KYIV: Volodymyr Zelensky was at the height of his career as an actor and comedian before giving it all up to become president in 2019. After three difficult years in politics, he is now the face of national defiance, winning rave reviews as a war-time leader.
Since Russia’s invasion on Thursday, the 44-year-old has used his eye for modern image management and the skills honed on stage to deliver stirring messages on social media.
On Feb 25, the day after the outbreak of war, he filmed himself standing in the dark near the presidency building with his advisers, saying “we are all here” in an attempt to counter disinformation that he had abandoned his post.
“Our military is here. Citizens in society are here. We’re all here defending our independence, our country, and it will stay this way,” he said.
Looking sleep-deprived but occasionally smiling, he appeared without a bullet-proof vest or helmet despite repeated warnings that Russia intended to assassinate him and had even sent undercover hit squads to the capital.
The day after, this time in daylight, he posted another self-filmed video in front of the presidency in a khaki T-shirt and jacket.
The messages were appeals for national unity that sought to find a balance between lifting spirits, warning about the gravest danger to the country since 1941, while stressing the “indomitable” character of Ukrainians.
In a call with US President Joe Biden, who offered him help if he needed to leave, the former stand-up artist reportedly deployed a pithy one-liner that has further embellished his reputation.
“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelensky said, according to a tweet from the Ukrainian embassy in Britain.
And while speaking with EU leaders by video-call, he sought to marshal the emotional pull of his seemingly tragic position. “This might be the last time you see me alive,” the father-of-two told EU leaders while appealing for military aid, according to the Axios news website.
As well as becoming a focal point for Ukrainians as they seek to resist Russian occupation, Zelensky has shot to fame abroad.
Andrew Roberts, a historian and visiting professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, compared him to Winston Churchill when he took over as British prime minister during World War II.
“He is channelling an authentic inner Churchill,” Roberts wrote in an email sent to AFP.
Roberts, who produced a biography of Winston Churchill in 2018 and is also the author of Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History said there were several similarities.
Writing on Sunday in France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy praised his “humour that does not leave him even though missiles are raining down”.
Zelensky reminded him of other freedom fighters he had encountered who “learned how to wage war without loving it”, Levy wrote.
“This man is now Putin’s nightmare. He can, if we decide to help him by delivering guns, planes and defences that he has a burning need for, become the man who brings him down,” he added.
Zelensky ran for president seemingly as a joke in 2019, but ended up defeating his arch-rival Petro Poroshenko in a runoff by more than 70 per cent of the vote.
He was catapulted to national fame while playing a foul-mouthed school teacher on TV who became president after one of his students filmed his profane rant against corruption and posted it online.
Using the same approach then as now, Zelensky campaigned for president aware of the political power of social media, eschewing traditional interviews and rallies in favour of addresses posted online that sought to play up his down-to-earth charm.
Poroshenko mocked the Ukrainian-language skills of his opponent, a primarily Russian speaker from the central industrial city of Krivy Rig, and said he lacked the political stature to stand up to Putin.
“I’m not a politician, I’m just an ordinary guy come to break the system,” Zelensky responded before the second round.
In his inauguration speech, he vowed that he had “tried to do all I could to make Ukrainians smile” and now wanted to “do all I can so that Ukrainians don’t cry”.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2022