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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Zelensky As Churchill, An Iconic 'V' For Victory Sign By Other Means

On his historic trip to Washington, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recalls Winston Churchill in multiple ways, including that we wouldn't have thought much of either one before war turned each into leaders of epic proportions. A view from Germany.

Zelensky As Churchill, An Iconic 'V' For Victory Sign By Other Means

Volodymyr Zelensky and Nancy Pelosi

Hannes Stein


It was a speech reflecting an impressive understanding of the American soul. A speech that leaves no doubt. The words and gestures Volodymyr Zelensky brought into the U.S. Congress recall Winston Churchill in 1941. And its effects will unfold before us.

During the winter of 1941, Winston Churchill traveled to Washington. It was not a safe journey; after all, the German Air Force was not sleeping, and American warships carrying weapons to Britain had been sunk by German submarines. Churchill arrived in Washington on December 26, according to the British tradition of "Boxing Day," when people visit each other and bring gifts.

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It was bitter cold. The British Prime Minister addressed both houses of Congress, House of Representatives and the Senate. Of course, a certain reputation had preceded him: Everyone knew that the rotund figure with the bulldog face also possessed a certain sense of humor. But they also knew compromise was not an option with so much at stake.

Churchill spoke during a unique moment of world history. The British had been at war for two years and living under German bombardment for nine months — but for the Americans, World War II was only three weeks old. The shock of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th was still fresh in their bones.

At the same time, there were people sitting in Congress who until then had vehemently opposed the United States entering the war. Churchill's audience included a certain Burton K. Wheeler, a senator from Montana, who by no means hid his sympathies for fascism.

Churchill's speech was destined to leave its mark: His decisiveness swept the hearts and minds of both Congress and the American people (who were able to follow on the radio). Ultimately, it contained a simple message: We stand together in this fight. Either we win against the Germans, or civilization is doomed.

Churchill Speech To Congress - December 1941

Two different archetypes

It wasn’t only difficult, it was simply impossible not to think of Churchill when Volodymyr Zelensky spoke before the American Congress in Washington on Wednesday evening. Once again it was a bitter cold winter, once again it was Christmas, once again the trip was dangerous and the visiting guest from abroad represented a country being bombarded by an enemy that is challenging the entire European order.

Zelensky is also comparable to Churchill in that one would not have thought much of him before this war — and because he embodies a certain archetype. For Churchill, it was Bowler hats, striped pants and cigars. Zelensky, it’s the olive green pullover or the olive green T-shirt, with which he walks around without jacket: The man has no time for suit and tie, he lives in an air raid shelter.

Zelensky too has no time for pleasantries, for him it’s always and immediately about the real thing at hand. Before he went to Washington — a top secret operation, in which the American air force played an important role — he was in Bachmut in the Donbas region to visit the troops fighting in the face of death every day. The hand Joe Biden greeted in America had just shaken the hands of soldiers who are under Russian fire.

Zelensky’s speech, delivered with a thick Ukrainian accent, shows that he — or the person who wrote him this speech — knows the American soul quite well. His statement was as simple as Winston Churchill’s 81 years ago: We thank the American people for their help, and by the way, we need more of it. We need more Patriot-rockets, we need more artillery and ammunition, tanks and planes.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine departs after a joint press conference with President Joe Biden

Oliver Contreras/Pool/CNP/Zuma

Power of symbols

Because the war has entered a new phase. Ukraine didn’t only manage to repel Russian attacks, the fortunes of war have turned decidedly in its favor. But without tanks and its own air force it could take an awfully long time for Ukraine to succeed in beating the Russians on all fronts.

What came off particularly well in Congress (and is likely to be well received by the American public), was Zelensky’s call to rugged individualism. We don’t need American soldiers who fight for us, he said, we can fight quite well alone — but in order to do this, we need the required weapons. The money you give us is no gift, he declared, but an investment in our common and European future. We will deal with it responsibly.

Zelensky’s two references to American history were also quite effective: He recalled Saratoga, the town in upstate New York where Briton John Burgoyne laid down his arms before American General Horatio Gates in October 1777 — a turning point in the American War of Independence. Bachmut in the Donbas is our Saratoga, Zelensky said. And then he recalled the Battle of the Bulge, in which the German Wehrmacht achieved great successes just in time for Christmas 1944 — and then was defeated by the Americans in a tough fight after all.

Churchill made the 'V' for victory sign for which he was famous before the U.S. Congress in 1941, and triggered a storm of enthusiasm. Zelensky managed to do the same with a speech that ended with its own symbolic gesture: He handed over a Ukrainian flag that had been signed by the soldiers he'd just visited in Bachmut to Kamala Harris, the American Vice-President, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House.

The picture of the two women holding up the flag behind him is destined for future history books.

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