• Natalia Golysheva

Volodymir Zelenskiy: ZE master storyteller

A week on since Volodymir Zelenskiy took the Ukrainian 2019 presidential election by storm, the world is still processing the surprise leadership win of a showman with no clear political manifesto. And while speculations are ripe on what to expect from the newly elected ‘comedian’ president, it is Volodymir Zelenskiy who’s had the final laugh.

At 41 he is the youngest and the most popular leader that Ukraine elected so far, having won in a landslide victory just three months after announcing his presidential bid.

Zelenskiy openly admitted to having no strong political views. "No promises, no disappointment", - was one of the few memorable things he's said. He shunned official rallies and speeches and according to various commentators, he owes success to his on screen personae and putting lots of ‘cheerful’ videos on social media under the punchy headline of ZE.

These videos are not your typical election advertising, but high value productions, part of a clever and elaborate strategy that had apparently been planned over a number of years and delivered to kill.

“Cat in a sack”

Three and a half years ago a hit television series Servant of the People first aired on Ukrainian television, where a teacher, played by Mr Zelenskiy, accidentally became president after his expletive rant about Ukrainian corruption goes viral.

For a country where politics has long been in the hands of oligarchs, the concept was refreshing. This hugely successful show certainly made Ze, already well known for his political satire, a household name. From then on, as soon as he set his eyes on presidency, he did not need a political manifesto.

End of March, 2019 during a live televised debate two days before the second voting round, the incumbent president Poroshenko called Mr Zelenskiy a “cat in a sack” – the Russian for a “pig in a poke”, meaning that electing Mr Zelenskiy would be like taking a leap of faith into something completely unpredictable. To which Mr Zelenskiy responded: “I am not your opponent, I am your judgment”.

Colourful and metaphoric language aside, many observers noted that Mr Poroshenko had no chance of winning – neither the debate, nor the election. He was up against a professional, seasoned performer who knew one simple thing oh too well – the key to the audience’s hearts is not facts, platforms or concepts – it is emotion.

The televised standoff held at the Olympic stadium in the capital Kiev culminated when Mr Zelenskiy asked for forgiveness from every mother, every wife, every child who’d lost their loved ones during the recent military conflict - a conflict which Mr Poroshenko had been unable to put out, - and knelt down in front of the audience in a dramatic and powerful performance, which no doubt was carefully thought through. This left the incumbent with no choice but to follow, but in a desperate bid to stand out president Poroshenko faced the national flag of Ukraine, turning his back to the audience. Needless to say, this gesture was seen as symbolic.

Blurred lines

According to science, human brain does not differentiate between reality and fantasy when it connects to our experience and engages our senses – otherwise why do we cry watching movies?

The inspiring stories make us react for the same reason the real ones do – by engaging various sensual stimuli. Those stimuli are in fact stories told in a way that affects our mind, our feelings and whatever they could reach.

For the last three years Ukraine lived in a country with two governments – the real and the imaginary, TV one. What Servant of the People portrayed is the ideal future Ukraine in the hands of a regular, honest and likeable guy who bikes to work, loves his family, makes mistakes, but whose integrity and obsession with fairness brings the nation together.

This is, of course, a fairytale, and Zelenskiy, an accomplished producer and entertainer, knows that this is what audiences truly want. People have enough information and facts, what they want is faith - in something or someone who they can trust and who makes sense of the chaos.

One of the most powerful scenes in the Servant of the People is when the newly elected TV president, challenged by a journalist, shares his vision of how a Ukrainian becomes a ‘khokhol – a derogatory term used to describe Ukrainians in the Russian speaking world - through an exposure to and supporting of corruption, thus forcing the audiences to take a deep look in the mirror. This message, coming from a place of complete authenticity, did struck a chord.

While Mr Poroshenko involved confrontational rhetoric, basing his election campaign on defence against the aggressive Russian neighbour, Mr Zelenskiy arrived armed with sincerity, rooted in thirst for peace and national identity as a democratic state. By talking to the audience through his show, Zelenskiy created another sort of power all on its own. Instead of a Mission story, he offered a Vision story. And this is what Ukraine, torn by the chaos of war, poverty and corruption, is longing for.

Add to this all the tricks that filmmakers perfected over decades of trial and error to make the story more intense – the music, the close ups, the slow motion, the editor’s touch, the poetry of the opening titles – and the narrative version will likely override reality.

As president-elect Zelenskiy gets ready to take over the country, the commentators who dismissed his presidential bid because of the lack of political experience now fear that he will struggle as a politician because his fictional personae will inevitably clash against reality.

But if anything, Volodimir Zelenskiy has already proved he's good at blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

“Look at us, everything is possible”, he said as he addressed supporters and those who live in the countries of the post-Soviet space when the exit-polls overwhelmingly crowned him the new Ukrainian leader.

It is indeed, for a master storyteller.