As MPs and Peers whooped their appreciation, Zelensky could not have looked more kingly had he been draped tip-to-toe in ermine: HENRY DEEDES watches the Ukrainian president stand as a giant among a sea of pygmies
A glorious , late winter afternoon in Central London. Celestial sunlight cascaded through the stained glass windows of Westminster Hall, bathing it in a sea of buttercup yellow. Soon though, President Volodymyr Zelensky was transporting our imaginations to a far bleaker place.
A place smashed by tanks and haunted by the constant whine of rockets. A place where mothers, sisters, daughters, fathers, brothers and sons, pray hard each day as heroic Ukrainians ‘sit in the trenches facing artillery fire’.
A place not so very far from our own peaceful shores.
There had been no state trumpeters, no ceremonial guards, not even so much as a fancy string ensemble to mark his arrival. But then Zelensky requires no fanfare or flummery to make an entrance.
Just the mere sight of the Ukrainian President’s purposeful march into the hammer-beamed Norman barn of the Hall yesterday – barrel-chested, arms pumping – prompted the sort of thunderclap reception that makes the spine tingle and skin prickle.
Speaker of the House of Lords, Lord McFall (L) and Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle (R), welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (2nd L) to Westminster Hall
A selfie taken by Seema Malhotra during the speech by the Ukrainian President inside Westminster Hall
He had been invited to address both Houses of Parliament, our rarest of honours. Nelson Mandela did it. So did De Gaulle and Obama.
Now too, this extraordinary man who, over the past year has galvanised a nation – if not the world – by daring to stand tall against the most detestable of despots, has been rightly afforded the same privilege.
He stood at the lectern, his face etched in stony defiance, as MPs and Peers clapped and whooped their appreciation. Zelensky may like to fashion himself as a man of the people, but at that moment he could not have looked more kingly had he been draped tip-to-toe in ermine.
And yet it was dressed in his customary army fatigues and commando boots that he faced his audience – a resolute symbol of solidarity with his own armed forces, and a sign that he too was ready to do battle against a foreign invader whose own tyrannical leader remains hidden away in his palaces.
Zelensky could have taken the coward’s route by accepting safe passage abroad when war broke out. But he chose to remain and lead his nation, winning the world’s admiration in the process as Ukrainians demonstrated an indefatigable resistance to malign forces that many had predicted would overrun their land within days.
President Zelensky thanked Britain for its support, acknowledging we had ‘been with Kyiv since Day 1’. And he gave special thanks to Boris Johnson who, as prime minister, had led the West in supporting his country.
A selfie of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage OBE with Sue Hayman prior to Mr Zelensky’s speech today
He stood at the lectern, his face etched in stony defiance, as MPs and Peers clapped and whooped their appreciation
‘You got others united when it seemed impossible,’ Zelensky said. A nice touch.
Boldly, he chose to speak in English. It was a tad shaky at times. But he is a natural performer who knows how to hold an audience. Indeed, the man oozes charisma. It’s hard to remember that this global statesman was, not so long ago, earning a crust as a TV actor/comedian before fate selected him for a far higher calling.
Around the Hall, MPs listened on, enraptured by their guest’s courageous oratory. Usually at this hour, most members are heading to the bars for post-PMQs snifters. Whisper it, but some even head for the train to attend to what might loosely be described as ‘constituency business’. A long weekend to you or I. Not yesterday. The Hall was rammed to the rafters.
Zelensky recalled his last trip to London in 2020, two years before the bombs began falling on his homeland, when he’d taken afternoon tea in the Commons with Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
Sir Lindsay had earlier informed us that he had served up Chorley Cakes, a traditional delicacy from his native Lancashire. Mr President enthused about the tea but, diplomatically, offered no verdict on the Chorley cakes.
Zelensky recalled his last trip to London in 2020, two years before the bombs began falling on his homeland
King Charles III held an audience with the Ukrainian President during his first visit to the UK since the Russian invasion
Maybe it was the chill in the Hall – those vast, cold slab flagstones like an inbuilt layer of permafrost – but there seemed to be a collective sense of goosebumps when he described visiting the War Rooms off Whitehall.
We heard him, in pin-drop silence, tell of the moment he sat in Sir Winston Churchill’s chair. A tour guide had asked him how it felt.
‘And I said that I suddenly felt something,’ he said. ‘But it is only now that I know what the feeling was. And all Ukrainians know it perfectly well, too. It is a feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.’
There were many Churchillian overtones in this speech as, with determined gravity, he told us of the need for aggressors to lose. ‘Evil loses,’ he announced. ‘We know that freedom will win.’
Then it was time to go. ‘God Bless Great Britain, and long, long live the King,’ the President yelled. ‘Slava Ukraini!’
And with that, he disappeared into the audience, his stocky frame soon lost among the admirers desperate to grab some of his stardust. A true giant among a sea of pygmies.
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