The khaki presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky

Serhii Rudenko (courtesy of himself)

After the publication of my review of his insightful biography of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, author and political analyst Serhii Rudenko generously accepted my invitation to respond to a few questions for this blog.

In the aftermath of the war launched by Vladimir Putin on February 24th, the offices of the television station where he worked became a bomb shelter. He has moved to another region, which suffered the recent Russian onslaught. The coming winter will undoubtedly be extremely difficult for Ukrainians, but Mr. Rudenko’s resilience and determination to pursue his work is immensely commendable.

I consider myself privileged to be in touch with him and to present you with the content of our discussion.

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Mr. Rudenko, in your book, you depict an administration with a lack of political experience and a very high turnover level. Has the situation stabilized since the beginning of the war?

Yes, it has stabilized. In the conditions of war, Zelensky had to choose the most optimal and effective people. Now we see around the President of Ukraine a team that governs the state in the conditions of war. Hardly anyone in the world has such experience in governing the state. It is not easy.

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How Putin Saved Zelensky

The world “would hardly have heard about [Volodymyr] Zelensky if he had become an engineer, gone into the military, or became a doctor”, writes political commentator Serhii Rudenko in a recent biography of the Ukrainian President (Polity Books). Thanks to the political reality crafted by Servant of the People in which he played the role of a history teacher elected against the odds to lead the country, fiction turned into reality in 2019. And thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to start a war on Ukraine before sunrise on February 24th, the actor turned President has become an icon of resilience in defense of freedom and democracy.

Serhii Rudenko paints the portrait of a leader who was not on sure footing before the war intervened.

After his election, Zelensky broke his promise to distance himself from the nepotism espoused by his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. “[…] A year after his election, the Poroshenko family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by the Kvartal 95 Studio.” In other words, those who accompanied him in his showbusiness career, including in his role as President Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko on television.

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“Justin Trudeau inspired me to enter politics” – Volodymyr Zelensky

I’m not the type who runs after books of quotations in bookstores. But I have two exceptions to that rule: Winston Churchill and Volodymyr Zelensky. Because both men decided to face the adverse winds of history at a most crucial time.

Bestselling author Liza Rogak, assisted by translator Daisy Gibbons, opens a window into the Ukrainian President’s worldview in a new book Volodymyr Zelensky in His Own Words (Pegasus Books). “You’ve never seen someone like me”, declared the statesman in April 2019. Coupled with his staunch determination to hold his ground in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, this might be one of the reasons why he is so popular. “I don’t trust anyone at all” he said a few months later. Who could blame him, when you imagine allies hedging their bets at the beginning of the war to see if he stood a chance or not.

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Stan Andrews and the birth of the Israeli Air Force

Seventy-five years ago, on November 27, 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 to partition the British mandate in Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. While the new Israelis were celebrating, the leaders of the Yishuv – the organized Jewish community – were scratching their heads. The neighboring Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan wanted to smother the newborn Jewish State in its cradle.

In their new book Fighting Back: Stan Andrew and the Birth of the Israeli Air Force (Wicked Son), authors Jeffrey and Craig Weiss write, “It became clear that a Jewish homeland would only be established by armed force. To defeat the Arabs, the Jews would need to build an army.”

Easier said than done. “On May 14, 1948, the day the government [of Israel] declared independence, Israel did not have a single combat aircraft, and all its fighter pilots were in Europe.” With ingenuity and determination, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his team set upon the gigantic task of equipping their soldiers, notably against a U.S. embargo on weapons sales to the Middle East. At the same time, London presumably continued furnishing Egypt and Jordan.

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« Je pense que Harry couche avec le fantôme de sa mère »

L’historien et biographe Jean des Cars (source: The Limited Times)

Le comte Jean des Cars est un personnage des plus sympathiques et généreux. Sa bibliographie est impressionnante et il est le spécialiste de référence des têtes couronnées européennes. Il m’a accordé il y a quelques jours un long entretien à propos de la monarchie britannique, dans la foulée du décès de Sa Majesté la reine Elizabeth II survenu le 8 septembre dernier.

« J’ai été le premier journaliste francophone reçu à Buckingham Palace par le prince Charles [maintenant le roi Charles III]. C’était en 1982, avant son mariage avec Diana », de mentionner fièrement l’auteur du récent livre à succès Pour la reine (Perrin) qui en est à sa cinquième réédition. « J’avais appris qu’il allait venir en France, pour honorer la mémoire des combattants de la Royal Air Force qui s’étaient cachés dans les caves à champagne et qui avaient vécu des moments épouvantables. Il devait être accompagné de Lord Mountbatten. J’ai donc dit au journal (Le Figaro) : « Et si on demandait un entretien au prince de Galles? » Tout le monde me regarde et me dit : « vous êtes fou. » J’ai donc pris l’annuaire téléphonique de Londres. J’ai appelé Buckingham et j’ai demandé à parler à l’officier de presse en charge du prince de Galles. On me passe alors un Australien avec un accent de crocodile qui me demande de lui envoyer par télécopieur une photocopie de mon passeport et ma liste de questions. Deux jours plus tard, on me confirmait un rendez-vous qui était prévu le surlendemain. Personne n’a cru que j’avais simplement obtenu cet entretien simplement à cause d’un appel à Buckingham Palace », de se remémorer l’historien avec gourmandise.

