“I Need Ammunition, Not a Ride”
As the Russian invasion unfolds in Ukraine, there has been an emerging narrative about the Ukrainians and their leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They are tough. They are proud. And they are not letting go of their country without a fight. The rest of the world watched Zelenskyy, dressed in a green sweatshirt, tell everyone he was target “number one” for the Russian military, but he wasn’t going anywhere. He and his advisors stood outside in Kyiv to show their resolve. He denied the U.S. offer to evacuate him with a bold statement that will likely go in the history books: “I need ammunition, not a ride”. He is in grave danger, and we are used to our political leaders cutting and running at the first sign of trouble. Instead, Zelenskyy has shaped himself into a modern hero, ready to fight and die for his people and his country.
It’s interesting to see this narrative emerge because I imagine Vladimir Putin didn’t anticipate it. In fact, he likely based his strategy on the comedian turned politician giving up quickly. The assumption that Zelenskyy would protect himself and give up Kyiv is simply not playing out. And his country is following him; they are ready for the fight, even as they are vastly overmatched. For once, a leader has shown that he will fight for them; he is not simply asking them to put themselves in harm’s way for him. No one has a crystal ball to tell us what will happen in the coming days and weeks, and the Ukrainians are at significant risk, but the charismatic hero emerging to rally his people is a critical point Putin didn’t foresee.
Why are heroes important? The idea of the “hero” comes from ancient Greece. A hero was someone who had done something so remarkable, he/she lived even after death, and the Greeks often worshipped their heroes as they did their gods. Heroes in Greek myths were not necessarily “good”, but they were extraordinary. Over time, the hero morphed into the protagonist, and heroes became people we wanted to cherish and emulate.
But what makes a hero? Is it just someone we admire? No. That would be an overuse of the term because there are many people worthy of admiration. It’s much more than that. Karl Marx used the term “charisma” as one of his forms of leadership. It means that an individual has a quality or qualities that make others want to follow. The individual is set apart from others, and, for lack of a better term, is special.
We like a special person. We love charisma. We overlook flaws in these individuals because we want so badly to believe. From a sociological perspective, heroes brings us together. We like to belong, and we like to see ourselves as part of the group. Emile Durkheim used the term collective consciousness to refer to this: it’s the common way of defining the world; it includes a common moral bond between people. It is a dynamic force in our world. Belonging makes us feel powerful. The love for the charismatic leader can make up for a lot of shortcomings.
No one can predict how the situation in Ukraine will play out; the likelihood that a scrappy bunch of civilians can hold Kyiv is pretty low. But taking a capital and holding a capital are two different things. President Zelenskyy has provided a charismatic hero for his people, and they will likely keep up the fight as long as they can.
This doesn’t overlook the tragedies that are unfolding; the fog of war can make us see only “good” and “bad” without finding the gray areas in between. The loss will be immense, and it shouldn’t have to be. But there is no doubt that Putin has underestimated the pride of Ukraine and its leader. The people are inspired by their president; he is their hero. No matter what happens next, that is a compelling impetus for strength.