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Vladimir and Volodymyr: What’s in a name?

Both Putin and Zelenskyy's names imply power – but the divergence in the spellings makes a world of difference

It is ironic that the names “Vladimir” and “Volodymyr” are variants of the same Slavic root. The first is Russian and the second, Ukrainian. Both forms imply “power.”

They mean, “ruler of the world,” or “ruler of peace.”

Vladimir Putin aspires to the first. Volodymyr Zelenzkyy aspires to the latter. The first is inspired by the spirit of autocratic totalitarianism. The other is inspired by the spirit of democracy and coexistence. Vladimir Putin worked for the KGB and, in various successions, has held the positions of Prime Minister and President of Russia. Volodymyr Zelenskyy was an actor in a Ukrainian comedy-drama called “Servant of the People.” He portrayed a history teacher who attacks corruption and becomes President. Zelenskyy was later elected to the role of President of Ukraine (2019) in real life.

The ancient sages talk about three crowns a person may wear, “The crown of Torah (wisdom), the crown of priesthood (service), and the crown of kingship (power). But the crown of a good name excels above all” (Pirkei Avot 4:17). Vladimir seeks the crown of kingship and power above all else. Volodymyr teaches, serves and leads through the crown of a good name.

The sages further ask, “Who is powerful?” And they answer, “One who exercises self-control (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Elsewhere they answer, “One who turns an enemy into a friend” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 23:1). Will we witness self-control? Will we witness peacemaking?

The AP recently announced the correct spelling for Zelenskyy with two letters “y”.
The sound “y” is represented in Hebrew by the letter “Yud.” Two “yuds” next to one another (י י) spell the name of God. Will the divine image prevail?

Jimi Hendrix said it well: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Will Vladimir’s love of power give way to Volodymyr’s love of peace?

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana.
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