What I learned from dinner with Volodymyr Zelensky
The haggard face of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has hit the headlines in recent days. The courage he has shown since Russia invaded his country has been remarkable and, given his past life as an actor, has surprised many. However, when I see his photo, another image comes to mind.
Three years ago, I attended a conference on political economy in Kyiv, where Zelensky was to give an after-dinner speech. I arrived expecting a sober speech on politics, similar to that given by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko the year before.
Instead, Zelensky, who came to power on a populist, anti-establishment ticket, embarked on a surreal double act in which he played the role he held before becoming president – that of the fictional president in the very popular Ukrainian TV show servant of the people. To make matters even weirder, his interviewer was “played” by the actor who had replaced Zelensky on the show.
Then, as the dinner crowd of economists, diplomats and business leaders watched in amazement, the two roles swapped – and Zelensky, the current president, interviewed his fictional counterpart, cracking jokes like: “If the UK does not want to be in the EU, can we take their place? Some onlookers were confused. But it was wonderfully fun. And when I chatted with Zelensky later, he was seething with mischievous glee at having overturned the traditional image of a political leader.
« Zelensky on geopolitics [that night] just made us laugh,” recalls Ursula Woolley, a Ukrainian friend and expert who was also at the dinner. “But underneath it was serious then – and it’s completely serious now.” The reason, she explains, is that “in Moscow, spin-docs used postmodern ideas to disrupt people’s minds, disempower the public and help control politics. In Ukraine, the postmodern is more about surreal humor, creative resistance to encroaching Russian autocracy, and moving far beyond 20th century identity politics.
Today, with the country under attack and Zelensky in acute personal danger, that seems to sum up a larger point about why the whole world must support Ukraine in its current fight.
What the country’s leaders have fought to create in recent years is a vision of a nascent nation that subverts many traditional Soviet norms and “nationalism”. It was not easy, as I first realized in the 1980s, when I studied Russian in Moscow before enrolling in a doctoral exchange program to study the cultures Soviets.
At the time, my language teacher said that the roots of the word “Ukraine” came from two Russian words: you (“by” or “to”) and Krai (edge/corner/limit) – literally “at the edge”. Reflecting a legacy of imperialism, she thus presented Ukraine as “the border regions” of the Russian world, an idea that Putin took to horrific extremes.
I later realized how offensive that “border” tag was. The people of Ukraine consider it a country in its own right. Indeed, the modern Ukrainian government actively discourages the use of the word “the” next to its name. And, since Ukraine is “on the edge” of everything today, they increasingly want it to be Europe. Or as Andrii Khlyvniuk, the Ukrainian rap star, observed this week: “They [the west] need us as a shield to protect” the values defended by the West and Ukraine, such as “equal rights for all, the rule of law… [and] human rights first.
This creates a different sense of nationality than many other former Soviet republics. Putin’s vision of Russian nationalism is authoritarian, exclusive and ethnically defined. Ukraine may have drifted in this direction at times as well; as elsewhere in Europe, its history has been characterized by episodes of violent racism and anti-Semitism. But Zelensky’s rise reflects new currents. He is Jewish and a native Russian speaker, whose initially less than perfect Ukrainian was mocked by Poroshenko during the election campaign.
When the Ukrainian government tried to restrict Russian-language films a few years ago, Zelensky opposed the measure, I’m told. More recently, his government has tried to avoid demonizing its opponents. This week, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN expressed his empathy for the Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine. Last week, Zelensky posted an impassioned address on YouTube where he claimed it was wrong to say that Ukrainians “hate Russian culture”. “How can you hate a culture? A culture ? He asked. “Neighbors always enrich each other. It’s as postmodern as the dinner sketch.
A cynic might argue that these inclusive ideals could still crumble amid the brutality of a Russian invasion. I desperately hope not. A nation that exists “on the edge” is a good beacon for liberal values in an age of globalization, as is a leader steeped in comedy who knows that humor can soften hatred. They both deserve our help.
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