Volodymyr Zelensky’s Dream Life

The admiration for the Ukrainian leader that’s obvious and pervasive on social media is both genuine and a form of wish fulfillment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a screen addressing the U.S. Congress.
J. Scott Applewhite-Pool / Getty

About the author: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

This morning, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress from his desk in Kyiv, bitter thoughts must have crossed his mind. Not so long ago, Donald Trump wouldn’t let Mike Pence attend the Ukrainian president’s inauguration. Zelensky spent the first year of his administration begging for an invitation to the White House that never arrived. While members of Congress greeted him rapturously, Zelensky put his hand over his heart, but he must have also thought to himself: It would have been nice to have received this love a bit sooner.

Zelensky’s hovering visage presented a sharp contrast with the institution he was addressing. The Ukrainian president styles himself as a general defending democracy’s eastern front against the onslaught of authoritarianism. This morning he wore a green military T-shirt. The U.S. members of Congress, in their suits and ties and dark blazers, reflected their sclerotic institution, constrained by antiquated rules, incapable of shoring up a democracy that’s beginning to crumble.

That contrast is a reason for the heroic status that Zelensky has achieved in the U.S. and Western Europe. With his rhetorical approach and personal style, he’s evinced something that Western publics crave deeply for themselves, a democratic example that’s badly missing. Through his wartime performance, he has demonstrated to countries that have slipped into rancor how to successfully deploy persuasion to build consensus without succumbing to accusation. Despite having every reason to hate Russians, he uses his videos to reason with them. The admiration for Zelensky that’s obvious and pervasive on social media is both genuine and a form of wish fulfillment.

The telling moment in his congressional address came when he invoked—but never cited by name—Martin Luther King Jr.: “‘I have a dream.’ These words are known to each of you today. I can say I have a need. I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help, which means exactly the same. The same you feel when you hear the words ‘I have a dream.’”

It was a rhetorically bracing move—to attach the Ukrainian cause to the American struggle for racial equality. But by quoting that famous speech, Zelensky was laying his strategic cards on the table. He has run Ukraine’s wartime diplomacy as if it were a movement. Like any effective movement leader, he has tapped into a latent sense of idealism. When he declared, “I have a need”—the ultimate expression of self-interest—he was doing so on behalf of a cause greater than his own nation’s survival.

And like any good movement tactician, he has pushed hard for big goals that he will never achieve, with the pragmatic hope of winning piecemeal victories. Having spent the past two weeks clamoring for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, he backed away from that demand ever so slightly in his congressional speech. He argued, “To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people. Is this too much to ask? A humanitarian no-fly zone, something that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities. If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative.”

The cleverness of that passage was its humility—“Is that too much to ask?” He seemed to acknowledge that his imperative to protect his people might not match the strategic interests of the nation he was addressing. By adding that rhetorical question, he wrapped his righteousness in self-awareness, which meant that he never conveyed ingratitude. It allowed him to pivot to request the next best alternative: the aircraft and air defenses that would help mitigate Russia’s superiority in the skies.

Again the contrast between Zelensky and his audience was sharp. Over the past year, crucial pieces of legislation (especially Build Back Better) have withered because politicians didn’t understand when they needed to settle for less.

Then Zelensky took another unexpected turn. He proposed creating new global institutions to replace the inert postwar ones that have failed in the face of Russian aggression. Perhaps this proposal was a strategic gambit, setting up a negotiated settlement with Russia that will lean on some new international body to protect Ukraine’s security in lieu of NATO. But the passage had a haunting irony. The man who might not live to see the next week, who really just needs a few more airplanes to get through the day, is also the only global leader to have expressed a vision of what the future might look like.

When he ended his speech, his last chance to extract help from the U.S., he returned to a familiar theme: mortality. “Now I’m almost 45 years old. Today, my age stopped when the hearts of more than 100 children stopped beating. I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths.” By calling attention to his own age, however inadvertently, he was offering a final contrast to the politicians on the other end of the screen, the world’s most powerful gerontocracy. Resigned to his own death, he has become the mythical leader who has placed his people’s interests ahead of his own.