The Wartime Celebrity Leader – The New York Times

Hello. This is your Russia-Ukraine War Briefing, a weeknight guide to the latest news and analysis about the conflict.

If there is one person who personifies Ukraine at war, it’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. His decision to stay in Kyiv in the face of Russia’s invasion, his appeals to world leaders for support and his ubiquitous selfie videos have helped rally his nation and its allies. A wounded 16-year-old girl summed up Zelensky’s celebrity status when he came to visit her in a Kyiv hospital in March: “On Tik Tok, everyone is supporting you.”

To get a better sense of the man, I turned to Valerie Hopkins, one of our correspondents in Kyiv.

How is Zelensky seen at home?

Valerie: Wherever you go here, his quotes are on memes, on mugs, especially “I need ammunition, not a ride.” There are T-shirts of him in the likeness of Che Guevara.

He has become a symbol of the bravery that Ukrainians have shown by fighting back against a much bigger, much better armed, much stronger power. He’s a symbol of the values that they want to have in their country right now.

There was a poll recently that said that more than 70 percent of Ukrainians thought that their country was going in the right direction. It’s quite a feat for a leader to preside over a country in this condition and have 70 percent of people think it’s going the right way.

How has Zelensky changed since the start of the war?

From a basic level, we’ve seen him transform from a lighthearted leader into a grizzled, tired, strong, battle-worn commander in chief.

If we take a long view, he’s a native Russian speaker who rose to popularity by being a comedian performing in Russian, and who became a political candidate after playing one on T.V. He was elected with a lot of support from southern and eastern Ukraine, where there are many ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers.

And Ukrainians have watched his identity evolve in tandem with theirs. In “Sluha Narodu,” or “Servant of the People,” the show in which he played a teacher suddenly catapulted to the presidency, one of the plot points was that his character struggled to speak the Ukrainian language. My friends say that Zelensky’s Ukrainian has become flawless. Since the start of the war, many people have switched completely from speaking Russian to speaking Ukrainian.

How has his background as a comedian and actor played a part in his wartime leadership?

When Zelensky came to power, he filled his team with people from his production company. Many observers were critical of the preponderance of media professionals he brought into the government.

But since the war began, they have really expertly stage-managed all of this in a way to keep the morale and the sense of national unity very high.

He’s very, very good at knowing his audience. One of his aides told me that his staff members do pretty stringent follow-ups after his addresses to foreign audiences. They assess the reaction in that country, tracking if any policy changes have been made. Are there any kind of improvements in public opinion toward support for Ukraine? These are not just one-offs.

And he’s maintained the momentum in his daily addresses. Every night, in addition to talking about the main topics of the day and the main developments in the war, he’s informing people about what he has been doing.

He’s not sitting in a bunker. They know he’s meeting with officials or talking with foreign leaders. He has increasingly been visiting the front line.

And in Vladimir Putin he has a very powerful antithesis. Putin appears irregularly. Once he showed up at a hospital, stiff and wooden. Putin doesn’t level with his people. Zelensky shows he’s human. He expresses his emotions. I think people feel that he’s leveling with them about the difficulties and I think that makes people feel understood.

Do you think Zelensky fever will fade?

Some people are starting to express fears that he has consolidated quite a lot of power. At present, he has a lot of trust, but people are waiting to see how it might be used down the line. Right now, there’s a sense that the country is at war and that now is not the time for disunity.

Ukrainians have a very strong anti-authoritarian streak and there is a very strong civil society here. For now, all of that energy has gone into helping the soldiers and volunteering. But eventually, I believe, there will be a reckoning. How acrimonious it will be will depend on the outcome of the war.


Follow our coverage of the war on the @nytimes channel.

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