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We are not so different, you and I – The rhetoric of Volodymyr Zelenskiy

The tension was almost palpable: Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the President of Ukraine, was about to address the Parliament of The Netherlands. How would he find common ground with us? What historical events would he mention?

Mr. Zelenskiy did not disappoint: the bombing of Rotterdam, the Dutch struggle for independence which started almost to the day 450 years ago, the downing by Russians of flight MH17, The Hague as a city of peace and justice, and even the national anthem were invoked. Zelenskiy seems to have a better grip on our national history than we ourselves do.

Through thoroughly crafted speeches Zelenskiy tries to get other countries to commit support, weapons, and no-fly zones to aid Ukraine in its efforts to resist the Russian invasion of the country. Particularly remarkable is the way he tries to ingratiate himself with his audiences. Zelenskiy connects with his foreign audiences by appealing to identity-building parts of their national histories.

Speaking to the Americans Zelenskiy recalled Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and ‘I have a dream’. Speaking to the British he invoked Shakespeare and Churchill. Speaking to the Germans he mentioned ‘never again’ and the Berlin Wall.

So, a large part of Dutch newspapers’ build-up to the Ukrainian president’s speech on 31 March 2022 was speculating which parts of our national heritage he would recall.

For me, the larger question behind that is exactly WHY does Volodymyr Zelenskiy do this? Why go to all the trouble to adapt his speeches to the different audiences, while the message is basically the same?

Are Americans unable to feel the pain of people murdered and maimed by Russian bombs if they are not reminded of their own pain? Can the British only sympathize with the plight of the residents of Mariupol if Shakespeare is involved? Do the Dutch need to be reminded of their own long forgotten struggle against the Spanish king to understand the value of independence? Of course not. The suffering is evident and we feel the pain of the Ukrainian people. Even before Zelenskiy addressed their Parliament the Dutch citizens have donated over 150 million Euros to support Ukraine.

So, what could President Zelenskiy’s reason be to steadfastly mention national histories in his speeches? In rhetoric I can find four reasons that seem valid.

1. To attract positive attention

It can be a way to please the audience. It makes the speech more interesting to listen to.

Speakers need to try to put their audience in a benevolent mood. If you can get your public to adopt a positive attitude to you and the subject of your speech, chances are you will more effectively persuade them. Zelenskiy pleases his audiences by mentioning their histories to them.

2. To create a bond, to shape a common identity.

Rhetoricians distinguish three main types of persuasive discourse: deliberative oratory, also known as political; forensic oratory, also known as judicial; and epideictic oratory, also known as ceremonial.

Of course, the speeches of President Zelenskiy are foremost political, they aim to influence decisions of other countries. There is however also an element of ceremonial oratory in them. Ceremonial speeches are about praise and blame, about values. They are most often encountered at weddings and funerals, and they are useful for forging a common identity.

Starting from such a common identity it becomes easier to exhort and persuade an audience to do something. In his speech to the Parliament of The Netherlands Volodymyr Zelenskiy masterfully explained in just a few sentences how the downing by a Russian rocket in 2014 of a plane over Ukraine, killing almost 200 Dutch nationals, was part of this same war he is fighting now. We are and we already were in this together, he says in effect. Common identity. This makes it easier to ask the Dutch government for help.

3. To enhance the credibility of Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

He knows us, he knows a lot, he has taken the trouble of delving into our history. This would be part of the rhetorical concept of ethos, the perceived character of the speaker. What is being said is very important of course – but who is speaking is perhaps even more important. As a speaker you are looking for ways to establish your credibility: you know what you are doing, you are a person of integrity and you have the best interests of your audience at heart.

4. To make clear how serious the problems of Ukraine are.

A standard way to organize a speech when trying to persuade the audience to take a specific action is – problem à cause à solution. It is extremely important that the problem is serious enough to warrant the solution. For President Zelenskiy this is not a trivial task.

Of course, for him the problem is existential, but for his audience matters may be different. For Western countries, the plight of the Ukrainians is heart-breaking but not necessarily so unacceptable that they are prepared to risk nuclear war. It is not wholly inconceivable that NATO countries are willing to accept that part or all of Ukraine will be swallowed by Russia.

Ukraine needs significant Western help to survive. This means that Zelenskiy must argue that the attack on Ukraine is a serious enough problem for the Western countries. By connecting the Russian invasion and atrocities with the self-image, identity, and formative events of other countries, Zelenskiy tries to show that these attacks are in a way an attack on the country he is addressing itself. If the problem isn’t serious enough in a military or political sense it should be serious enough in an identity-sense.

This allusion to the self-image of countries to show the gravity of the situation is subtly but importantly different from the creation of a collective identity in and through the speech I mentioned above under point 2.

As we have seen there can be very valid rhetorical reasons for Volodymyr Zelenskiy to invoke the national histories and identities of the national assemblies – and beyond those the people of their countries – he addresses. We can of course not be sure about Zelenskiy’s conscious intentions to incorporate these parts during the crafting of his speeches. Whatever his reasons it gives him at least one great advantage: it allows him to be rather strict with his audiences. Often, he expresses disappointment that Western countries are not more forthcoming with their support. And his pressure is probably more readily accepted because of him including these elements of national histories.

So, there are four rhetorical reasons to invoke the national identities in Zelenskiy’s speeches: benevolence of the audience toward the speaker, common identity through the ceremonial genre of rhetoric, ethos, and argumentation. Of these four reasons I would say that point 1 and point 3 are the least important even though they never hurt. President Zelenskiy is worth listening to because of what he has done for his country in these terrible times. He does not need to be more interesting by finding historical analogies. He also doesn’t need to prove himself through his speech. He brings more than enough standing, ethos, to the table.

Point 2 and 4 are especially important because they go hand in hand in creating a common identity of countries that stand up to aggression and realize the common gravity of the situation. This combination makes his speeches so powerful and so resonant throughout the world.

Extraordinary times call for exceptional speakers.

We remember Cicero saving the Roman republic, Churchill keeping the flame of freedom alive for Europe and Martin Luther King fighting for human dignity. Today we witness with Volodymyr Zelenskiy the rise of a new orator with the power to inspire in the struggle for good against evil.

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