Zelensky’s Prayer

On the meaning of “We are still here.”

Ukrainian soldiers

This Friday, as Passover begins, my thoughts will turn to my late grandmother. Born in Ukraine, she survived the Nazis, the only one in her immediate family to escape the guns of the génocidaires. Each year, at the beginning of the seder, she would stand from her chair, if she could, and recount the story of her flight, never explicitly drawing comparisons to the exodus from Egypt. As she finished her testimony—which, like the seder itself, entailed the ritualistic repetition of details and phrases—she would stare across the table and tell us, “You are my revenge against Hitler.”

This year, I began to think about those words long before the holiday season. They returned to me on the night of February 25, the second day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the darkness of Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stepped into the empty streets, trailed by a coterie of advisers. A rumor, nefariously spread, held that Zelensky had fled for his life, a decision that would have arguably made rational sense. After all, sources in U.S. intelligence were telling reporters that his government would likely be toppled in a week’s time. To counteract the sense of doom descending on Ukraine, he recorded a video on a phone. Using the gentlest version of his gravelly voice, he told his people, “We are still here.”

Like my grandmother’s admonition, Zelensky’s words were a prayer and a defiant rallying cry. I felt as if they had been uttered, unconsciously, in the spirit of Passover.

The Haggadah instructs its readers to tell the story of the exodus as if they were themselves slaves in Egypt. It demands an imaginative leap that places those at the table in a chain of events, asking them to vicariously conjure the terror of fleeing the Egyptians, but also the jubilation of liberation. Like the subtext of my grandmother’s conclusion, the seder not-so-subtly imposes a burden on its participants. Because their ancestors persisted through the worst, the present generation can’t be the ones who give up. In other words, the ritualistic retelling of the story of Jewish survival becomes the basis for Jewish survival.

Zelensky, a performer by trade, has been telling a story about his own people, in the hopes that it can help carry his nation through its own struggle against a pharaoh. Among the hopeful words in his story is we. His daily video messages to his people repeat flourishes like, “We are all Ukrainians. We are all Europeans. We are all free people of the free world.” But that description of national sentiment wasn’t always an objective description of political reality. Ever since Ukraine became an independent nation, in 1991, its politics have been divided along linguistic and geographic lines. Political parties representing the Ukrainian-speaking west vied for power against factions representing the Russian-speaking east. Clearly, Vladimir Putin hoped that this divide would bolster his invasion, that denizens of eastern cities would greet the Russian army as liberators.

In Putin’s analysis of the world, a nation’s military strength is an outgrowth of its national character. The mightiest states have traditionalist foundations, a sense of nationhood grounded in religion and patriarchal values, the affection that comes from blood and soil. That’s another weakness he identified in Ukraine: its cosmopolitanism. Ukraine aspires to align with the European Union and its dream of transcending national borders. Its president has espoused tolerance for LGBTQ people; he was an entertainer who once pretended to play the piano with his penis. Ukraine is weak because it is decadence incarnate.

When Zelensky speaks of the Ukrainian nation, he is formulating an alternative to the Russian version of nationhood. In wartime speeches, he toggles between Ukrainian and Russian, signaling that both languages are authentically Ukrainian. The nation’s obligation, he implores, is to all its inhabitants, “wherever they are, whoever they are.” He has resisted grounding his appeals in religion—or the tropes of chauvinism. Even though Ukrainians have ample grounds to feel a sense of historic aggrievement, he never attempts to seize the mantle of victimhood for his people. The story he tells is about a community that will prevail thanks to its shared solidarity, neighborly sense of mutuality, and “sincere and constant support of each other,” as he put it.

But Putin wasn’t the only one who viewed this sort of patriotism as an ersatz version of the real thing. Even liberals were uncertain about whether it had any staying power. In that sense, Ukraine has become a demonstration of a universal project. Or, as Zelensky said last week, “Kyiv is the capital of global democracy, the capital of the struggle for freedom for all on the European continent.” Proving the resilience of a benevolent ideal of patriotism potentially serves as an antidote to right-wing nationalism.

Listen to The Experiment podcast: How Franklin Foer’s family story debunks a myth that Putin tells about Ukraine.

Listen and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts

In the end, soldiers and their weapons will save Ukraine. But the will to resist is the surprising fact of this war. And that resistance is fueled by a sense that Ukraine might actually prevail in the end, despite the initial doomsaying of American intelligence. As with Passover, the story of Ukrainian survival becomes the basis for Ukrainian survival.

Indeed, the war has the makings of one of the most unlikely stories in military history. Six weeks ago, there was hardly a pundit who had predicted the current state of play. In parallel with the aching tragedy of the invasion—alongside the mass graves, the pancaked cities, the millions of refugees, the everlasting trauma—something that could properly be described as miraculous has transpired. Despite the superior arsenal and size of the invading army, Zelensky is still alive, and his government remains standing. Russia is abandoning, at least for now, its campaign to destroy Kyiv—and Ukraine is still here.