ukraine invasion

Can Volodymyr Zelensky Save Ukraine?

Since the beginning of Russia’s senseless, sadistic attack on his country, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has become an international star — a hero, a heartthrob. Over the past week, the world thrilled to photos of the handsome president in camouflage who shows no fear of death in the face of Russian invasion. On Saturday, Ukraine’s embassy in Britain reported on Twitter that Zelensky had turned down a U.S. offer to evacuate him from Kyiv, replying, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” The line seems straight out of an action movie.

By profession, though, Zelensky was first a comedian, more Sacha Baron Cohen than Jason Statham. For years, he performed with the sketch-comedy group Kvartal 95. The humor was, to put it mildly, broad. One greatest-hit compilation opens with Zelensky dressed in the pink headscarf and shapeless dress of the Russian cartoon character Masha from Masha and the Bear. He pretended to play the piano with his penis; he danced in stilettos, leggings, and a bolero vest. He was hilarious.

His political career was born in comedy. From 2015 to 2019, he starred in the lightly satirical television series Servant of the People, in which he played a beleaguered but goodhearted history teacher who is elected president by a fluke and sets out to end government corruption and devote himself to helping ordinary Ukrainians.

Stepping almost effortlessly from the small screen to the public stage, Zelensky founded the Servant of the People Party and was elected president in 2019 in a landslide. The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, known as the “Chocolate King,” had been elected as a stability candidate after the Maidan Revolution of 2013–14, which was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the bloody seizure of parts of eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists. In 2019, Poroshenko ran on a militarist-nationalist slogan: “Army. Language. Faith.” Zelensky, by contrast, emphasized reconciliation and harmony. His smoothly produced campaign videos showed two blue and gold circles — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — merging into a single green one. It was a reference to his surname, which comes from the word for “green,” but it also evoked the union of eastern and western Ukraine, of those who speak Ukrainian and Russian as their primary languages. (Almost all Ukrainians speak both languages, though increasing numbers of Ukrainians prefer to speak solely Ukrainian for political and historical reasons.)

During his campaign, Zelensky delivered eloquent speeches about ending the war in the east, which had by then reached the five-year mark, killed thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, and left swathes of the east in ruins. For Zelensky, this devastation was close to home: He hails from Kryvyi Rih in the Dnipro region, a part of eastern-central Ukraine that is close to the areas taken by separatists. As is true for many people in that part of the country, his primary language is Russian, though of course his allegiance is with Ukraine. His political career required a delicate approach — tactful, modest, and humorous — to his own slightly imperfect Ukrainian and to the hot-button question of Ukraine’s language policy. His passionate advocacy for peace and reconciliation made him a target of aggressive criticism by the relatively small but powerful faction of Ukrainians who saw Russian as a language that could only mean imperial oppression and who saw any compromise on eastern Ukraine as an unforgivable betrayal. Zelensky struggled as president, facing intense criticism, making major gaffes, and watching his approval ratings plummet.

But now the peace candidate has become a wartime president overnight, and everyone but the Russian government seems to love him. His personal bravery in the face of an existential threat to his country and to himself is extraordinary, undeniable. But his actorly qualities and media savvy have also stood him in good stead. He’s no longer the plucky, fresh-faced young man of Kvartal 95; in his most recent video addresses, his face is puffy, his livid complexion emphasized by the dull olive of his army-style T-shirt and fleece. He hasn’t slept for days, and he looks it. But exhaustion, stress, and mortal danger haven’t altered Zelensky’s finely modulated, gravelly actor’s voice, a cat’s-tongue caress. After rumors spread that he had left the country, he posted a video of himself in front of Kyiv’s famous Art Nouveau Gorodetsky House, also known as the “House of Chimeras.” His eyes were almost lost in dark circles, but his throaty pronunciation of the Ukrainian words for “good morning” sounded as tender and confiding as true love.

His peaceful, humane rhetoric has a new might in the context of the Russian onslaught, which is being undertaken with the assistance of Belarus, a Russian lackey state. Russia didn’t bother to manufacture much pretext for its invasion, but Russian propaganda has focused on the idea that Ukraine is under the tyrannical control of some kind of neo-Nazi junta bent on exterminating Russians. Even leaving aside the fact that Zelensky is Jewish, it’s hard to imagine such ideas surviving a viewing of Zelensky’s recent speeches, which have been addressed not only to the Ukrainian people but also to ordinary Russians and Belarusians. (The problem is that any Russians who aren’t internet-savvy won’t be able to see the speeches, given the total government control of television.)

Rather than making bombastic calls to crush the enemy and ride to victory, he calls for peace and the preservation of human life regardless of nationality. He always returns to his wish to stop the war, and he makes it crystal clear, on the level of emotion as well as logic, that Ukraine’s response to the Russian invasion is an act of pure self-defense. He stresses attacks on civilians, kindergartens, ambulances: the cruelest parts of war, the ones most likely to repulse ordinary people — especially those just across the border, who are likely to have visited Kyiv, Odessa, and other Ukrainian cities, to have family and personal history there.

Instead of speaking about the “Russians” or using a derogatory term (there are plenty available), he speaks about “the enemy,” “the invader,” “the occupiers,” as if at pains to avoid condemning the Russian people on the grounds of their nationality. In one address that went viral, he switched halfway through from Ukrainian to Russian — his voice caressing as ever — and made a direct entreaty to Russian viewers. He spoke about the senselessness of Russians being sent to die in Ukraine (indeed, nothing could be more senseless) and called on ordinary Russians to help stop the war and save Russian as well as Ukrainian lives. He mentioned the antiwar protests in Russia, where simply standing on a street corner holding a sign can result in arrest or worse, and thanked those Russians who have spoken out against the war so far.

This weekend, he made another address in Russian to the people of Belarus, evoking one of the most painful, powerful memories that unites his country to theirs. “Cities of Ukraine are surviving in circumstances that last occurred in our land and yours during the Second World War. But in this war that is going on now, you are not on the same side as we are — alas … This is a de facto referendum for you, Belarusians. You decide who you are. You decide who to be … We are your neighbors.” Optimistic even under missile fire, he appealed to Belarusians’ kindness and goodness, their greatness as a people, and, implicitly, their shared experience of national oppression by Russia and then the Soviet Union — another thing they have in common with Ukrainians.

In his inaugural speech in 2019, Zelensky finished by saying, “Throughout my life, I’ve tried to do everything I can to make Ukrainians smile … In the next five years, I will do everything to ensure that you, Ukrainians, don’t cry.” Today, the stakes are infinitely higher. “There is nothing more precious than life,” he said in an address this weekend. We can only hope for the preservation of his own and for the lives and safety of all the Ukrainians who are now under fire.

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Can Volodymyr Zelensky Save Ukraine?