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Europe's Freedom Fighters: Volodymyr Zelenskyy

In conversation with Régis Genté, co-author of “Volodymyr Zelenskyy - Dans la tête d’un héros”

In this new series of articles on Europe’s freedom fighters, Olga Rybak and Greta Scott interview Régis Genté, biographer of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Greta Scott: I remember when Zelenskyy was elected, it seemed like a joke: a comedian becoming the President of Ukraine. But since the war started, he has become well-respected and admired across the globe. Is that reception merited?

Régis Genté: Yes, it's certainly merited because of what he has done since the 24th of February. (I don't say the 23rd, because on the 23rd he still didn’t fully trust the intelligence which was given to him about the war. There is a French documentary film about President Macron and the war, and in this film, we see Macron calling Zelenskyy at midnight on the 23rd, so basically six hours before the war, and we can see that it was still not clear to Zelenskyy that the war would happen. Maybe it had no consequences because the Ukrainian military was ready for the war anyway, but still, he didn't get it.)

But since the 24th, I think he has really got the job done. Of course, there have been some mistakes, both regarding communication and politics, but generally he has really done his job. It was really courageous of him to stay in Ukraine. In that famous video from the night of the 25th, we know that there were some commandos in town, Russians looking for him. There was the best of the Russian army trying to take the airport about 30 kilometres away from Kyiv. To take the decision to stay, even when the propaganda was running high, saying that Zelenskyy had already left the country, really was a crucial moment. If he had left, indeed, it could have changed the morale of the Ukrainian Army. It would not change it radically because their will is far beyond Zelenskyy or whoever else, but still, his staying played a big role. He stayed and immediately started to shape what would become the Ukrainian resistance in this war.

So, yes, the reception is merited. Maybe not as a war leader - I would personally say that he's a war leader - but mostly he does what he knows how to do. He has said as much; he has said that his job is to do what he knows how to do, which is to create messages. “I am the creator of messages,” he says. So this is what he does. He's this very specific kind of president who tries to fight hard for his country through messages and through images. Because this is what he has talent for; he knows how to do that and he does it very well.

“If he's a hero, he is a hero just like everyone in Ukraine who is fighting for their emancipation, for the freedom of the country.”

GS: Your book is called “Zelenskyy: In the mind of a hero”, but you have said that you didn’t choose that title. How do you feel about describing Zelenskyy as a hero?

RG: When I agreed to write this book, the first thing I said to the publisher was: “I will write this book, but I don't want to use the word ‘hero’.” Of course, after some time, when I was working and I didn't have time to think about anything else, they came back and gave me the book cover with the word ‘hero’, because they wanted to sell the book, and also because in the West he really is perceived as such. I'm not sure that he’s perceived as a hero in Ukraine.

When Zelenskyy speaks at the end of every video he makes, he usually says that he is giving a particular person the title of National Hero. And when you look at these videos you understand that he isn’t trying to take on the role of a hero, he's giving it to others. And this is what we tried to explain in the book. In the conclusion, we came back to this word ‘hero’, because we weren’t comfortable with it, and we replaced it with what it means in the Ukrainian context. The whole book is about that. Because, for a hundred years, ‘hero’ has referred to the people who are giving their lives for the emancipation of Ukraine from a colonial power. If he's a hero, he is a hero just like everyone in Ukraine who is fighting for their emancipation, for the freedom of the country.

So in this case he's a hero, but he's a hero just like the normal people who are going to fight on the front line, or the opera singers, and everyone else. In the book, we didn't want to deprive the Ukrainians of their fight and say that their president was the only hero. It isn’t more courageous to defend your country as President than to be at the frontline under enemy fire, of course. So the whole book is about trying to place Zelenskyy within Ukrainian society and to show that he's not just a leader; he is giving a face and a voice to a country and a society which has been subjected to deep and full oppression for 30 years, especially since 2014, and even more since last February. He’s a very specific kind of leader because he's following his society. He is also a leader who does not decide much. He has said it himself: he was asked by a Russian journalist in March 2022 if he would agree to give up the Donbass or Crimea, and he said, “I won’t decide that, that's not me, that would be the Ukrainian people.” Look at the recent past: in 2013 President Yanukovych alone decided what should be the fate of Ukraine, and a few weeks later he was no longer President. The President of Ukraine can't be the kind of leader that decides the fate of the country so easily.

Olga Rybak: Thank you very much for your answer. I would actually agree, in Ukraine we rather call him a leader - the one who leads us, the one who expresses the narratives that are in society. Heroes are, first and foremost, those who are fighting on the frontlines – something Zelenskyy has also mentioned numerous times. So, that's an appreciated answer from your side. I have some related questions now. How would you describe Zelenskyy as a person? What are the most outspoken qualities you can highlight? What do you believe are his principal values?

