Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.
The choice of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Time magazine's "Person of the Year" was "the most clear-cut in memory," Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal wrote in a note to readers.
Indeed, the honor may not have been a surprise. But the honoree's comments in a revealing profile by Time's Simon Shuster were — especially Zelenskyy's reaction to continuous comparisons to Winston Churchill, who had been awarded the designation twice (in 1940 and 1949) and who was also a leader of a courageous country fending off fascist bombardment.
In many ways, the comparison is apt. Like Churchill, Zelenskyy has been inspiring and intrepid in rallying his nation — and the free world — in defense of democracy and freedom. And yet, when Shuster asked about the similarity, Zelenskyy demurred, deflecting on the grounds of Churchill's imperialistic impulse.
Instead, Zelenskyy seemed to prefer parallels to two different icons of the era: George Orwell, whose literal and literary disdain for imperialism and totalitarianism fits Zelenskyy's ethos, and Charlie Chaplin, the usually silent comedian whose first talkie, "The Great Dictator," concluded with a speech that's considered a cinematic anti-fascist masterpiece.
Embracing the creators of Big Brother and the Little Tramp seems the essence of Zelenskyy's use of the bully pulpit against the bully in the Kremlin and, by extension, despots everywhere.
When asked about Churchill on a long train ride from newly liberated Kherson, Zelenskyy told Shuster that "I've raised the example of Charlie Chaplin, how he used the weapon of information during the Second World War to fight against fascism. You see, there were these artists who helped society, because they had a lot of admirers, and their influence was often stronger than artillery."
Zelenskyy knows the strength, and necessity, of artillery, and has been extraordinarily successful in procuring it from NATO nations in part because he also understands the strength and necessity of communication. Shuster describes the Ukrainian president in a Kherson square, amid not-so-distant artillery fire, connecting with a Starlink internet terminal. "Most of the people around him were armed with assault rifles, but this was his weapon, a late-model iPhone that Zelenskyy has used to wage the biggest land war of the information age. His skill at addressing the world through that phone — in his nightly speeches on social media, in his endless calls with foreign leaders and supporters — has been as critical as the number of tanks in his army."
His chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, told Time that "our principle is simple: If we fall out of focus, we are in danger."
Honors like being named "Person of the Year" help Zelenskyy — and, more profoundly, Ukraine — avoid falling out of focus. Just as it helps the magazine from falling out of focus amid an ever-evolving media environment. In the case of its Ukraine coverage, Time used a timeless method: on-the-ground reporting through Shuster, a native Russian speaker who started as the magazine's Moscow correspondent in 2009 and has lived in and covered Ukraine since 2014.
Being named "Person of the Year" helps "focus the world's attention," Time Executive Editor Ben Goldberger said in an interview soon after the selection was announced. That's something that's also among Zelenskyy's top objectives. When the war started, Shuster wrote, "he gave his generals the freedom to lead on the battlefield, and focused instead on the dimension of the war where he could be most effective: persuading the world that Ukraine must win at any cost. 'Do prove that you are with us,' he said in a speech to the European Parliament in the first week of the invasion. 'Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you are indeed Europeans, and then life will win over death, and light will win over darkness.'"
Aspirational language like that will get one compared to Churchill. Chaplin, however, also spoke with similarly stark tones in his soliloquy in "The Great Dictator." Referencing the information-age marvel of his era, the radio, Chaplin implored, "Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world — millions of despairing men, women, and little children — victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say — do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed — the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people."
Zelenskyy's emphasis on Chaplin "puts the lie on the idea that Zelenskyy is some kind of celebrity arriviste who found himself in the right place at the right time," said Goldberger.
"He's very strategic in his approach, and he prepared for entering politics by reading history and understanding his predecessors in leadership. But more than that, understanding how they are received within the culture and the role that satirists like him have long played. His resistance to being labeled as Churchill is telling, because that has become something of a shorthand, that he is Churchillian in his bravery, his leadership, all of which may be true, but he rightly pushes back on any comparison to an imperialist and also recognizes that people like Charlie Chaplin, in very different ways, were arguably just as influential in shifting public opinion against fascism. And it's a rare, perhaps even unprecedented, instance of having somebody who can credibly occupy both of those roles."
Zelenskyy's ability to occupy both roles helped rally Ukrainians against their occupiers. And in turn they seem to have rallied him. Which makes it fitting that Time's cover nods not just to Zelenskyy, but to "the Spirit of Ukraine" — a spirit that comes from incredibly courageous citizens who have made "Slava Ukraini!" ("Glory to Ukraine!") heard worldwide.
"We wanted to recognize that he was not doing this alone, that a huge part of his influence has been his ability to rally both his compatriots within Ukraine and countless others outside of it," said Goldberger. He's turned this into "a global referendum. The flags that are flying from Tokyo to Toronto, the vigils being held in Amsterdam and Mexico City, the Empire State Building lighted up in yellow and blue; all of that is the spirit of Ukraine. Zelenskyy turned it into its own global weather system."
The global political system has taken note.
"President Zelenskyy has just galvanized the American people, allies and partners, the world, in support of Ukraine's democracy, and his courage, his resolve, his standing up to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin and this absolutely unrelenting Russian assault on his country has been absolutely inspiring," said Uzra Zeya, U.S. undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights.
Zeya, in the Twin Cities for a Global Minnesota event among other official visits, added: "It's vitally important to all of us that Ukraine prevails against Russia's invading forces. If Putin wins, it's not only a defeat for Ukraine, it's also a defeat and dangerous for all of us."
Or, as Zelenskyy himself told Time, "If they devour us, the sun in your sky will get dimmer."
Churchill — or Chaplin — couldn't have said it better.