Zelensky is a worthy winner of the Churchill award, and his praise for the Prime Minister won’t be forgotten
ANDREW ROBERTS. HISTORIAN 27 July 2022 •
In Downing Street on Monday, Boris Johnson gave a five-minute, 563-word speech that reminds us how before too long we will start to miss his oratory and leadership.
Presenting the Churchillian Leadership Award of the International Churchill Society (ICS) to Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine who attended virtually from Kyiv, the Prime Minister explained eloquently why the West needs to continue to stand beside Ukraine in its struggle against tyranny. He likened Zelensky’s decision to stay in his capital after the Russian attack to Churchill opting to stay in London during the Blitz.
Indeed, Zelensky’s resolve was yet braver because, unlike Churchill in 1940, who could walk around bomb sites in relative safety, Zelensky, as Johnson pointed out, “knew that squads of killers were hunting for you. And you could have left Kyiv. You could have said – and it would have been hard to contradict you – that the survival of the Ukrainian state required the survival of the president”.
Johnson added: “But of course, Volodymyr, you did none of those things: you chose to stay in Kyiv, among the Ukrainian people, just as Churchill stayed in London in 1940.
“And when one world leader offered you a way out, you replied ‘I need ammunition, not a ride’ and I think Churchill would have cheered – and he would probably have wept too, because he was often moved to tears – at the sheer moral and physical courage you showed in those grim weeks.”
The Churchillian Leadership Award has been given to many distinguished people over the years, including Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles and Madeleine Albright, but it is impossible to think of any living world leader who so personifies Churchill’s brand of defiance of tyranny and belief in democracy better than Zelensky.
Were Churchill alive today, he would immediately recognise what Boris called “the sheer moral and physical courage” Zelensky showed after Russia invaded on Feb 24.
A reincarnated Churchill would, of course, be shocked that a full-scale, state-on-state war has been unleashed in Europe once again only three quarters of a century after the Second World War so devastated the Continent. His scorn for Vladimir Putin would have produced rhetorical flights equal to those he directed against Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Similarly, one can imagine that the transfiguration of Zelensky, from a television comedy star to a towering war leader, would have brought forth some imperishable lines from an admiring Churchill.
As for Ukraine, we can with a fair amount of certainty believe that Churchill would have echoed the sentiments he expressed about Finland in January 1940, when he said of the country: “Superb, nay, sublime. In the jaws of peril, Finland shows what free men can do. The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent.”
In his speech at the ceremony in No 10, Laurence Geller, the president of the ICS, pointed out how “Mr Johnson understood that it was Britain’s duty to be strong enough to do all she can to deter the aggressor, to engage, and to win the battle of ideas – as Churchill sought to do and did. It is through President Zelensky’s fortitude and Prime Minister Johnson’s unwavering support that Ukraine will retain the gift of freedom that can, and will, be passed on to the future generations of Ukrainians yet to come”.
They were generous words for a prime minister who has heard precious few of them over the past few weeks but whose unwavering support for Ukraine will be acknowledged by history.
In his own remarks, Zelensky paid Boris a heartfelt tribute which puts into proper perspective the spitting invective of some of the MPs in the House of Commons at his final PMQs.
“Ukraine was not left alone after February 24,” said its president. “We had those who were helping us who remembered in the darkest times, what is honour. You have not thought of quitting the struggle – I’m talking about you Boris. This award is yours as well, and this is the manifestation of our joint leadership of Ukrainians, Britons and all those who will not give their freedom away to any tyrants.”
Can any political career have had a more glorious epitaph?
Andrew Roberts is a trustee of the International Churchill Society