RG: I think his main quality, and it comes from Ukrainian society itself, is his ability to listen, to properly understand his society. He's a young man, so what he understands resonates with what society is like today. We should always keep in mind that he was just 13 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed, so he's quite different to someone who came from Soviet times. This is maybe his main difference from Putin. Putin is 70 years old and was fully shaped by the Soviet Union.

Zelenskyy was very much rooted in the Russian Community – he spoke Russian, he earned his money on the Russian market, being an actor on KVD (which is a very politically influenced programme, and very Russian).

So I think his main characteristic is probably to listen. That goes with his previous profession. It’s easy to be serious and to say something that people will listen to, but to make someone really laugh and attract millions of people is very difficult. So it means that if you want to be a good comic, you have to have a sociological understanding of your society, you must feel your society. And this is what he does. He leads the country with surveys, as lots of Western Presidents do today (French Presidents traditionally conduct a lot of surveys and really try to direct their messages according to the survey results.) We feel that sometimes Zelenskyy has more understanding of society because he was a comedian. He was not just a television comic but also the comedian of the people, performing stand-up shows in Ukrainian villages.

So he's listening, he understands this society, and he is also aware that he probably can’t manipulate the people. Well, he can manipulate the people because when he became president, the programme that he would use to eradicate the oligarchy was a bit of a joke (his relationship with oligarchs was complex, especially his relationship with Kolomoisky).

But in general, he understands society and he knows that he has to follow it.

GS: You're drawing a lot of parallels between Zelenskyy, actor and comedian, and Zelenskyy, the President. How much do you think his presidential style is influenced by his previous career, and does it help him? Would another politician be able to communicate so well?

RG: It is difficult, in times of war, to understand exactly what his role is, what type of President he is. We have very little information on that. Even for the war, we don't know to which extent he’s involved. I'm sure that he's using all the attributes of power, but to what extent he is participating in the decision-making in terms of military operations, I’m not sure. I feel that it says a lot about Ukrainian society and leadership that the army is able to conduct this war in the interests of the nation without waiting for the decision of the political leaders.

What we see again is that he knows how to create messages and images, he’s a communicative person. What kind of president is he? He's a president of communication, he's defending his government by sending messages to the world and to Ukrainian society as well. I think this is what he does mostly. I feel that that role is quite split: the military is dealing with the military, he is dealing with messaging. We don’t see him, as Putin or as Western leaders would (even though they are just following their advisors’ recommendations on communication), say “I decided”. He is rather spreading the message about what Ukraine is, what Ukraine is facing. His communication is quite simple, in a way, depicting Ukraine as a victim of aggression, which is true. As an actor, he knows how to use the emotion which goes with that to show what Ukraine is facing today.

I can believe that Poroshenko would have also stayed in power, and would not have left on the 25th of February, but probably his communication style would have been different. Zelenskyy also incarnates what society is today. Putin is always wearing a suit and tie, sitting at a long table, so he incarnates a kind of power which is outside of society. Yet Zelenskyy, through the way he’s dressed, unshaven, is just part of society. I remember him sitting on the ground outside with a journalist who was there asking for an interview, and they just sat on the steps and did the interview. Or once he came to a press conference carrying his own chair, just a simple chair (not a golden one!), and just took the chair, placed it down, shook hands with one or two journalists he knew in the first row and started to give the interview. So it's part of communication, and maybe also his style. He is also a comedian who is at the level of the people, so it's difficult to distinguish between the communication proper and his style, which is both his own and that of Ukrainian society.

OR: Zelenskyy is a strong leader who has managed to establish a whole ecosystem to fight the Russian aggressor on different frontlines. In the worst-case scenario, do you think at this stage this ecosystem could function without Zelenskyy himself?

RG: I'm pretty sure about that. It would certainly be different, because he's definitely playing a role. But what we focussed on a lot in the book and what we understood about Zelenskyy is that he’s the product of his society, and behind Zelenskyy, it’s society which is acting. We see a lot in this war which is a reflection of the image of Ukrainian society.

For example, we watched thousands of videos of this war. I don’t think I’ve seen a single video of Russian women fighting. When you look at the Ukrainian army, you see many women. I don’t know if they represent 5, 10, perhaps not 20 percent, but certainly, there are a lot of them on the frontline. So it gives an idea of what the society probably is, and this is where I see Zelenskyy, in this regard, just reflecting society.

I feel that if tomorrow Zelenskyy would sadly die, this society is so self-organised that it would continue to function. We have some examples because, until the 24th of February, he wasn’t convinced that the war would happen. This means that the army was obviously ready - they didn't prepare to fight in one hour, they had been preparing for eight years. Everybody in Ukraine had known since 2014 that the war would resume - I mean, it never stopped - but that it would resume as a full-scale invasion. It was not a surprise. […] Zelenskyy didn't prepare himself, and he didn't want to believe the American intelligence that said six months prior that there would probably be a war. I guess this is the other part of society, the Army, the SBU (Secret Service of Ukraine) and all the people who were training themselves at the weekends in the months before the war. […] So this means that society was organising something.

