Volodymyr Zelenskyy brings a performer’s skill to wartime politics

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Ukrainian President Volodymy Zelenskyy holds a press conference on Russia’s military operation in Ukraine on February 25. | Presidency of Ukraine/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Ukrainian president has a past as an actor and comedian. He’s using it to wage a public relations war.

European Union leaders gathered last week to discuss just how tough their sanctions against Russia would be after the country invaded Ukraine. Yes, the leaders agreed, harsh sanctions were necessary. Maybe there was even room to, say, bar Russia from SWIFT, a global financial messaging service.

Yet, according to a report from the Washington Post, these harshest measures stalled in the face of skepticism from some of the more powerful leaders in the EU, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was reluctant to make sanctions against Russia as harsh as possible.

But then Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy teleconferenced in to the call. He proceeded to make an impassioned plea to the gathered leaders to take up the Ukrainian cause as forcefully as possible. In the course of that one five-minute speech, the tide in the room shifted.

The Post reports:

“It was extremely, extremely emotional,” said a European official briefed on the call. “He was essentially saying, ‘Look, we are here dying for European ideals.’” Before ending the video call, Zelensky told the gathering matter-of-factly that it might be the last time they saw him alive, according to a senior European official who was present.

Just that quickly, Zelensky’s personal appeal overwhelmed the resistance from European leaders to imposing measures that could drive the Russian economy into a state of near collapse.

The act of leadership is always bound up in performance, at least to some degree. Seeming like a leader is almost as important as actually being a good leader. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photo ops, for instance, are aimed to make him seem both physically and psychically powerful, not just a leader but an icon of masculinity. But even just in the US, every president of the mass media era has had to reckon with the fact that they are not only the president but also play him on TV.

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, however, Zelenskyy, who was an actor and comedian before he turned to politics, has utilized his talents as a performer to make emotional appeals to the world. Sometimes, those appeals go directly to world leaders, but many of them are posted on social media for everybody to see.

To be clear, this is a country in the midst of an invasion fighting back in the realm of public opinion. It’s propaganda, in other words. But propaganda is one of the best routes available to a country in the midst of a devastating invasion by a larger, more powerful military.

Zelenskyy is playing the propaganda game masterfully well, certainly better than Putin is. That may be why he’s become such an instant sensation among many in North America and the rest of Europe. And in playing that game, he’s made himself the main character of a global conflict many in the US might have tuned out. And now we can’t look away.

Zelenskyy is a gifted performer who can use all forms of media to his advantage

To understand Zelenskyy’s talents as a performer, let’s take a look at his appearances on the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars.

In watching that video, it becomes clear that a) Zelenskyy is a pretty solid dancer and b) he should probably not quit his day job (as the president of Ukraine) to pursue a career in ballroom dancing, as he’s a bit stiff.

What puts his performance over the top, though, is how good he is at playing to the audience, at understanding where the camera is, at covering up his occasional fumbled steps with an over-the-top pizzazz that might make you miss those fumbles. In several moments, his facial expressions are simultaneously playing to his dance partner (who needs to feed off his energy to perform) and the camera. It’s an impressive bit of reality TV performance!

In the wake of Zelenskyy’s sudden skyrocketing into one of the most well-known people in the world, many who aren’t particularly familiar with Ukrainian pop culture have been surprised to learn just how ubiquitous he was as an actor and comedian prior to his career in politics. He starred in several popular rom-coms, and he hosted a number of reality shows and sketch-comedy series. He purported to play the piano with his penis in one sketch that has gone mildly viral. He was the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukraine, for goodness’ sake.

Most notably, Zelenskyy’s acting career included the three-season TV comedy Servant of the People, in which he played a high school teacher who becomes the president of Ukraine. (You can watch some of it here.)

The show, which ran from 2015 to 2019, was immensely popular, to the degree that a major political party in Ukraine named after the show was formed. That party’s most prominent member is current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I’d say Zelenskyy’s path into politics is a little like if the US had elected Robin Williams president in the 2000 election, but there is a literal 2006 Robin Williams movie that has a plot that is basically Zelenskyy’s real life.

Being good at being on TV does not automatically equal being a good leader. Donald Trump, after all, was very, very good at being on TV, with an innate understanding of how to use the medium to his advantage, but that had next to no connection to whatever skills he had as a president.

It is worth noting that the most consistent complaint from the Ukrainian media about Zelenskyy has been the same one most press corps have about most world leaders in the social media era: He doesn’t talk to them enough. But when viewed through the eyes of Zelenskyy, a major celebrity even before he became president, who has been making his own comedy since he was a teenager, it’s easy to see why he would utilize platforms like YouTube and Facebook instead of talking through mediators. Why wouldn’t he?

And his strength in creating and presenting his own message, as well as his ability to straddle the line in appealing to Ukrainians and lots of other people (including Russians), has been evident throughout the war.

His February 24 plea to the Russian people to rise up and stop their leaders who are waging war feels like it’s straight out of a movie because Zelenskyy has absolutely framed it so you feel like you’re watching something more compelling than a standard presidential address. Notice how he’s off-center, in front of an out-of-focus map of Ukraine. It’s a much more visually compelling image than, say, Joe Biden behind a podium.

Or consider the hand-held videos he’s made from the streets of Kyiv, which necessarily have the lowest production values imaginable, but which are still framed with the eye of someone who knows intuitively how to use the camera built into a phone. In the below video, he manages to direct your focus toward the various other members of the government who are with him in Kyiv, all while issuing a message of resilience. It’s compelling, and in a way that speaks to the moment more powerfully than, say, Putin’s carefully staged photo ops.

