When Boris Johnson and Ukraine’s president Zelensky walked through the streets of our capital in April, they came across a man. Astonished and emotional, he begged Zelensky:
‘Please tell Boris that we will be grateful for the rest of our lives. Britain saved us. God, I’m so happy…My children and grandchildren will remember this forever. This memory will live through the centuries.’
These words sum up how many Ukrainians feel. For all his troubles at home, Boris Johnson remains more popular in Ukraine than many of our own politicians, with the possible exception of Zelensky himself. During the first day of the war, shocked and bound by fear in the face of the Russian onslaught, Ukrainians waited for the world to respond. But nothing happened. ‘Are they really going to watch us die and just stay aside?’, my friend asked. I’ll remember his words for the rest of my life. That’s when Boris took a stand.
When it came to facing down Putin’s Russia, few world leaders used such uncompromising rhetoric as Boris Johnson. Almost no other country has helped us with weapons and diplomacy as much as Britain has. In our nightmare, Ukraine found a true friend: Boris’s Britain has ensured we do not feel alone. For that, Ukrainians like me are deeply grateful.
In Britain, Boris Johnson’s face is plastered over the front pages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons. His face is everywhere in Ukraine, too. But here he remains a hero. Memes, gifs, photos, and drawings with Boris Johnson circulate in our WhatsApp chats daily. In Ukraine, we call him Johnsonuk. That’s because this -uk ending is typical for Ukrainian surnames, and his Instagram account @borisjohnsonuk may be interpreted as such. Boris Johnsonuk sounds like a name of a neighbour, a friend or any other person you may come across in our country. There is even a pastry named after him in one of Kyiv’s cafes.
In Chernihiv, north east of Kyiv, which has come under heavy Russian bombardment, Boris Johnson has even been ordained to the Cossacks, a hall of fame of Ukraine’s national heroes. The Chernihiv Cossack community of St. Catherine’s Church in the city has given Boris the honour of a new name, Boris Chuprina. A pair of artists, Darya Dobryakova and Yuriy Kutilov, have painted Boris as ‘Cossack Mamay’, our mystical folklore character. A copy of the painting is on its way to London; perhaps it may soon find a home on the lavishly-wallpapered walls of Downing Street itself.
Ukrainians have been keeping a close eye on political events in Britain and the fallout from the Tory confidence vote. Our media covered the situation widely. Why? Because many Ukrainians are nervous about what happens in Westminster. Britain is a key ally for our country; can we rely on Boris’s successor to come to our aid in the swift manner in which he has?
‘Why can’t we just have Boris for ourselves if they are not grateful for him? He would be cherished here,’ my friend joked on WhatsApp. It came as a burst of relief for us to hear that Boris is safe, at least for now.
The UK is a place familiar to Ukrainian schoolchildren; it’s a land of William Shakespeare, kings and queens, knights’ glory, honesty, and other abstract, even childishly naive things. But for us, in times of horrors and darkness, Boris Johnson proved that these virtues can really be brought to life. It’s no wonder that an image depicting Boris in medieval armour has proved so popular online for Ukrainians.
A cake named in honour of Boris Johnson (Credit: Getty images)
When you are in a fight for your life, as Ukraine is today, you quickly come to realise who your friends are. Many Tory MPs want to kick Boris out of Downing Street, but whatever sins he has committed, he will always be a friend to Ukraine. In Boris’s letter to the children of Ukraine, he wrote:
‘Whatever happens, however long it takes, we in the UK will never forget you, and will always be proud to call you our friends.’
Each time I saw this letter reposted in my friends’ social media feeds, I thought back to that man Boris met in the centre of Kyiv. ‘This memory will live through the centuries,’ he said. He’s right.
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