Spoiler alert: The answer is no. President Volodymyr Zelensky has most definitely not converted to Christianity. But he certainly has changed.

His address on Easter Sunday, just like so many of his previous addresses to the Ukrainian nation over the course of the past 400-plus days, was moving, heartfelt, inspirational. We’ve come to expect nothing less from him.

Moreover, it confirms his staggering capacity to convey a simple message: Together, united, we will not merely survive. We will prevail.

The Dark Night of a nation’s soul

Wearing a black shirt with traditional embroidery in olive green depicting tridents and crossed swords – ancient symbols of Kyivan Rus – Zelensky began by smoothly engaging his audience. He’s a natural-born mood-setter, be it humorous or solemn. This is how he became a famous comedian and actor.

Advertisement

But Zelensky – as well as those who help write his speeches – are also master rhetoricians.

In the Orthodox tradition, Easter is celebrated symbolically as light coming into the darkness of a fallen world. The liturgy is celebrated at midnight, with the faithful holding candles that symbolize the light of Christ rising from the darkness of the tomb.

Zelensky’s speech opens straightaway with the metaphor of light and darkness: “At the end of last winter, Russia brought a full-scale war to our land. And with it – death, pain, and darkness. On the morning of Feb. 24, the sun never rose. Dawn never came. On the morning of Feb. 24, a dark night began.”

Zelensky in Lithuania For Talks to 'Consolidate' Support
Other Topics of Interest

Zelensky in Lithuania For Talks to 'Consolidate' Support

With Russia intensifying attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure, Kyiv is urgently seeking increased military aid from Western allies.

He then immediately counterposes the darkness with the leitmotif of light:

“And at the same time, our awakening began… Darkness could not overshadow our spirit, desire for freedom, love for our native land, and readiness to defend it.

“We have kept the light within us. We have conquered panic, fear, feuds, and quarrels. We have united. Millions of sparks in millions of Ukrainian hearts became one big bonfire.”

The speech builds this metaphor to frame for his audience the difficult year of struggle just experienced, and to brace everyone for an even more difficult year to come. “On this day a year ago, we all prayed that Ukraine would endure. Today – for Ukraine to win.”

Advertisement

The Cossack prayer

At the end of the speech, however, Zelensky seems to diverge from his normally careful and accessible choice of words. As the president of a multi-confessional nation, and himself of Jewish origins, he has always taken care not to commit to any one religious’ path.

Zelensky prepares his audience with a gentle preface: “With all our strength, we fight for our land and ask for the help of heavenly forces. In hundreds of prayers that our ancestors said before a battle, which help our soldiers and protect them today.”

And then it comes, the invocation of Jesus: “I will don the shroud of Christ”; followed by a flourish of archaic references: “my skin – an iron cuirass; my blood – strong ore; my bone – a bulat sword.”

For a second, I thought Zelensky was converting to Christianity in front of the nation. But the archaic language clued me in to the deft historical allusion.

Advertisement

The prayer continues; “I’m faster than an arrow, more alert than a falcon. The armor is on me. The Lord is in me.”

I suspect few people recognized the reference to the “Prayer of the Cossack Sorcerer,” meant to sap the strength of the enemy. I certainly didn’t.

Apparently, Zelensky and his speechwriters felt it was an appropriate prayer on the eve of an expected offensive that everyone quietly understands may lead to many unavoidable casualties.

The speech and prayer conclude with the obligatory reference to light: “For tomorrow. For a peaceful dawn. For victory. For Ukraine. Christ is Risen. Truly, he is risen.”

A conversion nonetheless

Anyone familiar with Zelensky’s career before he got into politics will know that his humor was rife with irreverence. In fact, a major part of his shtick was poking fun at how Ukrainians mythologize their Cossack ancestry.

Many hardcore nationalists loathed Zelensky for his skits, portraying Cossacks as gluttonous morons and/or crypto- and not-so-crypto-gay machos. His humor, however, was rather democratic, and he also felt free to play with Jewish stereotypes.

But Zelensky is no longer the irreverent comedian he once was.

Cynics may dismiss Zelensky’s about-face as merely a public relations campaign. But such a view would betray the mind of someone who hasn’t been to Ukraine in the past 9 years – and especially in the past 14 months.

Advertisement

Ukraine, with Zelensky as its leader – both political and moral – has changed. Dramatically. Magically. The war has tempered within him and the nation something akin to that mythologized Cossack spirit – wild, free, indomitable.

The President greeted his fellow Ukrainians on Easter Sunday like a man – dare I use the religious term? – transfigured; leading his people into a new light.

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter

Comments (2)

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
Margaret Hearsch
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

A really incredible 'Man for the People'. How very fortunate for the Ukrainian people to have such a wonderful Leader. Slava Ukraine (from an Australian Catholic). To the wonderful soldiers of Ukraine we are with you all the way and thinking of you.

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
Jacques Willemen
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

christ was a jew, not a christian or catholic

Peter
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

@Jacques Willemen, Christ was God incarnate. What are you on about him being a Jew? God has revoked the chosen people status of the Jews through his only begotten son Jesus. Because of Jesus the chosen people are now the Christians. The New Jerusalem are Christians and God is Jesus. The Jews killed Jesus and have nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus refused to go into Judea because in his own words the Jews there would surely kill him. And then they did. Personal conversion to Christianity is the only way a Jew can be saved. Zelensky clearly has made this choice as we see his children and wife are all baptized Christians. Zelensky is "Jewish" for political reasons only.

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png