A Hero For Our Time

Alan Zendell, December 22, 2022

As an undergraduate required to study history and philosophy, I was struck by the writings of the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, specifically, the idea that has come to be known as the Hegelian Hero. In Hegel’s philosophy, heroes are individuals who have been selected by the world spirit to play a pivotal role in history. They are always with us, but only emerge as heroes when required by circumstances. Often, those who ultimately become heroes arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, but in each case the hero is exactly the right person for the situation and time.

Often, a hero is someone we would never have predicted would turn out to be one. The first in my lifetime was Winston Churchill, who throughout his early life was more of a gadfly than anything else. While he held many high-ranking offices, he was never a media darling or favorite. Rather, he was garrulous and combative, often switching allegiances and parties, until he found himself in the shoes of a not terribly popular Prime Minister defending Britain against the Nazis. Suddenly, he was the only man for the time, a charismatic figure who served as the rallying point for the Allies, without whom the second world war might have turned out quite differently.

Enter Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A student of history and the law, there was nothing inevitable about his current role as president and inspirational leader of his country. He didn’t set out to be either, instead capitalizing on his skills as a comedic actor and communicator to become one of his nation’s most popular entertainers. A year after Russia attacked and annexed Crimea, (we sometimes forget that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine actually began in 2014,) Netflix recognized Zelensky’s potential and produced nearly sixty episodes of Servant of the People, in which Zelensky starred as a high school history teacher who was fed up with the corruption and economic problems of his fledgling nation.

Ukraine is barely in its adolescence, having come into being as an independent sovereign state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Zelensky’s Netflix character, after a video of one his anti-government rants goes viral on Youtube, is drafted to run against a corrupt president in the next election and wins by a landslide. As a fictional president, he has no idea how to govern, but he never stops fighting for what he believes, and we hear Zelensky the actor prophetically saying and doing the same things he does as the real life president defending his county against Russian aggression.

When Zelensky became president of Ukraine in 2019, other world leaders expected him to be the same clownish, unprepared leader he portrayed on television. American President Donald Trump assumed he could use Zelensky as a pawn and extort him into having Hunter Biden prosecuted. Vladimir Putin saw Zelensky’s inauguration as an opportunity to expand his takeover of Ukraine. But when put to the test, Zelensky turned out to be the classic Hegelian Hero. When President Biden offered to evacuate him from Kyiv, last February, after Russia’s massive invasion began, Zelensky said he needed ammunition, not a ride. Both Biden and Putin were surprised, as was the rest of the world that expected Ukraine to roll over and become subservient, once again, to Russia.

While both Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken deserve the credit for re-unifying and strengthening our alliance with Europe, none of that would have happened had Zelensky not turned out to be the magical charismatic leader we now see him to be. Zelensky wore his cloak of leadership as if he were born to it, characterizing Ukraine as the last bulwark of democracy fighting against the scourge of autocratic imperialism. He warned Europe and America that if they didn’t defend Ukraine against Putin’s ambitions, if they reacted as Neville Chamberlain had when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, they would be next, and the result could be World War 3.

Zelensky is undoubtedly this century’s Churchill, rallying his 44 million citizens to defend and repel the massively superior Russian invasion force when the entire world expected them to be defeated in days. Three hundred days later, he stood with Biden at the White House and addressed our Congress in a speech televised around the world. And he did so convincingly, with complete humility and gratitude. In the eyes of the western media, he is an international hero with his finger in the dike that protects democracy from destruction.

I’m not easily inspired. I distrust charisma and snake oil salesmen. But Volodymr Zelensky has fully captured my imagination. Time Magazine named him Man of the Year. I’d nominate him for Hero of the Century.

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