On Friday when he spoke to a packed and mesmerized House of Commons in Ottawa, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky explained the bond between his country and ours by way of an arresting sculpture that sits on a black plinth outside Edmonton’s City Hall.
It’s a flat and pitiless gun-metal grey, shaped like a giant metal washer split on one side and wrenched out of alignment. Along one edge of the circle, four hands reach out, straining and seeking, as though clutching at salvation right before slipping beneath the waves.
“The twisted and fractured circle represents the life cycle being torn apart by an unnatural force: emaciated hands resist, grasp and then beg for an end to their inhuman condition,” an inscription explains.
The sculpture was unveiled in 1983, Mr. Zelensky explained to Parliament, on the 50th anniversary of the travesty it commemorated: Holodomor, the starvation of millions of Ukrainians by man-made famine in Stalin’s Russia.
“The first ever Holodomor monument in the world,” he said. “Ukraine didn’t yet have memorials commemorating the victims of genocide of Ukrainians, because Ukraine was under Moscow’s control back then.”
Much has changed since, Mr. Zelensky reflected: Ukraine has achieved independence and restored its own “historic memory,” and governments all over the world have followed Edmonton’s lead and recognized Holodomor.
But there is something big that has not changed in the 40 years since that monument was erected or in the 90 years since the mass starvation itself, he said.
“Moscow now, as always, is bent on controlling Ukraine and makes use of all available means to do that, including genocide,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky emphasized over and over on Friday that what Russia is doing now in Ukraine is genocide – not an ordinary conflict but, once again, the actual survival of millions. “Literally, physical salvation,” Mr. Zelensky said, as though seeking to underline the deadly and continuing toll of Russia’s invasion for a world becoming inured to it all a year and a half in.
His defiant speech in Ottawa comes after Russia launched its most furious attacks on Ukraine in more than a month, while the Ukrainian President was in North America on a series of public engagements seeking more aide for his country’s fight.
Mr. Zelensky is a remarkable communicator, assisted by incredibly skilled speechwriters. His big set-piece international speeches over the past 18 months have been finely calibrated, always designed to make his audience – the British Parliament, United Nations, U.S. Congress, the House of Commons, among others – feel directly and implacably entangled in Ukraine’s fight.
His message, over and over, is a locally tailored variation on this: Do not look away. Do not grow complacent. We are the ones on the front lines defending our homeland, but we’re undertaking this fight on behalf of the whole world, and we need more help.
A few days before his speech in Ottawa, Mr. Zelensky addressed the UN. In his plain-spoken and understated way, he was utterly unsparing in pointing out the bureaucratic toothlessness of the international body.
He talked about the war “launched by this state which for some reason is still present here among the members of the UN Security Council” as the Russian ambassador to the UN sat a few feet away, ostentatiously staring at his phone.
“Ukrainian soldiers now are doing at the expense of their blood what the UN Security Council should do by its vote,” Mr. Zelensky said. “They’re stomping Russia and upholding the principles of the UN Charter.”
When he addressed the British Parliament in February, he talked about the shared stake in European security of their two countries, and the proximate history of war that reminds them all of how quickly things can go dark.
“We prove together that the world truly helps those who are brave in defending freedom and thus paves the way for a new history,” he said.
In the U.S., Mr. Zelensky invokes the wind-whipped values of freedom and liberty, telling the Americans that just as they once waged their own War of Independence, his people are now doing the same in a fight they never asked for.
“The battle is not only for life, freedom and security of Ukrainians, or any other nation which Russia attempts to conquer,” he said in 2022 when he addressed a joint session of Congress. “The struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren.”
Each time he addresses an audience abroad in search of more support – Canada announced $650-million in additional aide for Ukraine during his visit – Mr. Zelensky builds a tailored case for why that country has skin in the game, even if it’s his people who by necessity must stand at the front lines.
As Mr. Zelensky told Congress last year: “Your money is not charity – it’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
Near the end of his remarks in Ottawa on Friday, Mr. Zelensky circled back to the close ties forged by Canada’s huge Ukrainian diaspora – at 1.4 million strong, the largest in the world outside of Russia. He described an intertwined history of building things up – “not to ruin or humiliate” – of mutual trust and comfort, and the way the Ukrainian flag has become part of everyday life in Canada.
“In fact, such proximity provides many answers, including answers to the questions about the war,” he said. He listed off these questions: Can we give up? Can we agree to evil? Can we allow our identity to be erased? To each one, Mr. Zelensky answered flatly: No.
“And may one day soon a monument be built, in maybe Edmonton,” he said with a grin, “as in other cities of the world and in the cities of Ukraine, to honour the victory of our people in this war.”
It took a while to find it, in a speech more meandering and less emotionally visceral than his other big international addresses. But eventually, the through-line of Mr. Zelensky’s argument to Canada at this moment surfaced: The vast Ukrainian community scattered across this vast country. The Holodomor memorial that was both ahead of its time and long overdue. The familiar surnames and yellow-and-blue banners that dot Canada at regular intervals.
You have to help us do this, Mr. Zelensky was saying, because you are us.