Why Volodymyr Zelenskyy Is a More Complex Leader Than Most People Know

When Ukraine grew to become unbiased in 1991 amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was a nation looking for a nationwide thought. This wasn’t simple: The ancestors of Ukraine’s residents performed totally different roles in a nationwide historical past that included both great achievements and bloodshed. People looked for one thing past a perception of their structure that might convey them collectively throughout variations in politics and life expertise.

Ukrainians have lengthy struggled with forces that threatened to divide their society. Below Soviet rule, Moscow’s insurance policies of Russification in Ukraine had contributed to a state of affairs that made unbiased Ukraine seem divided alongside the Dnipro River, with Ukrainian audio system on one aspect and Russian audio system on the opposite. Right this moment, the truth that many Ukrainians nonetheless converse Russian in on a regular basis life is in some ways a legacy of these Soviet-era insurance policies — together with the death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians due to grain confiscation, and the summary executions of hundreds of Ukrainian artists, writers and intellectualsnot an expression of brotherhood with Russia, it doesn’t matter what the Kremlin would possibly say.

However Ukraine has never been such a binary place. Ukrainians have a lengthy multicultural historical past that features not solely ethnic Ukrainians but in addition individuals who establish as Jewish (together with Zelenskyy), Bulgarian, Crimean Tatar, Hungarian, Greek, Korean, Polish, Romani, Romanian, Russian and others, whose languages are nonetheless spoken in Ukraine right now. In his 2020 presidential New Year’s greeting, Zelenskyy acknowledged the nature of Ukraine’s diversity by talking not solely in Ukrainian, but in addition in Hungarian, Crimean Tatar and Russian.


In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine’s Donbas area underneath a thinly veiled pretext of supporting Russian-speaking separatists, Ukrainians largely united towards these violations of their nation’s territory. At the moment, Zelenskyy’s comedy troupe voiced in metaphor Ukrainians’ frustration at Russia’s incessant lies and refusal to let them go and their ache on the tepid response of the worldwide group, singing of “European ‘brothers’ who traded us for gas.”

Throughout these years, the stress of the Russian occupation of Crimea and Donbas threatened Ukrainians’ unity. Some seen a possibility to win national elections if parts of the Russified east were no longer part of Ukraine, murmuring in personal about being able to “let the Donbas go.” However even then, nonetheless working as a comic, Zelenskyy was not able to abandon his compatriots in Russia-occupied areas. Of their comedy skits, Zelenskyy and his troupe amplified their longstanding criticisms of Russian chauvinism, turning the tables to pantomime and mock Russians’ longstanding ethnic slurs, lies about Ukrainians and attitudes about Crimea.

At the moment, Zelenskyy and his comedy troupe carried out primarily within the Russian language, reaching Ukrainians who used Russian in daily life and got here from areas the place folks generally felt alienated from politics within the capital, and who beforehand had generally struggled to see themselves as sharing widespread experiences and identities with their compatriots who spoke the state language at house and in each day life. By making Ukrainians from totally different areas really feel seen and valued, Zelenskyy invited them into a patriotism that held up love of Ukraine as a central worth however did not insist on a particular ethnic or private linguistic identity. He and his troupe confirmed how Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who didn’t consider themselves as nationalists, may establish as Ukrainian patriots.

As a comic, Zelenskyy and his troupe used an method to interested by Ukraine’s previous that differed from the us-versus-them pondering that lengthy dominated some public dialogue about politics in Ukraine. Performing songs that reminded Ukrainians of shared experiences, he and his troupe not solely validated native identities, however admitted errors and imperfections, acknowledged disagreement, and fostered a generous, inclusive idea of what it meant to be Ukrainian.

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