Perhaps once in our lifetime a speech resonants, be it by Churchill, Kennedy, or Reagan. But for the members of the English House of Commons packed into every corner in this room, on this March day in London, and representative of the entire world, this speech by Ukraine’s president was of supreme importance.
Public galleries were packed high in the chamber while others were tightly pressed in the lower seats. Parliamentary staff huddled close together to peer through the stone arches to watch almost to the roof.
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After a few minutes of chatter, the members of parliament fiddled with their headsets to ensure they could hear the entire translation of the speech, and there was a hush.
We’ll fight in the forests, on the shores, in the streets
Then, alone at his desk, only a Ukrainian flag for company, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared on screens to speak to the members of parliament and the free world. Ukraine’s leader told of his country’s pain as a war “we did not start” progressed each day. Bombs falling on schools. Churches destroyed. Children’s hospitals attacked. Food and water are running low in some parts.
He thanked the UK for its support, urging the government to tighten further sanctions to protect Ukraine’s skies, even though enforcing a no-fly zone is a step — a significant risk — that the UK and its allies aren’t willing to take yet. Yet the message that brought tears to some MPs’ eyes was given Mr. Zelenskyy’s defiance against the tyranny that had its roots in Communism.
He chose his words carefully, addressing what he described as a country with a “big history.” He compared Ukraine’s stand against Vladimir Putin to what the UK took against Germany in the Second World War. He said: “Just in the same way you didn’t want to lose your country when Nazis started to fight your country, you had to fight.”
A student of British history perhaps, a savvy media operator, or both, Mr. Zelenskyy evoked Winston Churchill’s most famous speech of defiance, in which he promised to fight “on the beaches,” saying: “We’ll fight in the forests, on the shores, in the streets.” He even posed a question from Shakespeare: “To be or not to be?”
Ukraine had decided ‘to be free’
Ukraine, he said, had decided “to be free.” His words visibly affected many in parliament, some with tears in their eyes, some nodding fervently along. The speech was poignant just by being delivered in this place where Winston Churchill spoke. When they go through the entrance to the Commons, MPs all know they are walking through a sacred arch rebuilt from stone destroyed by World War II Nazi bombs.
MPs also know how profound today’s challenge to European security could be. At the end of the speech, MPs and Lords in the galleries stood again to applaud. The president touched his palm to his chest to acknowledge their sincere support, then slumped down for a moment in his seat.
A simple young man in a khaki T-shirt
For just a second, the President of Ukraine looked like a simple young man in a khaki T-shirt, overwhelmed to find himself in this position, watching the democratic representatives of a country far away saluting him through a computer screen. In contrast, his country’s democracy, and his own life, are in danger.
Then his composure snapped back as did Churchill’s at the conclusion of his address. Mr. Zelenskyy raised his fist in reminiscence of Churchill’s “V,” stood up, and left the desk. It was the first time any foreign leader had directly addressed the English House of Commons and everyone watching on the floor of the parament realized that Mr. Zelenskyy is the new champion of Europe, as was Churchill over 80 years ago.