I feel that Ukrainian society is in a process of mutation. But if tomorrow Zelenskyy disappeared for one reason or another, I think that you would find someone else in the team or in the political circles who would take the lead, and every part of the society would continue to do its job properly.

OR: How does the perception of Zelenskyy differ in the international community and among Ukrainians? Zelenskyy has a vivid Jewish identity and has made explicit reference to Judaism in stirring social media posts seeking to rally support for Ukraine. How do you think Zelenskyy’s Jewish identity shapes the perception of him abroad and in Ukraine? Does it have any influence per se?

RG: I think, as we already said, for Ukrainian society, Zelenskyy is not much of a hero. He’s a hero in the West, which is a small part of the world. So the perception is also divided. I saw, for example, after Zelenskyy made a mistake with the missile which landed on Polish territory, immediately in Europe, a lot of people shouted, “It’s a big mistake, Zelenskyy is a danger, he was about to push us towards a third world law,” and so on.

So we see that there is part of the population, of Western society or at least among pro-Russian elites, that has a negative perception of Zelenskyy. Often they make a lot of mistakes; they don't understand what the real meaning of the Minsk Agreement was, and they forget that Zelesnky was elected with a mandate to make peace in the Donbass, and that he was ready to compromise with Putin. I think he had a mandate, not at the expense of the sovereignty of the country, but to make some compromise, I think he was elected for that. There would have been some agreements, probably.

Now, that looks absolutely impossible, of course, because Putin also didn't make any compromises. So the perception of Zelenskyy is often poorly founded among those who are just blinded by their pro-Russian approach. Others are blinded by their pro-Western approach, so they would see a hero, and they would not see the society behind him, they would not see this societal change.

Perhaps the real question is why the West wanted to see a hero in Zelenskyy. It says more about the West than about Zelenskyy. Maybe there was some understanding that he was fighting for our values and that the West is Russia’s main target in this war since it is very close to our territory: the border for Ukraine is the border of NATO and the EU.

Zelenskyy doesn’t really speak about his Jewish identity. I think he is very secular. (I think his kids have been baptised as Orthodox Christians because of their mother.) And I see that he almost never talks about it. It could have been easy, when the Russians were saying that the war was necessary to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, Zelenskyy could have pointed out that he’s Jewish. But even that he’s used very rarely, maybe once or twice he’s spoken about it, if I remember correctly, but he doesn’t usually talk about that. I don’t think it’s so important to him: he's really a secular person in this regard. Sometimes I hear in France some experts on TV bringing up his Jewish identity, but it’s just to show that Putin’s argument is absurd.

“It's already a victory because we understand the morale of the people, and even if Ukraine suffered a military defeat, Russia would not win the mind of Ukraine.”

OR: Could you summarise everything and try to present some possible future developments for the future of Ukraine in general in this situation?

RG: I think it's difficult to say. I would say whatever I think the result will be, but we cannot know if Ukraine will be defeated. We don't know where it could come from. But it's already a victory because we understand the morale of the people, and even if Ukraine suffered a military defeat, Russia would not win the mind of Ukraine. So in this regard, I think Zelenskyy did the job of being behind the whole society, incarnating the essence of the message of what the country is. Again, he fulfilled every criterion to be a man of the “russkiy mir” (Russian world). He is first a Russian speaker (three years ago he was himself making jokes about his Ukrainian, which was terrible). He was born in Kryvyi Rih, which, as a mining town, is a stronghold of the Soviet ideology and mentality. He was born to a family of scientists, Jewish, but scientists from this region, so he had all the DNA of the “russkiy mir”. He earned dozens of millions of dollars, honestly, with his talent on the Russian market. The TV series “Sluha Narodu” was originally given a Russian name, “Sluganaroda”. He even became famous because of KVN, which is a TV competition that’s very famous in the post-Soviet world. It’s a way to shape the geopolitical space: it looks like it’s a comedy show, but in reality, it's much more political. And he started there. So his mind has every chance of being shaped by the Russian world. He didn't support the Euromaidan demonstrations in 2014 – he wasn’t against it, but he didn’t support it. And yet, he is the man who is fighting Putin at the moment. He is really obviously dedicated to the fight.

So again, it says less about Zelenskyy himself than it does about Ukrainian society. And if a President wants to run this country in their own way, you know what will happen – just look at Yanukovych. So he has no choice. It also says a lot about democracy. Ukraine is certainly far from being a democracy and Zelenskyy is certainly far from being a democratic leader. The mistakes he has made with Poroshenko are quite worrying to me. But in the meantime, he understands, and he says, that democracy is a great protection for Ukraine. When he tells Russian journalists that he will not decide on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but that there will be a referendum, this is a strong statement, how can you argue with that? It’s a referendum that he would win.

1 comment

1 Comment

Feb 25, 2023

A really terrific interview. Well done for securing it. I look foward to reading about your next Freedom Fighter.

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