Guest opinion: The art of being fearless

In 1996, at the urging of my oldest son, Jeff, I took the opportunity to accept an assignment from the International Republican Institute (IRI) to fly to Russia (by then, no longer the Soviet Union) and share my experiences in creating “paid political messages” with a group of democratic party workers in Rostov, Russia.

It was bad timing. Our small Salt Lake City-based advertising and public policy agency was in the midst of several political campaigns ourselves, including  the re-election of Utah Governor Mike Leavitt and Congressman Jim Hansen (Republican from Utah’s First District). Two of my four sons who were working for me, Jeff and Joel, as well as the rest of my staff, all said they could handle things until I returned in 10 days.

I trusted they could. So, looking over my shoulder, I flew off to Moscow.

What I found to my surprise was a dichotomy, old and new, the past and the present, all existing side by side. I had expected to see something like East Berlin. In 1967, after passing through Check Point Charlie, I spent a day walking through that imprisoned city, window shopping, staring at little to nothing, browsing in a dusty bookstore and finally finding a sad little Gaststätte where I could order a brat and a slice of Mischbrot.

That wasn’t Moscow in 1996. 

No, Moscow was a Mercedes Benz with darkened windows passing a smoky Skoda, or a tricked-out Jeep Grand Cherokee trimmed in gold and splashing slush on a rusty old Moskvitch 407.  It was catching a BigMac at the world’s largest McDonald’s with the capacity of more than a hundred people, where now and then, a young couple would host a wedding reception. And, it was even driving by a shuttered-up Hard Rock Café, now closed thanks to a Russian Mafia attack that left it riddled with bullet holes from AK-47’s set on automatic.

It was all a surprise.

More was to come. To prepare for a 15-hour, overnight train trip to Rostov on the Don (on the Don River, just east of the Sea of Azov, which is connected to the Black Sea), we stopped by an unusual shop in a fancy hotel. A young woman dressed to the Nines, was standing at the entrance, who asked us to leave our bags and valuables on a table before we could enter. 

There wasn’t jewelry inside; rather, we found carefully arranged bottles of peaches, pears or pineapple, canned foods of all kinds: kipper snacks from Norway, smoked sausages from Denmark, even jars of Nutella, the very best of what Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Denmark or Norway had exported to Russia for purchase by Westerners visiting Moscow. It was the Twilight Zone.

After a long sleepless night on a hot train that stopped by small villages on the way to Rostov, we arrived at the hotel where we would spent the next week sharing our experiences of how we produced political campaigns to help our candidate-clients win their elections.

That evening, we were invited to a reception hosted by our students. Very few of them spoke English. Our chief translator was a major in the Russian Army, an impressive hulk of a man on leave for a week to make a few hundred dollars for his work. (I still regret not sending him a copy of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” that he asked me to send him, but that’s a topic for another day.)

With the major’s help, we were able to make friends and conversation with our eager-to-learn students. Toward the end of the evening, an older, impressive looking woman asked the major to translate our conversation. She wanted to know where I was from, what it was like to live in Utah, what I did for a living and why I had come. I answered as best I could. Then I asked her why she had come and what she expected from the seminar. She paused, looked at me, then with her eyes full, she answered, and the major translated: 

“We want what you have.”

I was puzzled. Not sure if she was referring to all the abundance we saw on display at the small shop in Moscow or other benefits of a free market,  I asked: “What’s that?”

She spoke, and he translated again:

“The Rule of Law.”

 Today, as I watch events unfold in Ukraine, I wonder where our translator, the major, and the dark-haired woman in search of justice are. For a few short years, before Boris Yeltsin tapped the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, a former KGB officer by the name of Vladimir Putin to be his successor and prime minister, Russians, Ukrainians and other former subjects of the Soviet Union had a small taste of democracy and the Rule of Law. 

It must have been sweet then but so bitter today, now that it’s gone.

The Rule of Law. So hard to get, so easy to lose. 

The whole world now is watching in real time streaming scenes that are eerily reminiscent of newsreels of World War II we watch on the History Channel. 

Millions of people are now considering that maybe our day and age is not so different from days gone by, at least from the lens through which we view the world, especially as compared to how our forebears viewed theirs. 

Watch what’s going on right now in Kyiv and compare that to what the British were experiencing during the Battle of Britain from 1940 to 1941, when fire and death were also raining down upon the British, day after day and night after night. 

Earlier this year, I finished reading the The Splendid and the Vile, an excellent book covering that time period, written by Erik Larson. It reveals details about Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister: Adolf Hitler had just invaded Holland; Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia were already under Nazi control. and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally and willing to fight to the end. 

In his book, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless” by example.

“It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. His book takes readers out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.”

Trying times demand people of great courage and ability. Churchill was the man of his hour. In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson places Churchill on a pedestal, displaying him as a prototype to present the essence of “Art of Being Fearless” before a worldwide audience. 

Today, that role is being portrayed before our very eyes again by a man who is no stranger to moving performances either, the erstwhile comic who gained fame and fortune first in Russia proper, and now as Ukraine’s president, reprising the very role that projected him into the office in the first place: Volodymyr Zelensky. 

As writer Franklin Foer explains in a February article for Atlantic Monthly, “before he became the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky played the part on television. He created and starred in a comedy series, Servant of the People. His character, a high-school history teacher, is surreptitiously recorded by one of his students as he passionately rants against the tyranny of corruption in his nation. Without his knowledge, the video goes viral. Without campaigning or even wanting the job, the teacher is improbably elected president of Ukraine. The humble everyman, out of his depths in nearly every respect, goes on to become a heroic leader of his country.”

The thing about heroes, those unlikely people like David who slew Goliath, is that observers are usually taken by surprise. And, this time, the surprise comes from the Ukraine, very near Kyiv, where in 1941 over the course of two days, the previous soulless invaders lined up and then shot 33,771 Ukrainian Jews and threw them into a ravine. Their collective grave is now a memorial park called Babi Yar. 

To pile irony on top of chilling heartlessness, the man who leads the defiant resistance is himself a Jew, the son of the only surviving brother of a set of four men, who by the Grace of God escaped the horrors of the Holocaust.

Maybe the first indication of his true nature and the place in history that Zelensky was soon to fill was when the Western allies offered him safe passage out of the country. Unlike Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani who fled his country in a helicopter stuffed full of cash, Zelensky’s response was truly Churchillian: “I don’t need a ride–I need weapons.” 

He has stood his ground, along with Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelensky, who said: “I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident. My children are looking at me. I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.”

If you want to see living proof of what “The Art of Being Fearless” is in the 21st-century, look now further than Zelensky’s own Selfies that he has posted on social media:  “Holding the camera, he looks straight into the lens, conversing with the viewer, seeming to nullify the distance between himself and his audience. He looks weary. He looks angry. But he does not look defeated. He looks, in short, the way many of his constituents do right now. Ukraine, Zelensky said last week has been “left alone in defense of our state . . . and I’m still here.” Zelensky, wife his cabinet and parliament members are all prime target for Russian aggression–Putin has even promised public executions. Whether President Volodymyr Zelensky survives or not, one thing is certain: the Ukrainians who still remain will surely stand and fight, now that they can appreciate the Rule of Law and have learned “The Art of Being Fearless.”

G.M. Jarrard is a writer, designer, publisher and strategist.