Volodymyr Zelensky has mastered the direct appeal
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has shaped a visual narrative about the power of vulnerability, the persuasiveness of simplicity and the public’s collective need to believe that modest men can rise to meet any moment. Eight days into a war for his nation’s sovereignty, the world has seen a leader transform as homes, monuments and civilians have been attacked.
In the final week of February, with nearly 200,000 Russian troops amassed at his country’s border, Zelensky took his case for peace to the Russian people after his outreach to their president was met with silence. In a video plea, during which he acknowledged there was slim chance that his words would be broadcast on Russian television, he looked like most any other statesman in the West. He was dressed in a dark suit with a matching tie. His white shirt with its spread collar was pristine and crisp. One could just make out a small lavaliere microphone attached to his jacket lapel, and his clean-shaven face was warmly and evenly lit.
As he spoke directly into the camera, one could see the nation’s flag in the background, as well as the outlines of its geography laid out on a map. These two elements combine to define the country as a matter of physical territory and psychic aspiration. Everything about the framing, the setting and the costuming depicts Zelensky as the consummate politician.
But when he began to speak, his words chipped away at that notion. “I am addressing you not as a president,” he said in Russian. “I am addressing you as a citizen of Ukraine.”
Zelensky seemed to understand that in 2022, when wartime diplomacy is practised through video calls and social-media posts, eloquence lies somewhere between controlled formality and uncontrolled emotion. And so, in only a few days, he has defined himself as singularly responsible for the fate of his country but also as a proud Everyman struggling to defend it. In his public statements, the President is just another citizen trying desperately to do the right thing, to uphold the principles of democracy, to survive. His image is that of a profoundly human contradiction.
When Zelensky addresses his countrymen and the world, his words are straightforward. He is noticeably plain-spoken. It is the rhythm of his remarks that is striking. His rhetoric doesn’t soar, but his sentences have the beats of poetry.
“We know for sure that we don't need the war,” Zelensky said. “Not a Cold War, not a hot war, not a hybrid one.” He shifts on his feet. He sniffles. These are grace notes of imperfection.
In an ever-expanding series of video missives and addresses in Ukrainian, Zelensky speaks in triptychs, in trios of short, declarative sentences or invigorating fragments. He pounds on a single word to make his point. His phrasing keeps time like a snare drum. Over the days, the tie vanishes. The suit is stripped away. The glow of a rested, well-fed man dulls. The personal trappings of hierarchical authority have been cast aside.
In a post to social media on the day the borders were breached and explosions erupted in Ukrainian cities, Zelensky asked Ukrainians to remain calm. He’s tieless. He’s still in his suit; his white shirt is tidy. But he no longer looks neatly, cleanly shaven. His stance is far more informal as he looks down into the camera. He promises his countrymen that the Government has not lost its footing. The Government is functioning. On the citizens’ behalf, the system was working.
“We are working; the army is working. The entire security and defence sector of Ukraine is working,” Zelensky said.
Conditions worsened. A day after fighting began, false rumours circulated that Zelensky had fled his own country. He and his family had been marked by the Russians for capture or death. The United States offered him a way out, but he rejected that offer with the now famous retort: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” And Zelensky posted again. He appears to be outside, but it is unnervingly quiet in Kyiv, the country’s capital and its largest city, except for the sound of his voice. The sky is dark, but he and the Government ministers who surround him like a chorus are cast in a golden aura from the surrounding lights. Zelensky is no longer in a suit. He’s in a military drab T-shirt and jacket. The camera angle shifts as he accounts for each man who is present. And the word that Zelensky repeats like an incantation? Here.
Where once his words emphasised the actions of the Ukrainian Government, he now simply reassures the country that the Government has not vanished; he has not deserted them. It is here. He is here. He says the word nine times, here, here. Again and again. “All of us are here. Our military is here; citizens and society are here,” he announced. And that alone is a kind of triumph.
Four days have gone by, and the casualties have mounted and civilians have taken up arms or fled in search of shelter. Zelensky delivers a video address to the European Parliament on March 1. In Brussels, the men and women in their suits and ties sit at their desks in the brightly lit safety of their auditorium and look up at video monitors. Many of them wear ribbons in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag. The pins are meant to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people, but attaching a colourful ribbon to one’s lapel — pink for breast cancer, red for Aids, green for the environment, purple for pancreatic cancer and Alzheimer’s and epilepsy — is such a common and easy act. Is there any meaning left in a ribbon?
Zelensky wears his now familiar olive drab T-shirt in a video call that is fuzzy and spare and grim. His backdrop looks as grey as a storm cloud. The yellow of the Ukrainian flag over his right shoulder is the only glimmer of light. Zelensky has a scruffy beard, and as he speaks, he raises his arms in a gesture of exasperation. He chops the air with his hands. He doesn’t look dishevelled as much as he looks like a man who has shed all the layers of pretence, decorum and diplomatic obtuseness until what remains is an open wound of dire truth. Zelensky’s vulnerability is evident; he’s not struggling to conceal it.
Off camera, the interpreter’s voice breaks as Zelensky describes the killing of children and the courage of civilians. Listeners can hear a sharp inhalation of breath as if the interpreter is hoping that a jolt of oxygen might settle the emotions. “We’re fighting,” Zelensky said with an awkward fervour. “Just for our land and for our freedom.”
On Wednesday, Zelensky looked exhausted. He was wearing his uniform of a T-shirt. But he was speaking from a lectern with the Ukrainian coat of arms affixed to the front. It was positioned in front of a backdrop on which “Office of the President of Ukraine” was written over and over and the coat of arms was imprinted in a repetitive pattern. The country’s flag was there next to him, too. The image resonated like a steely declaration of existence, a visual defence for what he warned that Russian troops were trying to do. “They all have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all.” Erase.
That will not happen, Zelensky said. The President was here. And he was still working.
• Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press