Volodymyr Zelensky has become a political superstar since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 this year. His carefully choreographed social media performances combined with the platform given to him by international news organisations and sympathetic parliaments around the world has elevated the former actor to a political celebrity status usually reserved for the leaders of large nation-states or rogue nations like North Korea.

As the war nears the two-month mark then, it seems appropriate to consider this new and most-interesting figure in more critical depth and what implications his methods may have on the war and wider global affairs.

The first aspect for discussion is the extent to which Zelensky and his team are choreographing his media performances and how and why this matters. His moments in front of the camera are carefully staged, written in advance, the backdrops positioned for their symbolic value, rehearsed, evaluated, tweaked and then delivered again.

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate everything that he is saying but the element of performance does give an important selectivity to the utterance. Then there is a danger that he is encouraging his audience to think more emotionally than rationally. He wants your heart, not your mind.

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Zelensky’s ease in front of the camera and his simplification of complex issues into narratives of mere good and bad/evil – a propaganda strategy adopted from entertainment production – emotionally endears him to audiences because his utterances require little of them in terms of interpretation and evaluation.

Zelenskyy is contemporary mediated politics on steroids. Indeed, when Zelensky moved from actor to politician, many of the production staff at Kvartal 95 Studio – the entertainment company that he founded and who produced Servant of the People (the political satire that he directed and starred in) moved with him as advisors and assistants. Herein, the line between real politics with real consequences and the fantasy world of entertainment production have been blurred. Life is imitating art perhaps to a degree that we haven’t seen before in politics.

This is a worrying development for advocates of democracy and the validity of democratic society. Servant of the People, which is worth a watch on Netflix, fundamentally challenged the political status quo in Ukraine where presidents ebbed and flowed towards the West and the East. It offered a third way that was highly attractive to the electorate. Thus, the extent to which the Ukrainian public voted for Zelensky based on their affection for the fictional character Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko that he played in the series is open for debate. Are some voters really that fickle?


Perhaps then Servant of the People was designed as an ingenious but ethically questionable political strategy that recognised the limitations of old-style electioneering and voter canvassing. Perhaps the ‘grassroots’ movement that began soon after to make Zelensky president was actually astroturf – a notion planted into the public conscious by powerful actors that is deceptively made to look like a projection of collective public will, but which then gains genuine public traction based on its perceived grassroots authenticity.

We may never know for sure, but this strategy, if it were confirmed, leaves all manner of questions about political authenticity and wider democratic credibility in its wake. Zelensky wouldn’t be the first politician to use an astroturfing communications strategy though and politicians have always tried to manufacture a public image. However, if proven, this political choreography is on another level. It is as devasting as it is impressive.

What then to make of Zelensky’s media performances specifically? Over the last few months he has been widely coveted and even heroised by international politicians, journalists and publics alike. There is even a fake viral video of him covering the Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross song My Endless Love that has been credited to him as part of efforts to further sweetheart him to global publics (it’s actually an American band called Boyce Avenue and the lead singer Alejandro Luis Manzano has an uncanny resemblance to him).

Political fetishes like this are unhelpful as they discourage critical analysis of the words and deeds of the politician who is, like we all are, a full human with skills, attributes, flaws and prejudices.

We see this trend more broadly in those who entertain us. Actors, sports stars and musicians are often provided with elevated status because their performances become outlets for our repressed emotions. Ultimately though, it is helpful to remember that they are just entertainers and our expectation from them is predominantly for entertainment, not truth or fact, and when they fail to entertain us we tend to lose interest. As such, while their star shines brightly, their opinions on matters that they have little expertise in – think Angelina Jolie discussing sexual violence in warfare – are coveted to an unhelpful degree and to the detriment of academic or scientific sources that have spent a decade or more studying the issue of concern but who may not have the smoothness of delivery of the trained performer.

This leads to wider questions about our relationship with truth and falsehood. How much do we really care about the truth when we are being entertained or when we associate a particular individual with entertainment rather than gritty, complex or – heaven forbid – mundane reality? The human mind often egotistically believes itself to be more logical and truth-oriented than it is. We provide ourselves with narratives about ourselves and our lives that sometimes stretch the truth, we like to think of ourselves as righteous beings. Sometimes we even tell ourselves out and out lies. Lies that when repeated enough become part of the fabric of life.

Therefore, we have to consider the uncomfortable question that many people may not care as much as they probably should about the accuracy of what Zelensky is saying. Perhaps the bandwagon around this former actor limits public interpretation of him. But do not ever think that Zelensky, or any other democratically elected politician for that matter, is your friend.

That’s what the mediated demands of the democratic popularity contest encourage. The reality is that, while the war is going well for Zelensky personally so far, it may not in the future and he may have to lie, and it is a well-known political tactic for a leader to build-up an aura of legitimacy and authority in the hope that one day it will be useful when deception is required. Journalistic and public vigilance is required at all times and towards all politicians, but especially when the stakes are as high as they are in Ukraine.

Dr Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications, Nottingham Trent University

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