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If you were in Zelenskiy’s shoes, would you have fled your country?

Unthinkable: War in Ukraine has exposed the shallowness of some conceptions of freedom, which crumble when faced with harsh reality

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has irrevocably changed the world order. Irrespective of the outcome, there is no going back to “politics as usual”.

This much is clear. But less thoroughly examined is how the invasion has changed the moral thinking of ordinary citizens across Europe and beyond. Some moral concerns that seemed urgent before February 24th, 2022, suddenly look self-indulgent or trivial. (A year ago this week, some people in Dublin were getting worked up about whether to close a car park serving the Brown Thomas department store in Dublin.)

The rattle that Russia’s invasion has given to moral consciences globally might be likened to the 9/11 terrorist atrocity in the United States, an event that shook many on the political left out of casual anti-Americanism. Certain ethical stances – for example, the idea that Ireland should remain utterly neutral towards attacks on democracy – suddenly appear not just naive but morally bankrupt.

Inevitably, this realignment of values is most profoundly felt in Ukraine. Speaking at an online conference this month, Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Kyiv-based philosopher whose main focus a little over a year ago was studying Buddhism and European literature, said academics play an important role in exposing the “bad ideas” that drive conflict. But asked whether philosophers could help to end the war, he replied: “It’s not philosophers who are killing the Russian occupiers. It’s our brave soldiers. Some of these soldiers are also philosophers or poets or cinema-makers, but we should not be kind of utopian about this. At one moment, this society should be a society of warriors or those who help the warriors.”


The online international benefit conference aimed to raise funds to help support Ukrainian academics in the country – a kind of scholarly Live Aid for Ukraine. Speakers included the author Margaret Atwood, the feminist writer Judith Butler and the Irish philosopher Philip Pettit, who is based at Princeton University, in the US, and is well known for his investigations into the nature of freedom. The practical value of logic and the social nature of our belief systems were among the issues explored.

Beliefs and moral convictions that we nurture in the home or in the church are carried into the world where they are tested against reality. An armchair philosophy remains intact only for as long as you stay sitting in the armchair

Some people resist the idea that political events can change your beliefs. I used to be puzzled, for example, by why people would say the scandals in the Catholic Church had weakened their Christian faith. Surely, I asked, religious devotion is independent of current affairs? I can see now this line of reasoning was absurd.

Beliefs and moral convictions that we nurture in the home or in the church – or more frequently these days on social media or via podcast gurus – are carried into the world where they are tested against reality. An armchair philosophy remains intact only for as long as you stay sitting in the armchair.

Aaron Wendland, a Canadian philosopher who organised the conference, quoted two famous thinkers to explain our predicament. The French-Lithuanian Emmanuel Levinas taught us “ethics is infinitely demanding”, while the German Martin Heidegger talked about our “thrownness” into the world. There is no hiding from moral challenges, and we must work within the limited sphere where we find ourselves, said Wendland.

Yermolenko, who is editor-in-chief at the wartime-media NGO Ukraine World, described how this “thrownness” had affected his countryfolk. “War is, of course, an absolute evil, but when you have no choice but to face the war, face death and destruction, you can see how you can cherish life in a new way.” There is a shared realisation in Ukraine, he said, that “life is not meaningful if it’s not filled with values”.

Perhaps the most extreme example of “thrownness” from the war relates to Volodymyr Zelenskiy. On February 25th 2022 the comedian-turned-president found himself in a city facing imminent occupation. “Teams of assassins were nearby … bombs and missiles were falling,” the author and academic Timothy Snyder recalled. The consensus among governments and experts worldwide, he said, was that Kyiv would fall within days and Zelenskiy would flee to the West.

But Zelenskiy didn’t flee. On that date, he broadcast a short video clip on social media with political colleagues from the Ukrainian capital proclaiming “prezydent tut” – “the president is here”. Snyder, a political scientist whose bestselling books include On Tyranny, described these two words as “a paradigmatic act of free speech”.

Zelenskiy’s example is something we can learn from, Snyder made clear in a persuasive presentation to the benefit conference, which can be viewed online at its YouTube page. (Donations to the cause are still welcome, organisers say.)

“In everyday social discourse, we treat freedom of speech as an empty concept,” as though “all that matters is the lack of restriction”, Snyder said. But “freedom of speech has a purpose. Its purpose is to allow people to speak truth to power.”

In the case of Zelenskiy, he was taking a physical risk and speaking truth to a Russian war machine that was already spreading lies about his whereabouts. Contrast this with the sort of “freedom of speech” issues at the centre of our culture wars. “No one is showing valour when they provoke needless, mindless controversy in a safe situation … The person who should be valorised is the person who is taking risks to speak truth to power,” Snyder said.

Another big learning from Zelenskiy’s act of defiance on February 25th, 2022, relates to the astonishment that greeted it in several quarters outside Ukraine. Why, asked Snyder, did so many western experts and officials believe Zelenskiy would flee Kyiv?

“I think it has to do with … what I call the politics of inevitability.” This is “the very broadly shared sense that all that was going to happen in the future was a convergence towards democracy and freedom” after the end of the Cold War. Underpinning that analysis “was the presumption that democracy and freedom were the product of larger forces” such as capitalism or American exceptionalism, Snyder said.

If you get used to thinking democracy and freedom are the result of larger forces, what do you do when the forces are arrayed against you? What can you do? You run. That’s all you’ve got left

“This kind of passivity about democracy and freedom breeds bad habits. If you assume things are going to go your way, you don’t get into the habit of struggling … If you get used to thinking democracy and freedom are the result of larger forces, what do you do when the forces are arrayed against you? What can you do? You run. That’s all you’ve got left... I think the fundamental reason why so many people in North America and Europe assumed Zelenskiy would run is because that’s what they would have done.”

The idea that freedom is rooted in risk and responsibility has a long association with European philosophy from Immanuel Kant to Simone de Beauvoir. But among populations today that have not had first-hand experience of war or totalitarianism, freedom is more likely to be associated with holidays and self-indulgence.

The extent to which the Ukraine war shakes us out of this complacency remains to be seen. At the very least, it challenges you to answer the question: what would you have done if you were in Zelenskiy’s shoes?

“I think one of the lessons we Ukrainians make from this war is we will not survive without our society and our society will not survive without us, without our own individual responsibility,” said Yermolenko. “This, I think, gives you the idea of responsibility and modesty – modesty because you understand your own effort, however important it might be, is only a drop in the ocean and if there are no other drops there is no ocean.”

You can find out more about What Good is Philosophy? A Benefit Conference for Ukraine here