March 20, 2022: The Courage of Zelensky

This service may be viewed on YouTube here: MUUC Mar 20 2022


Words of Abraham Lincoln:

As labor is the common burden of humanity, so the effort of some to shift their share of the burden onto the shoulders of others is the great, durable, curse of humanity.

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.

This expresses my idea of democracy.

Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and cannot long retain it.

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?

Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.


Brief background on the Revolution of Dignity, plus clips from “Servant of the People,” Volodymyr Zelensky’s TV show. Watch Rev. Susanne tell the story here.

You can find episode 1 of “Servant of the People” on YouTube. To watch the teacher’s rant, start around 10:40. To see the clips about Lincoln, you can also find episode 3 on YouTube, but for the best English subtitles, watch it on Netflix. 


A very popular tweet has gone around this past week. So popular, that someone actually stitched the words into needlepoint, like on one of those homey old-time throw pillows, and a photo of that went viral too.

The words?

My new morning routine:

  1. wake up
  2. check on Zelensky
  3. coffee


Yes, the world or some remarkably large portion of it these days, greets the morning by checking to see if Volodymyr Zelensky . . . is still alive.

He has become a global folk hero, a unifying figure praised by people across the political spectrum and around the world.

How did this happen?

Well, his TV show, which we sampled earlier, ran for 3 seasons and became a huge hit, not just in Ukraine but also in Russia, where Zelensky’s production company has made all 51 episodes available for free on YouTube.

In March 2018, just 3 years after the show debuted, the production company registered its name, Servant of the People, as the name of a new political party in Ukraine. Nine months later, on New Year’s Eve, Volodymyr Zelensky announced his candidacy for the real-life presidency of Ukraine.

Instead of touring the country with stump speeches, Zelensky took out his phone and made short videos, talking directly to the people via social media. Then in April 2019, there was another landslide, this one even bigger than the fictional one in support of the TV teacher. This time, in real life, Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine with 73% of the vote.

Most Americans, however, would not have heard of him until a few months later, when Zelensky became a central figure in our own 45th president’s first impeachment trial. Do you remember the “perfect phone call”? That’s when in July 2019, our then-president was recorded on the phone with the new Ukrainian president, holding up the military aid he needed to fight the Russian army, which was still fomenting rebellion in his Eastern provinces. Congress had already voted to send the aid, but whats-his-name was illegally holding it up, extorting Zelensky because “we want you to do us a favor, though” dig up some dirt on the American president’s own election rival, Joe Biden.

What an impossible position for young Zelensky to be caught in, but he somehow survived and got the military aid eventually, and yes, 247 Republicans in congress later voted to exonerate 45 for extorting Zelensky, and yes, just this past week, these very same folks in Congress gave the Ukrainian a standing ovation.

Like his TV character, Volodymyr Zelensky has had a bumpy ride as president. Dismantling long-entrenched systems of corruption is far trickier than you might think, because who can you trust? Who can you put into office that you know is not paid off, directly manipulated by oligarchs behind the scenes? Well, only your friends and family — but if you hire them, that’s just another kind of corruption, isn’t it?

Anna Myroniuk is an investigative journalist at the Kyiv Independent. “Back in 2019, I did not vote for him,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “Like some other Ukrainians, I did not believe Zelensky . . . with no experience in politics, was suited for the job. His campaign was idealistic but lacked substance. He was often vague and raised concerns about where he stood toward Russia. He had his own powerful backer, the billionaire who owned the TV station that broadcast his show. I was not impressed by his administration. He promised to fight corruption but I saw how his efforts were selective.” 

But then, 24 days ago, everything changed. Putin invaded Ukraine again, this time with a massive force, intent on taking over the whole country, as the world watched.

Commentators around the world expected the country to fall within hours. After all, its army is one-quarter the size of Russia’s. 

And alone. Although Zelensky and predecessors had requested to join both the EU and NATO, they had been declined several times, because Western powers wanted to keep from provoking Putin. So now no one is obligated to help Ukraine.

According to the Times of London, since the Russian invasion on February 24, Putin has assigned more than 400 mercenaries to find Zelensky and assassinate him. He is Russia’s target number one.

So on February 26, American agents offered to rescue him and his family. Zelensky famously replied, “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.”

Later that night, Zelensky and his top aides came out on the streets of Kyiv. On his phone, Zelensky recorded a brief video selfie of the men, lit by streetlights, surrounded by familiar buildings. “We are here. We are all still here. We are not leaving.”

Since then, every day, we’ve seen more photos and video — Zelensky in a T shirt or sweatshirt, unshaven, walking the streets, eating with soldiers, visiting hospitals, addressing the parliament. While bombs are falling from the sky. Russians are bombing the country relentlessly, and targeting civilians.

