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Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022
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Using only a phone, Zelenskiy is trading in that most human of qualities: hope

Using only a phone, Zelenskiy is trading in that most human of qualities: hope

In Ukraine, horror is mingled with stories of inspiration – and every night that Kyiv holds out feels like a miracle, says the Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Wake up, roll over, check the phone for news from Kyiv. It’s becoming a habit now, a strange new morning routine, and not just for journalists whose working days have long dawned like this. Millions are now following this war in real time on social media, immersed in it more intimately and personally than ever before. If the advent of 24-hour rolling TV news brought audiences at home closer to faraway conflicts, subtly changing our understanding of them, then smartphones have put war right into the palms of our hands. Doomscrolling is becoming an addiction, although doom seems the wrong word for a conflict where horror mingles with so many stories of hope and inspiration; stories with the shimmering qualities of modern myths, viral and unforgettable, if not always instantly verifiable, and often helpfully translated into English.

The young Ukrainian sapper said to have heroically blown himself up along with the bridge he was charged with destroying in order to slow the Russian advance. The villagers filmed courageously standing in front of tanks. The female MPs posting pictures of themselves training to use rifles, and the soldiers of Snake Island greeting demands for their surrender with the now famous response: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” (Like a new No pasarán, that slogan is everywhere; splashed on T-shirts sold in aid of Ukrainian charities, even iced on cookies sold by a Texas bakery.) And then there is the tale of how President Volodymyr Zelenskiy supposedly rebuffed an American offer to whisk him to safety with the words “I need ammunition, not a ride.” War has transformed a former comic actor once mocked for his hamminess into an iconic leader for the times whose powerfully emotive short videos posted from beneath his bombed capital seem made for sharing: a real-life Scheherazade, telling captivating tales to the world in the hope of keeping his countrymen alive for one more night.

To talk of stories sounds frivolous, when war crimes are almost certainly now unfolding. But the bleaker the news from the front, as Russian troops begin encircling cities and shelling civilians into submission, the more they matter. Hopelessness makes the rest of the world look away because it’s all too much to take, or else share well-meaning posts about how it’s fine to switch off the news if it makes you sad and do some yoga instead. Hope, on the other hand, keeps people emotionally invested, both at home and abroad; energises us to give to charities, pressure governments to act and big companies to disinvest, and sturdily accept the sacrifices now looming as prices of gas, oil, wheat and raw materials soar. Polling for ITV last week found a resolute 68% of Britons agreeing the government should impose whatever economic sanctions are effective, even if that raises energy prices, although feelings may change when bills start hitting doormats. But strategic communications (to give stories their technical name) perhaps matter most if, as the foreign secretary insists, Nato member states are digging in for the long haul.


For years now Russia has brilliantly exploited the storytelling power of social media to manipulate emotions and destabilise governments across Europe. Its army of bots, trolls and useful idiots has stoked culture wars, amplified conspiracy theories, spread fake news and latched on to any glimmering of doubt and division, while the liberal west has largely floundered in response. Now something has shifted. Social media giants have been at least briefly galvanised into action, with Google blocking the propaganda channels Russia Today and Sputnik on YouTube in Europe and Meta (nee Facebook) targeting disinformation networks. The BBC is racking up new listeners in Russia suddenly hungry for the reality-based reporting they can’t get at home. Next time our own government attacks the BBC, remember it’s going for the home of Lyse Doucet, calmly broadcasting under shelling, and of 3am World Service bulletins that reach people too scared to sleep.

It’s striking, too, how openly western intelligence communities have shared information about Russian invasion plans and supposed Russian operational difficulties, as if taunting a paranoid Kremlin about its apparent leakiness. For the first time in years, it feels as if the west is telling its story with confidence again – an age-old tale of liberal values versus tyranny, but given new life by a democracy young enough not to take freedom for granted. What remains elusive so far, however, is the sense of a happy ending.

If this war had been scripted in Hollywood then it would end just as the mayor of Lviv suggested, with oligarchs’ mansions in London being seized and used to house Ukrainian refugees, although only until those refugees could triumphantly return home. But in real life nobody yet has a convincing narrative for how Vladimir Putin can be stopped, given Nato countries’ understandable reluctance to use force against a leader threatening nuclear Armageddon. Diplomatic hopes seem pinned on China helping to broker some kind of peace, though that would mean yet another tectonic shift in global alliances, with unpredictable consequences. And meanwhile that murderous convoy inches closer every day to Ukraine’s capital, evoking grim memories of how Russian siege tactics ended in Grozny and Aleppo.

But every day that Zelenskiy evades assassination, every night Kyiv can hold out, feels like a miracle now. That’s why we can’t stop ourselves compulsively checking for news. Just one more night. Just one more story. Just one more hopeful morning.

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