In a video address without precedent, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared in front of a packed House of Commons. He looked tired, and determined, and painfully human. He was not seeking to persuade MPs with his rhetoric, nor to make a complicated case, he wasn’t there as a supplicant or a showman.
He only wanted to know, beyond any shade of doubt, that the world could see what was happening to Ukraine. He didn’t want to be your hero. He could not help but be your hero.
MPs are not supposed to applaud in the House of Commons. It’s one of their many alienating conventions, the cause of their hear-hears and other dumb noises. What a powerful shock it was to see the chamber on its feet and clapping. You become so used to politics as theatre, and suddenly the actors are also devastated, also mystified as to what comes next.
Zelenskiy took the house carefully through what’s come already. The first day of invasion, they were attacked by cruise missiles. Everybody woke up, and they haven’t slept since. There was something deliberately prosaic about his language, inviting, demanding that we put ourselves in his place and the place of Ukrainians.
They’re not superheroes, they had no advance knowledge or special warlike gifts, they didn’t have a plan B for the day, if it turned out to involve cruise missiles. They did what we all would, they woke up, and they haven’t slept since. Day two, their “heroic military servicemen tried to fight”, the Russians demanded they lay down their arms, they carried on fighting.
The president’s careful chronology underlined a few things; every day is an atrocity, every day is an escalation, every day is harder. “On day five,” he said, mutedly, “the terror against us was against children, against cities. Constant shelling took place around the country. And that didn’t break us.”
The Russian rockets fell on Babyn Yar, 80 years after the Nazi atrocities it commemorates; Zelenskiy’s face was enough to hammer home the gravity of the thematic throughline. And then on day eight, “we have seen Russian tanks hitting the atomic power station and everybody has to understand that this is terror against everyone”.
There followed the Nato meeting, the limitations of the international response, even as he underlines his gratitude for it. But the shelling and the rockets are ceaseless, the children and cities are still being hit. There are now 50 children who “would be alive, but these people have taken them from us”.
So now, for 13 days, they’ve faced the question, Zelenskiy said: to be or not to be? “Now I can give you a definitive answer: it’s definitely yes; to be.”
He thanked Boris Johnson for the sanctions, appealed for support, one great country to another.
The prime minister’s response was sombre – “I believe he has moved the hearts of everybody in this house” – with a topnote of something like empathy, something like terror. “In a great European capital, now within range of Russian guns, Zelenskiy stands for freedom.”
Keir Starmer praised the president’s courage, pledged support for arms, solidarity, ever tougher sanctions, international unity.
Ian Blackford vowed that this would end in failure for Putin, that the world would see him in front of an international court, though the line between a promise and a dear hope, here, was plainly demarcated.
Ed Davey echoed his plangent optimism when he called for Zelenskiy to be awarded an honorary knighthood, and hoped to see him in person in the house when the world allowed.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, didn’t get the memo of the refugee question being held at one remove and underlined the demands of humanitarianism. The question was skirted, one assumes, because it would feel petty, at such a time, to admit any shard of difference between one party and another. I doubt this question feels petty to 2 million people who have already been displaced.
Zelenskiy had ended echoing Churchill: “We will not give up. We will not lose. We will fight to the end, at sea, in the air, we will continue fighting for our land whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests and the fields, on the shores, on the street.
“I would like to add that we will fight on the banks of different rivers. And we are looking for your help. For the help of civilised countries.”
The variations, the immediacy, brought vividly to life the jeopardy and sadness, the sheer kick in the head of history resurfacing as current affairs.