The internet has gone wild for Zelensky. You can see images of him now as Captain America, or rather Captain Ukraine, Countless photos compare Zelensky, in a flak jacket and bulletproof vest, with Ted Cruz rolling his suitcase through the airport or with president 45 in his golfing outfit.

Across the political spectrum, commentators are calling Zelensky a new Churchill or deGaulle. Except I would remind them that Churchill’s country was never invaded on the ground, and Charles deGaulle actually left France and ruled from abroad during World War two.

Who, like Zelensky, has stayed? What president has actually stayed in his capital while it was under attack? I can’t think of any. You might suggest George Washington, but he was not the president during the Revolutionary War. He was a wartime general, not a TV comedian.

You know who could help me think of other comparisons, other leaders who stood with their people no matter what?

I’m thinking of a certain history teacher. A teacher who dreamed about talking with Abraham Lincoln.

“You could also free your people,” said imaginary Lincoln in that clip I showed earlier, from Zelensky’s TV show.

“But we don’t have slavery,” said the teacher.

“Do you think millions of Ukrainians, who bust their backs working to the bone just to feed the so-called elite, their houses, limousines and mansions, aren’t slaves?” answered Lincoln.

Don’t forget that the Zelensky in that scene is not just an actor. He is the creator the show, one of the writers, one of the producers. 

The chief TV critic of the New York Times James Poniewozik, wrote: “Ultimately, Mr. Zelensky’s TV show is an argument about the true source of political legitimacy. In its perhaps idealistic telling, power comes from being proximate to the people, not elevated above them. It comes not from being invincible but from knowing people’s precarity and sharing in their inconveniences. [For example] after his election, the new president continues living in his parents’ cramped flat.”

At his real-life inauguration in 2019, President Zelensky told lawmakers: “I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”

Zelensky then shared how his 6-year-old son helped him realize how “every one of us is the president now.” He continued: “Every one of us bears responsibility for Ukraine which we will leave to our children.…This is our shared dream, but we have shared pains .. . .But we will overcome all of this, for each of us is a Ukrainian. We have to be united, and only then are we strong.”

Contrast all this to Vladimir Putin, who as leader of Russia for the past 22 years, has extracted vast wealth from his country, becoming perhaps the world’s richest oligarch himself, all while personally curated his own image as a symbol of old-school dominance and hierarchy. 

Last week Putin aired a press conference in which he kept all his yes men at a literal distance of 50 feet and also publicly berated and shamed his chief of security. Last month he joked about rape and decriminalized domestic violence, and Putin has a long history of persecuting gays and lesbians. And in our own country Putin is hailed by those on the far right as a world leader in the cause of white supremacy.

This war in Ukraine is not just a battle between nations or systems of government. It is a battle of world views, of values. On one side are those who believe in extractive economies and a hierarchy of human worth based on race and sex and wealth. On the other are those who believe in equality, democracy, and self-determination. This war is about all of our UU principles, all at once.

A few weeks ago I told you about the contemporary philosopher Adrienne Maree Brown. Her Emergent Strategy posits that to survive this time of global crisis, humans must learn to imitate collaborative species like ants and fungi. Social movements must become decentralized, fluid, people like starlings in a murmuration, flowing in formation out of deep mutual instinctual trust. 

“Trust the people,” writes adrienne maree brown, “and they become trustworthy. Trust the people and YOU become trustworthy.”

Trusting in his people, trusting in his dream of democracy, Volodymyr Zelensky has put his own life and even his young family on the line. And for it he has become trustworthy, like no one else in living memory. The generals, the grandmothers, the investigative journalists, all those who doubted him before and billions more around the world have rallied around Zelensky, now a world symbol of self-determination and democracy. 

And also still, just a man, one man. With no superpowers at all, save perhaps extraordinary courage.

Like Lincoln, President Zelensky is trying to lead his people to freedom. From warfare yes but also from subjugation to elites, from corruption and foreign influence. All he wants is safety and a functioning democracy, like the one we have and take for granted.

He may not survive, nor his country. But his ideals must. His ideals are our ideals.

In this past week Zelensky has spoken directly to leaders around the world. On Wednesday, addressing the whole US Congress, the former fictional history teacher invoked Pearl Harbor, Mt Rushmore, 9/11, and Martin Luther King. 

He said:

“Today, the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine; we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future. That’s why today, the American people are helping not just Ukraine, but Europe and the world to keep the planet alive, to keep justice in history.”

Let that sit with you for a moment. To keep justice in history, Zelensky said.

Let me close as we started, with the words of Abraham Lincoln. 

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.

Those who deny freedom to others 

deserve it not for themselves 

and cannot long retain it.

Like Zelensky

Like Lincoln 

Let us here and everywhere have faith

that right makes might,

and in that faith, 

let us, to the end, 

dare to do our duty as we understand it. 

Amen. And Slava Ukraini.