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Elizabeth II a rapproché la monarchie du peuple

Le 10 décembre 1936 marque une date cruciale dans l’histoire de la monarchie britannique en général, mais aussi de la petite Elizabeth Windsor en particulier. Son oncle, le roi Édouard VIII abdique pour vivre pleinement son amour avec Wallis Simpson, une divorcée américaine. La jeune fille est alors âgée de 10 ans. Son monde, celui de sa famille immédiate également, vient de basculer radicalement. Son père, le duc d’York, lui succède de facto et prend le nom de George VI. Il s’agit de l’une des pires crises traversées par la monarchie britannique, un point tournant pendant lequel on s’interroge sérieusement sur l’avenir de la Couronne. Tout aurait pu basculer et les tenues d’apparat rangées dans les musées pour l’éternité. Ce ne fut pas le cas. Heureusement.

George VI, notamment en raison de son stoïcisme, de sa résilience et de son empathie, remet l’ouvrage sur le métier. Les nouveaux locataires de Buckingham Palace commencent à recoudre le blason de la famille royale dans le tissu social britannique et de l’Empire. Elizabeth n’est pas une enfant comme les autres. Le coup de crayon donné par son oncle en cette date fatidique fait en sorte qu’elle ne pourra plus jamais baisser la garde. Elle est l’héritière du trône et, 15 ans plus tard, elle relèvera le gant dans un règne déchaîné de tourments et ponctué de moments glorieux.

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“Le vrai héros, c’est le peuple ukrainien”

Soldats ukrainiens en action (source: Harvard Law School)

Régis Genté est spécialiste des cercles du pouvoir en Russie et en Ukraine et il est le coauteur d’une éclairante biographie du président Volodymyr Zelensky que je viens d’ailleurs de recenser. J’apprécie particulièrement son analyse, en raison du recul qu’il prend face au caractère souvent superficiel de l’actualité. Son propos repose sur une lecture renseignée de la situation. Il a aimablement accepté de répondre à mes questions pour cette entrevue dont l’objectif est largement de souligner le 31e anniversaire de l’indépendance de l’Ukraine. Voici donc le contenu de notre échange.

M. Genté, dans votre livre Zelensky : Dans la tête d’un héros, vous brossez le portrait étonnant d’un personnage impulsif, agressif et qui maîtrisait mal ses dossiers à certains moments, notamment devant les médias. Serait-il une bête de communications sans contenu ? Quel a été l’impact de la guerre dans son caractère?

Il y a un peu de cela à la base. Zelensky fait partie de cette génération d’hommes politiques pour qui la communication et l’image jouent un rôle clé. Qui croient qu’avec de la communication, de la production de messages, on peut diriger un pays. Il semble avoir été très longtemps, littéralement jusqu’à la veille de la guerre, déconnecté des réalités, de la réalité des forces qui font ce que la politique est ce qu’elle est en Ukraine.

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“Putin is clearly trying to ignite a larger conflict” – Martin Dugard

Author Martin Dugard (source: MartinDugard.com)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights (Caliber), Martin Dugard kindly accepted to answer some questions for this blog. I feel privileged for the interview with an excellent and engaging author, who is also the coauthor of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Series.

Here is the content of our exchange.

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Mr. Dugard, where did the idea of writing Taking Paris originate from?

The book actually started as Taking Rome but as the research expanded it became obvious that the story of Rome worked more nicely as a small section in the larger context of the 1940 fall of Paris and 1944 liberation.

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A striking parallel between Zelensky and de Gaulle

I initially wanted to review Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights by Martin Dugard last February, but then Vladimir Putin launched his troops against Ukraine and I had to shuffle my publications calendar. As you will see, there are fascinating parallels between the fate of France in World War II and the current situation in Ukraine, if only at the leadership level.

After the invasion of France by the Germans in May 1940, the country is in disarray and its statesmen have given up. In the ashes of defeat, a temporary brigadier general will rise to the occasion. Fleeing his homeland on board an airplane provided by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle left with a “[…] hastily packed suitcase contain[ing] four shirts, one pair of pants, and a single photograph of Yvonne and the children, whose current whereabouts he does not know.” I couldn’t help but think of the same predicament in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky found himself on February 24th. As did de Gaulle, he chose to fight, but from home.

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Putin’s Soviet Playbook

As I grow older, I realize that history is one of the surest guides to navigate the present. While many adhered to Francis Fukuyama’s theory that the demise of Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, represented the end of history, others lamented what they perceived as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

Old habits die hard and Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World is an excellent representation of that idiom. “”America is now the primary enemy,” said one of Marshal’s Zhukov’s general at the time of the capture of Berlin. “We have destroyed the base of Fascism. Now we must destroy the base of Capitalism – America.”” Things haven’t changed much in the last 77 years.

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