A couple of weeks ago, the world knew little about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy beyond the fun fact that he was a comic-turned-president with zero real-life experience of government. His only preparation, said eye-rolling commentators, was his starring role in a TV series as a history teacher whose rant against corruption goes viral and propels him to the presidency.
Worse, he could dance. He won Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars. There’s a video of him and his Kvartal 95 mates performing Beyonce-style, in leather pants and eye-watering stilettos complete with pouting, splits and cartwheels. There’s another that suggests he is playing the piano with his penis. He also voiced the Ukrainian version of Paddington Bear.
Then he skated the 2019 election with around three-quarters of the vote. If foreign observers were concerned so were a few sceptical locals who believed his idealistic campaign had lacked substance, that his promises to smash corruption were selective, and that the Russian-speaking Jew was worryingly vague in his attitude towards Russia.
Zelenskiy has suddenly morphed into one of the most unlikely wartime leaders in history and right now is one of the most admired men across the world
What happened next might have been a hint of things to come. In his inauguration speech, he told Ukrainians that his government’s “very first task” would be “to make the fire stop in the Donbas”, meaning the grinding, murderous war engineered by Putin and his separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine. But when Zelenskiy sought essential backup from the US in negotiations, the then US president pounced on Ukrainian desperation and suggested he might withhold vital congressionally-mandated military aid unless Zelenskiy would “do us a favour” and announce an investigation to discredit Joe Biden and his family.
Lost somewhere in the vomitous saga that culminated in Donald Trump’s first impeachment was the sharp moral contrast between the pathetic GOP “patriots” bowing to touch the Trump robes and the dancing comedian. Zelenskiy refused to surrender to the bully-in-chief’s threats. Later, he would also refuse to yield to Putin’s demands for Ukrainian territory.
Still the sceptics saw little else to cheer them. In December Zelenskiy’s approval rating was down to around 30 per cent. Just a few weeks ago he was undiplomatically ticking off Joe Biden’s US for repeated warnings about an imminent Russian invasion, saying they were serving Putin’s mission to destabilise the country. Ukrainians openly worried that he would fold in the face of invasion. To top it all, the US turned out to be right in almost every detail of its catastrophic predictions.
Yet something astonishing has happened in the past week. Zelenskiy has suddenly morphed into one of the most unlikely wartime leaders in history and right now is one of the most admired men across the world. In a time when toxic strongmen with fragile egos such as Putin, Trump and Bolsonaro ache to star in their own Rambo epic, Zelenskiy with his slight build and hangdog demeanour represents a pillar of quiet composure and resolve, an unassuming brother figure facing down death in a brown fleece.
It's true that Instagram and YouTube have been his natural platforms for years and his acting skills are paying off
He comes armed with a vital understanding of disinformation warfare in a country which has been wrestling with Russian hybrid warfare for years, fighting it by filming selfie videos direct to his phone camera rather than a teleprompter, the number one assassination target yet the literal man on the street in a warzone, standing at a series of recognisable landmarks and naming the cabinet members standing shoulder to shoulder with him to refute fake news that he’d run away.
Last Friday’s video is worth repeated viewings. There is no bombast, no music, no podium, no state trappings, no desperate flag-waving. It feels matter-of-fact, authentic, both tender and scrappy, bathed with his and the viewer’s relief that he has survived the night. Honest about the gravity of the situation, assuring people they are in it together, reminding them of their history, being there.
It’s true that Instagram and YouTube have been his natural platforms for years and his acting skills are paying off. He knows how to handle a camera and to find his mark. But if this suggests that it’s all about art and technique, it doesn’t feel like that to the people who matter. A new poll puts his approval rating at 91 per cent.
So let’s look again at what appeared to be a CV full of trivia. Three of his four great uncles in a Jewish Ukrainian family were murdered by the Nazis. His father is head of the Kryvyi Rih State University’s department of Cybernetics and Computing Hardware and his mother an engineer. Zelenskiy holds a law degree from Kyiv National Economic University.
He was the creator of the wildly successful show about the accidental president, which doubles as satire and a guide on how to institute democratic reforms in institutions controlled by oligarchy. The Beyonce dance video is actually a funny, penetrating skit on Ukrainian stereotypes.
“We’re all here...”, he says in that Friday video, in the fight together. It is almost always “we”, an approach signalled in his inauguration speech when he said no portraits of him should be displayed. “Put photographs of your children there, instead. And before making any decision, look them in the eyes.”