, no matter how Russia struggles to win this war, threaten the West, his real enemy, with a nuclear attack. Putin’s Russia can’t afford to lose, but the West can help Russia seek post-Putin peace with the world. For that to happen, the powers that are united behind the victim cannot remain disunited against the villain.
The contrast alone tells the story about the insufficiency of solidarity—and the convenience of not offending Putin beyond a point. Volodymyr Zelensky, the citizen president in a tee shirt with a graphic message for the world, is fighting two wars. One for staying alive in the ruins, with defiance and courage. The other is for winning the global conscience: there he is, from a London stage hugging an emotional reporter; chatting with a foreign correspondent from his bunker in Kyiv; always playing up his vulnerability as his moral strength; and pleading for more fighter jets… He is the Everyman Victim.
At the Munich Security Conference in February last year, just before the Russian invasion, he said: “The architecture of world security is fragile and needs to be updated. The rules that the world agreed upon decades ago no longer work. They do not keep up with new threats, and they are not effective in overcoming them. They offer a cough syrup when what you need is a Covid vaccine.” He remembered the irony of the venue: it was from the same conference that Putin once raged against the decadent West, giving an explanation in advance for Russia’s eventual annexation of Crimea.
Within the current architecture of global security, Zelensky will remain a lone fighter even as he gets arms and photo ops of solidarity from the cautious West. Set against the solitary freedom fighter is the warmonger floating in the fantasy of a Slavic imperium. Isolation aggravates Putin’s sense of hurt and humiliation. His predecessors in the history of me-alone madness too seethed in isolation, inventing dehumanising ways to legitimise their transborder bloodlust. Putin’s Russia of the mind—an imperium sustained by a rehashed history—can be expanded only by real-time conquest.
He is perhaps the only dictator who qualifies as a bona fide fascist at a time when the term of abuse is lazily hurled at sundry authoritarians and other illiberal rulers (‘The Attack of Stereotypes’, Open, February 27, 2023). And it’s Putin, harking back to the Soviet mindset, who is calling the enemy fascist. As the American historian Timothy Snyder has written in an essay, “Fascists calling other people ‘fascists’ is fascism taken to its illogical extreme as a cult of unreason. It is a final point where hate speech inverts reality and propaganda is pure insistence. It is the apogee of will over thought. Calling others fascists while being a fascist is the essential Putinist practice.” Putin has taken a return trip to the darker recesses of the past as revenge against a world that doesn’t comprehend his nationalist-imperialist sentiments. Putin’s war is for the sake of an existential definition, like the fascist wars of the past.
This war, too, began in an abstraction born in a desperate mind. Ukraine, with its long history of freedom and subjugation, was denied its identity for the sustenance of Putin’s abstraction. In another time, when another genocidal fantasist sent his troops and tanks to another country for the sake of self-definition, the united front against unfreedom won, and it was Russia that paid the heaviest price for a human principle. Zelensky’s allies are pragmatists; they weigh the pros and cons as they promise him arms and indulge him as a warrior-president. Once the cameras stop clicking, he returns to the bunker in Kyiv, as freedom’s last solitary hero. The normalisation of the terror he and his people endure makes the progress of freedom in this century all the more tentative.
About The Author
S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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