Channeling Churchill, Leningraders, and Roberto Benigni

The study of history, like that of literature or film, depends in large part on making sense of narratives, characters, and themes, all universal patterns repeating themselves in new situations and with new variations. As the world remains transfixed and increasingly galvanized by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainian refusal to simply bow down before the onslaught, three parallels in narrative, character, and theme are apparent: two from World War Two and one from 1990s Italian cinema. It is more than a little ironic that one features the Russians themselves cast in the role of the brave resisters holding out against better-armed aggressors. But then, history is no stranger to irony, and what better reminder of our shared humanity.

Just over 80 years ago, after losing the air battle over Britain and abandoning its dark dream of invasion and easy conquest, Nazi Germany invaded their erstwhile ally of convenience, the USSR. In their initial drive toward Moscow, they surrounded the major city of Leningrad and besieged it. In the Nazis’ optimistic war-planning, Soviet Russia was to succumb before winter, and Leningrad, former capital of Tsarist Russia and home of the Bolshevik Revolution, was a mystical domino in Hitler’s mind, one that was supposed to fall first and trigger the fall of others. But for a number of compelling reasons, it didn’t.

In a siege that lasted for 872 days, the Russian people held on against terrible odds. In the midst of great privation, they determined to be free, and they caused the Nazi juggernaut to bog down and ultimately lose. It didn’t hurt their determination that Stalin stood behind them offering encouragement – and death – to anyone who refused to advance, where soldiers were sent into battle holding either a gun or bullets so that only when the soldier beside them had fallen could they themselves fully take up arms. Yet despite Stalin’s ham-fisted motivational techniques, the Leningrad resistance was a universal combination of courage and resolve, hope and creativity, a clear calculation that it was better to risk one’s life freely in battle than to place it serf-like at the mercy of a conqueror.

A year earlier, and a couple thousand kilometres to the West, Churchill had rallied the people of Britain against the aerial onslaught of Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe. He had given them courage or, as he liked to say in his graceful politician’s self-deprecating way, merely channelled the British people’s courage through his words, giving the Nazi aggressors fair warning that victory would not come cheaply, that the people of Great Britain would “fight on the beaches, fight on the landing fields, fight in the fields and streets, fight in the hills,” that they would “never surrender.”

Today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stands against the might of a superior power, not superior morally or in terms of political governance but superior only in masses of steel designed to inflict great harm. He has not fled as he might have. Instead, he pops up on video in various locations around Kyiv with determined, cheerful humour and a palpable humanism, all to keep a people’s spirits up and to keep them free. Unlike Churchill, he has no natural barrier of a water channel to protect him or a far-flung empire to draw strength from. But he has Churchill’s steadfast confidence in the worthiness of his cause and in the intrinsic value of his people.

Churchill was the only senior political leader in Britain who believed his country could defeat Hitler, in no small part because he felt it must, that the alternative was unthinkable. When the Battle of Britain had been won, and the imminent threat of Nazi invasion had receded, although most of the war remained ahead, he delighted in throwing US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy’s faithless words back in his face. It was Kennedy who had predicted that Hitler would wring Britain’s neck like a chicken. Churchill’s riposte: “Some chicken, some neck.”

And finally, in this cinematic world of ours where life imitates art and art imitates life, and where actors become politicians and comedians turn serious, Zelensky’s courageous leadership offers unmistakable echoes of the movie Life is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni’s Italian-Jewish character risks his life to inspire his son and protect him through an irresistible blend of charm, imagination, and humour. Zelensky, the former comedian who played an unlikely president on TV, is performing the same humanistic service for a nation of 40 million. A friend of mine, in a previous conversation about another crisis, observed that crises don’t transform people, they only reveal their true natures. Zelensky is revealing who he really is. How the West continues to respond will reveal who we all are.

Fortunately, despite the various geopolitical constraints that are keeping the West from unleashing a direct military response to the situation in Ukraine, the world loves an underdog. At least ever since David and Goliath. Continuing today in countless Hollywood films. Especially an underdog who shows they can stand up for themselves, especially an underdog who can hold out for a time against a bully.

So, if Zelensky and Ukraine can somehow survive the coming days and weeks and months, then with each subsequent day and week and month, more aid will flow, more money and guns, and more sanctions and enforced isolation against Putin will swiftly – pun intended – follow, and maybe, just maybe, this latest and most blatant attack on democracy and everything it stands for can be unequivocally defeated.

The future of Ukraine and all that it represents is very far from certain. But one thing is clear: after two years of battling a pandemic that has caused economic and social strain and fatigue across the world and worsened internal political divisions in many Western countries, Zelensky has reminded us all that there remain great reserves of strength, unity, and confidence in both the idea of democracy and in the countries that are dedicated to upholding its ideals.

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