In the end, most comparisons stretched across history break down. Britain in 1940 and Ukraine in 2022 are vastly different societies facing vastly different threats and led in very different ways.
And yet, fundamentally, Mr. Zelensky’s implied comparison still retains an essential truth that will reverberate for a long time to come. Both men were leading countries at a desperate low point. Both were in physical danger themselves; Churchill would clamber onto the roofs of Whitehall buildings to watch German bombing raids advance across his capital. Less than a year after he spoke to the Commons, its chamber was destroyed by German bombs. Kyiv is under Russian bombardment and the president, who refuses to escape, has reportedly been targeted by a Chechen assassination squad.
Both men are wordsmiths, with a background in written (Churchill) or broadcast (Zelensky) political entertainment, who deploy drama to inspire and stiffen the resistance of their people. We are relearning how much words and individual leadership still invigorate wider political audiences, across Western Europe and the United States.
Mr. Zelensky’s buoyant optimism, expressed day after day as he sits in his fatigues, has been a unifying and moralizing factor in the war. His calm, his understated ordinariness, is a daily rebuke to Mr. Putin’s smear that Ukraine is led by drug addicts and neo-Nazis. By staying in Kyiv and constantly promising a victory that remains hard to imagine Ukraine’s Army winning, Mr. Zelensky has turned himself into a symbol of resistance. His video messages are eagerly awaited and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Churchill, likewise, was consciously turning himself into a symbol. The bowler hat, the cigar, the two-fingered salute, were designed to make him instantly recognizable in an age when people were getting their news from movie theater “shorts,” as well as the press. The orotund, theatrical cadences of his famous speeches were likewise intended to make his voice, and therefore his message, unforgettable when picked up through crackling wireless signals at home and abroad.
And the speeches worked. Churchill’s biographer, Roy Jenkins, the Labour cabinet minister and a founder of the Social Democratic Party, noted that they might have been regarded as overblown and self-indulgent in different times. The “never surrender” speech itself was greeted coolly on the Tory benches. (It didn’t even make the front pages of many British newspapers the following day.)