Power  /  Argument

The Zelensky Myth

Why we should resist hero-worshipping Ukraine’s president.

The story might just sound familiar. The leader of a country on the periphery of Europe, one fighting against impossible odds to preserve its independence against ruthless foreign aggressors, achieves international fame. He is handsome, brave and heroic. His own people adore him. Western commentators compare him to legendary figures of the past. So appealing is he, and so insistent his calls for military intervention, that some of these same commentators even seem ready to risk global war to support him. He is the essence of charisma.

The story is about Volodymyr Zelensky – but not only him. Many have played much the same role, going back quite far in time. Consider a man now largely forgotten outside his homeland. In the mid-18th century, a soldier named Pasquale Paoli led Corsica in a struggle for independence, first against the Republic of Genoa and then against France, which defeated him and annexed the island in 1768 (and still rules it today). Dashing and brave, handsome and popular, fighting against superior French forces, Paoli sent foreign observers into raptures. The English poet Anna Barbauld called him a “godlike Man”. Pitt the Elder mused that he was “one of those men who are no longer to be found but in the Lives of Plutarch”. In 1765, an as-yet unknown young Scot named James Boswell travelled to Corsica to meet Paoli, and nearly melted in his presence. He went on to publish a wildly popular and breathlessly adulatory portrait of the man, full of quirky details (Paoli’s amazing memory, his inability to sit still). Boswell claimed he had no more believed such a person could exist in the world than “seas of milk” or “ships of amber”. The Scot led a funding effort that raised more than £14,000 – a huge sum at the time – to purchase arms for the Corsicans and he also mounted a publicity campaign to urge British intervention in the struggle. Cooler heads prevailed in the ministry. “Foolish as we are,” wrote the Quartermaster General Lord Holland, “we cannot be so foolish as to go to war because Mr Boswell has been in Corsica.”

Between Paoli and Zelensky, many other figures have received similar treatment in Western media. George Washington was one of the most prominent, especially during the dark moments of late 1776 when the American revolutionary cause seemed lost (“the times that try men’s souls” as Thomas Paine put it). Washington made such a positive international impression that even in Britain, the country against which he was leading a violent rebellion, press coverage of him skewed towards the highly favourable. He was, the Scots Magazine solemnly pronounced, “a man of sense and great integrity”. A few decades later, it was the turn of South American independence leader Simón Bolívar, who fired imaginations across the Atlantic world, and drew thousands of Europeans to fight in his armies (many, admittedly, were soldiers left unemployed by the end of the Napoleonic Wars). Admirers in the United States saw Bolívar as a new Washington and named no fewer than five American towns after him, as well as hundreds of babies. And the tradition continued. Giuseppe Garibaldi, in his campaigns for Italian unification between 1848 and 1860, inspired enormous international adulation, and so, in the 20th century, did a long string of anti-colonial revolutionaries. The worshipful coverage of Zelensky bears particular resemblance to what the media, 40 years ago, showered on another humble eastern European defying Russian power (albeit of a different sort): Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Polish union Solidarity.