That’s before you even get to the fact that the simple optics of Zelenskyy’s being present in the streets of Kyiv carry tremendous weight when we’re used to world leaders being separated from the conflicts they are part of. If the Russian military is going to invade Ukraine, well, the leader of Ukraine being there, in the streets of Kyiv, carries an immense emotional appeal to both his fellow citizens and those of us who are thousands of miles away from the conflict.

This move is also a more subtle form of the masculine posturing Putin engages in regularly, one Zelenskyy is uniquely well-positioned to exploit, having been at least somewhat well-known in Russia when he was working as an actor. (The movies he was in were rarely sensations, but they were well-seen in Russia, which I guess kind of makes him analogous to a pre-Schitt’s Creek Eugene Levy — beloved in his country of origin, a “hey, it’s that guy!” in the much larger country next door.)

Working as a performer in Ukraine means navigating a tricky relationship between the Ukrainian entertainment industry and the Russian entertainment industry. And navigating that relationship has meant that Zelenskyy’s work has been banned or threatened with banning in both Ukraine and Russia at various points in his career.

Zelenskyy was criticized by Russians because Ukrainian media reported that his comedy troupe Kvartal 95 donated money to the Ukrainian army during a 2014 conflict with Russia. But his performances were almost entirely in Russian prior to his political career, and he continually spoke out against efforts by Ukraine’s cultural ministry to ban Russian performers from working in Ukraine. Thus, even when he was a comedian playing the piano with his penis, Zelenskyy had to constantly deal with regional geopolitics.

Still, many world leaders know how to use social media now, and almost all of them are at least somewhat good on TV. Why has Zelenskyy’s time in the spotlight been such a dramatic success, at least on the world public relations stage? His performance skills matter, yes, but what’s even more important is his skill at creating a narrative on the fly.

Zelenskyy is making himself the main character of a story we might not easily follow otherwise

One of the offshoots of Zelensky’s sudden prominence on the world stage is that there are a lot of tweets about how everybody who’s attracted to men is either horny for Zelenskyy or suspects everyone they know is horny for Zelenskyy. This reaction goes with the territory of a scary, enormous story with global import that our brains need to find any way to circumvent. When fear, despair, or rage become too much, we’ll turn to gallows humor or horniness as a species. Is it “cringe?” I guess. But also, who cares? Life’s too short, and the world is really fucking scary.

Now, Zelenskyy is far from a perfect leader. He has faced his own accusations of corruption, and idolizing him as the best leader in the world is probably setting yourself up for disappointment. But he is undeniably doing a really good job at stirring the emotions of both his fellow citizens and others around the world, hence the internet’s fascination with him. And this specific brand of horny Zelenskyy tweet also speaks to something he has done with almost peerless skill at this moment in time: He’s made himself the main character of reality for several days now, and nobody can even touch him. Other world leaders are still doing things, but are they trending on Twitter? Nope!

It’s a savvy move on Zelenskyy’s part, and it’s one that’s very much bound up in an understanding of how narrative works. Once you’re the main character of a story, then everybody’s feelings get projected onto you. If you’re mad, they’ll be mad too. If you’re sad, they’ll be sad too. And if you’re, let’s face it, an attractive human being, well …

In the early hours of any global conflict, whether it’s one your country is involved in directly or one that is occurring far, far away from you, there’s a natural human impulse to boil the big story of armies sweeping across countries into smaller stories of human struggle. We need people to latch onto.

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, arguably the greatest novel ever written and also a novel about (among many other things) a bunch of brave Russians repelling a seemingly unstoppable invading force, is structured to emphasize this tendency within our brains. Tolstoy tends to situate his stories from two points of view. We are either seeing the armies of the Russians and the French from high above, where they seem almost like abstract forces of nature, or we are right there in the muck with one of Tolstoy’s main characters (and occasionally Napoleon).

We prefer to boil away all the complexities inherent in big, abstract concepts until we arrive at something like “this nation good, and this nation bad,” but we are good at understanding all the complexities of human behavior when they are situated in a handful of characters we come to know well. What we are terrible at is when we try to find some sort of middle ground between the two. The second you say, “Well, this situation is really complex, and here’s why…” the brain longs for the simple clarity of, “This is the main character, okay?”

I am aware that pointing out the ways in which Zelenskyy’s videos in the midst of war benefit from his filmmaking skills will strike some readers as though I’m saying he’s manipulating them into caring about the situation in Ukraine. There is often a sense when discussing the use of filmmaking techniques to advance political messages that seeing how the sausage is made somehow reveals the disingenuousness of everything.

But the stakes are really high. If you’re moved by the videos Zelenskyy has posted, that is exactly what he hopes you feel. It’s also likely what millions of Ukrainians under siege hope you feel. Does it matter if their charismatic president is putting his thumb on the scale?

Zelenskyy is using all of his skills as a performer and a filmmaker to cajole you into caring about the situation in Ukraine, because he knows you might not otherwise. The war is something many, many, many people who read this website would not be as compelled by without Zelenskyy figuring out ways to make that story immediately visceral and compelling. A filmmaker figures out how to get you invested in the story he wants to tell, and Zelenskyy has certainly done that.

One of the great messages of War and Peace is that everything is more complex than it might seem to be at first glance. Tolstoy looks at one of the most justifiable cases to wage war — to repel an invading force — and finds within that the thousands of smaller betrayals and heartbreaks and joys and lusts and pains that make up the larger story. Those smaller moments that happen between humans still happen, at every level of the battle, and we love that book because it is about the people and not the politics.

Whatever you might think of him when he’s not the face of a country that is attempting to repel an invading force, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has used every tool at his disposal to reduce a political story to a personal one. He’s made himself the main character to get you to care. Did it work?

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