Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky struck a Churchillian chord this week, speaking from his war-plagued land to Britain’s House of Commons. “We will not give up and we will not lose,” he told the members of Parliament. “We will fight till the end at sea. In the air. We will continue fighting for our land whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”
It wasn’t the only British note that spurred a standing ovation from the members of Parliament when he finished. He spoke of the “Shakespearean question,” that question spoken by Prince Hamlet: To be or not to be? “For 15 days, this question could have been asked,” Zelensky said. “But now I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes, to be.”
In the day that followed, the world would learn that the Russians expanded their vicious criminal campaign by bombing a maternity hospital, reportedly killing three people and wounding 17 others. It underscores the tragically low regard Vladimir Putin and his army have for human life, including women and children. Focusing on civilian targets like these is the kind of killing that could demoralize a less brave people.
Unlike the melancholy prince of Denmark in Shakespeare’s famous tale, Ukraine’s courageous president—who in recent days has been seen in his presidential office, revealing his location—has responded to the threat of death with inspiring words, yes, but also anger. That anger is intended not just for Ukraine’s enemy, Russia, but also Western allies who are refusing to establish a no-fly zone in order to avoid direct combat.
“Knowing that new strikes and casualties are inevitable, NATO deliberately decided not to close the sky over Ukraine,” Zelensky said in one video last week. “Today the leadership of the alliance gave the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages, refusing to make a no-fly zone.”
He had more to say, his words not meant to console, but to motivate European leaders to act. Ukrainians “are fighting for our freedom, for our rights and for our survival,” he told the European parliament following the request to join the European Union. “Do prove that you are with us, do prove that you will not let us go, do prove that you indeed are Europeans.”
That speech also brought parliamentarians from 27 EU countries to their feet. But it did not console Zelensky: “I am happy that we have united all of you, but I didn't want this unity at this price.”
Several days later, he had harsher words for NATO and its expressed fear of the conflict escalating into a “full-fledged war” in Europe beyond Ukraine. He emphasized that Russian troops were shelling civilians, churches, schools. “All the people who will die from this day will die because of you, as well,” he told the leaders in Brussels. “Because of your weakness. Because of your disunity.”
This war, this deadly invasion, has made the former television actor and comedian a hero. Unless you are in Russia where it’s now a crime to even assert it’s a war, you can turn on your TV and witness Zelensky’s bravery as he fights for his country. It’s a role that he did not want, but that he cannot avoid. I can only imagine the internal struggles of this man who’s also a father and a husband, aware that not just he but his whole family are targets of a terrorizing dictator.
Shakespeare offers us his picture of how one troubled prince struggled to keep his sanity as he questioned life and death in a world wracked by power struggles and murder.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep.
The Ukrainian people—and all of us who long for liberal democracies to hold sway against the march of tyrants—are lucky to have a far different man to shape their fate. But even as over 2 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland for safer fields, including an estimated 1 million children, those who stay and those who wonder about the dreadful state of humanity can take solace in personal stories of triumph over adversity. I hope this next story lifts your heart as it did mine.
He was wearing a combat helmet and holding a rifle. She was dressed in camouflage. The mayor of Kyiv was nearby wearing a bulletproof vest, while defense forces were carrying anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. Overhead, a drone dropped flower petals as the crowd sang the national anthem.
On Sunday this week, on a grassy patch near a busy road and checkpoint, Lesya Filimonova and Valeriy Filimonov exchanged wedding vows. It was a loving pause from the war and their decision to volunteer and fight for their country. “Here we have everything we love, and we have to defend it,” Filimonova told a reporter. “We have no intention of giving it away to the enemy.”
This day was the first time the couple had seen each other since the war started. They held hands as the Orthodox priest conducted the ceremony and the couple’s teenaged daughter watched by video call. “It is hard to call it unconditional happiness in this situation, but we surely feel uplifted,” the bride said later.
Amid war, life goes on. And hope for the future, which takes many forms, continues to nourish the struggle to survive.
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