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Volodymyr Zelensky: From Pretend President to Wartime Hero

Casey Kiss

Voices Editor

Photo Credits: BBC

Modern-day politics require modern-day politicians. On that note, it seems more and more that our elected officials are coming from A-list backgrounds.

Nowadays, you can’t scroll through your news feed without seeing something about the Russia-Ukraine conflict or about the presidents of both countries respectively. While I won’t delve into any specifics of the conflict as it’s a constantly developing story, there is something that has been occupying my thoughts: A new history-making political figure has emerged from this war, and that is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

He is being praised for his handling of the conflict and his impeccable ability to rally both his own people and the leaders of Western countries, prompting them to send aid. Even corporations like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Nike have suspended any and all business in Russia. I had to wonder– how is it that a newly-elected, fresh-faced politician is capable of doing so?

Zelensky was elected in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, but what I find fascinating is that shortly before this, he had a successful career in entertainment. Zelensky was a well-known comedian in Ukraine, acting in films, television and sketch comedy shows. This is not unlike former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was also heavily praised for his masterful skills in public speaking after a career in entertainment. Before making it to the Oval Office, Reagan starred in several major film productions and served as a different kind of president, being named president of the Screen Actors Guild for a number of years according to the Reagan Foundation. How is it though, that celebrity presidents are so effective in capturing their nations’ attention and minds?

Zelensky and Reagan are the main examples of celebrity leaders that I think of, though I can’t overlook former U.S president Donald Trump. Despite being extremely (extremely is barely a strong enough word) controversial, you can’t deny that his speeches captivated his audience. Coming from the mainstream success of both The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, the TV personality’s speeches were so compelling that he both prompted, and ended, the infamous insurrection on Capitol Hill on January 6th 2021.

So, is coming from an entertainment background an asset in politics? Looking at Zelensky, he makes the answer clear; absolutely. Facing the global superpower that is Russia, Zelensky has made us look beyond our regular feeds and actually care about a country that (without any connection to it) we normally wouldn’t give a second glance to.

Zelensky’s entertainment career even holds one piece of delicious irony I have to mention. Zelensky starred in the tv show Servant of the People, in which he played a high school history teacher who, guess what? Gets elected President of Ukraine. I’ve seen a few episodes (with subtitles) since it was recently added to Netflix, and let me tell you the show is poppin’.

Just like Reagan and Trump, he demonstrates a prowess in public-speaking. His speeches are moving, and according to the BBC, are written fully by Zelensky himself, with the help only of close aide Dmytro Litvin. You could take almost any line from one of his speeches and imagine an action hero like Tom Cruise saying it in an action thriller at the box office. That’s where his power as a politician lies.

An actor or comedian’s success is based on their ability to connect with their audience and manipulate their emotions through speech. Zelensky masterfully pulls on viewers' heartstrings. Recently at the 64th Grammy Awards, Zelensky prepared a short video with a speech to introduce a performance dedicated to Ukraine, which would be followed by a link to a charity for Ukrainian refugees. In this speech he reminds us, who tuned in to see celebrities in fancy outfits win tiny gold trophies, how privileged we are to be able to absent-mindedly enjoy these events because currently, the people of Ukraine can’t. A hard-hitting standout line being “What’s more opposite to music?...The silence of ruined cities and killed people”.

With every speech, he employs the skills he developed as an actor and comedian, with famous quotes like “I need ammunition, not a ride” in response to President Biden’s offer for evacuation, and “We will come first. You will come second” warning that letting Russia win here will only fuel them further.

It seems that coming from an entertainment background is an incredibly valuable asset in politics. Possessing that kind of mastery in connecting with your audience is a very powerful tool that Zelesnky has made good use of. It seems to be the best way to get people to do what you want them to. Looks like I’ll be taking a few acting classes for the next time I ask a teacher for an extension.



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