Volodymyr Zelensky, a man thrust into the deadly centre of the biggest European war for almost 80 years, might currently be the most admired figure in the world, thanks in part to his ease with the airy immediacy of social media.
Standing in the streets of his country’s capital city, openly defying the military forces of Russia, one of the world’s most feared powers, having told another superpower, the USA, that he needs ammunition, not a ride to safety… here is a leader lifted to international hero status in front of our very eyes.
And there is the point.
Zelenskyy met rumours he had fled with the release of a selfie video on the streets of Kyiv.Credit:Twitter
Zelensky has literally transformed before our eyes, largely because the eyes of much of the world are so heavily transfixed these days on social media.
It is almost as if, in a world whose reality is heavily shaped by YouTube, Tik Tok, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and all the rest, the Ukrainian President has spent much of his life rehearsing for this very moment.
It undoubtedly helps that he is a handsome man of 44 with a life-imitating-art backstory that would make a film director gasp in disbelief.
Neither Zelensky, of course, nor anyone else, would wish for the crisis in which he and his country find themselves.
The lethal threats to him, his family and his people are hideously real; the convoys of Russian tanks, the missiles, the attacks by fighter bombers and the coming street struggles are no cyber war games on a flickering screen.
Yet there he stood on the second day of Russia’s invasion, surrounded on the street by his top advisers and military officials, the moment crafted for YouTube, choosing precisely the words his people might need: “We are all here, defending our independence, our country. And it will stay that way. Glory to the men and women defending us. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”
Within hours, millions across the world had downloaded the moment.
And in the past 24 hours, condemning the Russians for attacking residential areas in the city of Kharkiv at the very time so-called peace talks were occurring, Zelensky chose words that rang with perfectly clipped outrage.
“Peaceful city. Peaceful residential areas. No military facilities. No one in the world will forgive you for killing peaceful Ukrainian people,” he said.
At a time when the power to inspire might be as important as an artillery piece, Zelensky’s path to political leadership appears to have equipped him like few others with the ability to motivate his own people and to attract the support of much of the world.
He was born in Kryvyi Rih to Jewish parents, a Russian-speaking region in southern Ukraine. His father was a cybernetics professor and university lecturer and his mother worked for 40 years as a civil engineer.
Zelensky became, after gaining a bachelor’s degree in law, a highly successful entertainer with a sharp line in political satire whose campaign for Ukraine’s presidency in 2019 was run entirely on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.
Alongside him was the woman who became his wife in 2003, scriptwriter, trained architect and champion of social and humanitarian causes, Olena (nee Kiyashko), who was born in the same region as her husband, and in the same year, 1978. They met at Kryvyi Rih National University.
Though she reportedly opposed her husband’s political aspirations initially, she is considered his most steadfast ally, who refuses to leave her homeland as the war rages. She is said to be in an undisclosed area in Ukraine with the couple’s two children, Oleksandra, 17 and Krylo, 9.
And Olena, too, uses social media to inspire.
“I will not have panic and tears,” she wrote to Ukrainians in an Instagram post last week. “I will be calm and confident. My children are looking at me. I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.”
Zelensky and his team controlled the presidential campaign in 2019 to the point that Ukraine’s TV and other news media channels were reduced to replaying Zelensky’s savvy YouTube statements over and over because he drastically restricted the number of his formal interviews.
The result was that his rare face-to-face appearances rose in value and his own messages and key ideas still broke through. He won the election with more than 70 per cent support from voters.
Perhaps the only other major political figure to achieve such political impact through social media was Donald Trump, who used Twitter as a weapon and a personal noticeboard.
Zelensky acknowledged that he had studied Trump’s approach during what would become an infamous phone call between the US and Ukrainian presidents on July 25, 2019.
A partial transcript of the conversation revealed Zelensky said to Trump: “I would like to confess to you that I had an opportunity to learn from you. We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example for our elections.”
The conversation later led to Trump’s impeachment after it became obvious he had tried to strongarm Zelensky into investigating the Democratic Party and the family of Joe Biden, who Trump claimed had been involved in allegedly corrupt dealings with a Ukrainian prosecutor.
Zelensky had asked Trump to increase military aid to allow Ukraine to purchase Javelin missiles for defence purposes.
Trump, who had suspended $US400 million of military aid to Ukraine just a week before, made it clear such a request would depend on Zelensky’s co-operation in investigating the Bidens, saying: “I would like you to do us a favour, though.”
Zelensky might have been moved to reflect privately on one of his old barbed gags when he was a stand-up comedian: “Can someone be a president and not steal anything? Well, this is a rhetorical question, as no one has ever tried to do so.”
Trump is gone now and Zelensky’s greater foe, Vladimir Putin, has sent his military machine to Zelensky’s door.
But it remains tempting to imagine that Trump’s attempt at “quid pro quo” blackmail gave Zelensky insight into the level of pressure great powers are capable of exerting, and perhaps helped toughen him for today’s battles for national survival.
Meanwhile, the social media world has fallen hard for this Ukrainian leader, not least through discovering bewitchingly video-friendly elements of his past.
Millions seem transfixed at the YouTube evidence that Zelensky won the first season of the Ukraine version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006. There he is all over Twitter, all rhythm and athletic flare, the audience and the judges going gaga.
Millions more melted to discover Zelensky had been the voice of Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the enormously popular movie.
And a clip from his old TV comedy drama, Servant of the People (he created, produced and starred in the show himself), remains on high rotation.
It is considered to be an almost impossibly accurate prediction of the future.
In the clip, Zelensky’s schoolteacher character launches a tirade against government corruption, which is captured on video and goes viral on social media platforms, leading the character to be elected to the president’s seat.
In real life, Zelensky registered a political party named “Servant of the People” three years after his hit show, and rode it on an anti-corruption platform to the presidency, defeating billionaire and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko.
No one, however, could have predicted that three years into his presidency, with his domestic popularity flagging, Volodymyr Zelensky could suddenly be thrust into the centre of world affairs where he would emerge as a tough wartime leader, capable of rallying his people and inspiring much of the world to assist, if at a safe distance.
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