On May 20, 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was sworn in as the sixth President of Ukraine, after a landslide victory. The former comedian and actor is currently leading his country from the front lines, on the path to resistance, against the second strongest and one of the largest militaries in the world. Prior to the initial attack at the dawn of February 24, he had said, “US’ warnings of an imminent invasion were overblown and were damaging Ukraine’s economy.” In hindsight, this was possibly his first misstep as leader of the country.
Understanding the severity of the situation, President Zelenskyy addressed the nation of 44 million as a citizen of Ukraine, three hours before the invasion, putting the people of both his country and Russia at the centre of the narrative. On behalf of the Ukrainian people, he said, “If they try to take our country away from us, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. Not attack, but defend ourselves… And when you will be attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs, but our faces.” These words ring true even as the conflict has entered its 16th day on March 12. The citizens of Ukraine, alongside their leader, have led the charge against Russia.
In the same speech, he urged the Russian people to question their government’s action. “Stop now, before it’s too late,” Zelenskyy told the Russian people, and asked them if they wanted this war. He continued, “Who will suffer the most from it? The people. Who doesn’t want it the most? The people. Who can stop it? The people. But are there those people among you? I am sure.” Protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and it’s invasion of Ukraine have been spreading worldwide. In Russia, at least a thousand people have been detained for anti-war protests during the last two weeks. This includes senior citizens and school children.
President Zelenskyy’s speeches, his words, have created lasting impact and a sense of solidarity. He has rallied his people to stand against Russia, and foreign governments to send ammunition and aid. He emerged as the leader of the resistance, one leading from the front lines, and Moscow’s “number one target”. Amid Russian propaganda claiming that he fled the country, Zelenskyy shot his first of many selfie-videos and posted it on social media on February 25, surrounded by his closest aides, on the streets of the capital city of Kyiv, and assured his people that he is here with them. The video received over a million views on Facebook and Telegram.
The Ukrainian president’s work as an actor and comedian, and how he managed to turn his “reel life” to “real life”, is often talked about. Zelenskyy, a 44-year-old father of two, was born in Kryvyi Rih, in south-eastern Ukraine, on January 25, 1978, to a Jewish couple. The town was still under the Soviet Union at the time, and he was part of a minority community in the region. While he is a native Russian speaker, he eventually learned the English and Ukrainian languages. He grew up in Kryvyi Rih, and went on to pursue a law degree at the Kryvyi Rih Economic Institute, a local campus of the Kyiv National Economic University.
Zelenskyy graduated with a law degree in the year 2000, but headed in a different direction and chose to become a comedian. In college, he actively participated in theatre, and after spending years with his comedy troupe Kvartal 95, he co-founded Studio Kvartal 95. He appeared in several shows and films, however, his most prominent role was in a TV series called ‘Servant of the People’, which aired between 2015 and 2019. In the show, he plays the role of a teacher who goes on to become the President of Ukraine. The Kvartal 95 comedy troupe turned into a political party named ‘Servant of the People’, by March 2018. In 2019, Zelenskyy contested the election, as an “anti-establishment” and “anti-corruption” political novice, and attained a landslide victory with a vote share of 73.2 percent. His rival, Petro Poroshenko, won 24.45 percent votes.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one of those innumerous members of the Jewish community who lost family members during the Holocaust. His grandfather fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazi Party, in World War II. Refuting one of the claims made by Putin as a justification for the invasion, Zelenskyy addressed the Russian people and said, “You are told we are Nazis. But could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?” He continued, “How can I be a Nazi? Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet Army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.”
In 2019, when Zelenskyy contested and won the country’s presidential election with no prior experience in politics, he had assured his supporters saying, “I will never let you down.” His stand against corruption and the establishment, along with the informal style of posting light-hearted videos, resonated with the Ukrainian people, although not without criticism. Many doubted his relationship with Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, owner of popular TV station 1+1 that aired Zelenskyy’s show.
The Ukrainian president’s story, of a licensed lawyer to a comedian and actor, to a leader who rose to the occasion, is indicative of his ability as a legal expert and an entertainer to plead his case, as well as engage with his audience. Many analysts across the world have indicated that Zelenskyy’s background as an entertainer helped him manage this crisis. “Politics, particularly politics today, is a game of performance… of knowing what to say and when and how, and Zelensky seems to be hitting the nail on the head here,” Samuel Woolley, assistant professor at School of Journalism, University of Texas, told the Washington Post. Zelenskyy’s speech on February 24, was his last speech in a suit and tie as he switched to “military sweatshirts” following that. Even when he addressed European leaders, asking for sanctions against Russia and warning them that this might be the last time they see him alive, his words hit the bull’s eye. A senior EU official said, “The silence in the room was impressive.” This was followed by several additional sanctions by the EU in the upcoming days.
A communication consultant at the BBC, Yaryna Klyuchkovska pointed out, “Of course, he is an actor. I don’t know whether it’s his true persona or not. But whatever he’s doing, it’s working.” Despite Zelenskyy’s criticism and missteps, he has utilised his experience as an actor and comic to make “emotional appeals” to the world. After all leadership too, to a certain degree, has a performative aspect to it. Being a leader is almost as important as seeming like one. Being a good performer does not always equate to good leadership. However, it is worth noting how he managed “to reduce a political story to a personal one… he made himself as the main character to get you to care”, said a Vox report. Given the current situation, it looks like it has worked.
It is no surprise that the Ukrainian president and his family are Russia’s top targets as Zelenskyy has himself acknowledged, however, when the US government offered to evacuate them from Kyiv, he responded with what is now a famous quote, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” These words will forever be associated with Zelenskyy, and him standing with his people.
The authenticity of the messages is one of the major differences in Zelenskyy using propaganda to further his cause, as opposed to the Kremlin spreading lies about “neo-Nazis using children as human shields”. Zelenskyy is using social media, making his people “hear the earnest, grainy voice they had come to know from his movies”, to assure them that he is with them. His short but extremely personal selfie videos on social media platforms have helped him connect with people, and convey his message in a way that has “humanized the conflict”.
On the fifth day of the invasion, on February 28, the Ukrainian president addressed the European leaders and urged them to include Ukraine in the 27-nation bloc of the European Union (EU). His emotional speech received a lengthy standing ovation. The Ukrainian to English translator was also reportedly holding back his tears as Zelenskyy said, “We are fighting for our rights, for our freedoms, for our lives and now we are fighting for survival.” He added, “Today we are showing everybody that is exactly what we are. The European Union is going to be much stronger with us… We have proven our strength… proven that, at a minimum we are exactly the same as you are. So do prove that you are with us, do prove that you won’t let us go… And then life will win over death and light will win over darkness.” The speech, as well the clip of the EU leaders’ standing ovation quickly went viral across multiple social media platforms.
Zelenskyy, with his oratory skills, courage and passion, has managed to rally not only his people to defend their nation, but also get the Western democracies to step up and impose unprecedented sanctions on Russia, making it the most sanctioned country in the world. His decision to stay back in Kyiv and fight with his people has changed the narrative in such a remarkable way that even Switzerland, breaking their 207-year-old tradition of maintaining a neutral stance, imposed sanctions on Russia. Today, Zelenskyy is still in Ukraine, with his people in bunkers or basements, urging his citizens and the rest of the world to keep fighting as he continues to lead the charge.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy may just have been an entertainer and a political novice so far, but he is certainly poised to go down in history as a servant of the people.