Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Ronald Reagan remake
Otto English is the pen name used by Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright based in London.
Waging a war is, in no small part, about establishing a narrative, and nobody knew that better than Winston Churchill. In the spring and summer of 1940, following the retreat from Dunkirk, the British Prime Minister brilliantly delineated the parameters of the conflict, as he set plucky Britain, standing up for all that was good, against the encroaching menace of Nazi Germany.
Today, six weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has proved similarly able with words and storytelling. Not only has he defied his early critics, demonstrating leadership of a truly outstanding caliber, he has embraced the power of narrative in times of war, much to his advantage.
The narrative arc that both Churchill and Zelenskyy have tapped into is known among playwrights and story tellers as “Overcoming the Monster.” It’s probably the oldest story of all. The tale is central to Theseus and the Minotaur, George and the Dragon, Luke Skywalker and the Death Star, and it goes like this: The hero hears about a threatening monster, the hero sets out to kill said monster, the hero is nearly overwhelmed by the task but finally returns triumphant.
In the current update to the age-old tale, the Ukrainian president has cast himself as our knightly protagonist, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as the monster — and credit to his storytelling few but the Russian leader’s most gullible supporters now see it in any other light.
Zelenskyy’s instinctive understanding of this narrative is matched only by his mastery of the medium through which he is telling it. His video messages and photos on Telegram, Twitter and Instagram have effectively neutralized Putin’s glossy billion-dollar Russia Today propaganda machine. Like all the best social media influencers, the bearded president is projecting a hugely appealing version of himself. He comes across as charming, charismatic, defiant and — crucially — normal. Vladimir Putin could be described with many adjectives — but “normal” would not be one of them.
If wars were fought and won on narrative alone, then Zelenskyy would already be holding the dragon’s head. But of course, it is not. In the last week alone, horrifying evidence has emerged of Russian war crimes and atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere. And with Putin clearly intent on dragging the war out until he can be seen to have “won” something, the final scenes of this terrible saga remain unwritten. The only certainty is that there will be many dark chapters ahead before peace can come again for the Ukrainian people.
This, in itself, poses a headache for Zelenskyy — because the longer the war drags on, the greater the risk of the global audience losing interest. Aware of that, right from the start, the president has taken his show out on the road, with a virtual tour of global parliaments that has earned him rave reviews. Much of that adulation rests on his approach, as Zelenskyy has done what all great writers and performers do. He has thought, first and foremost, about his audience.
On March 1, less than a week into the invasion, Zelenskyy addressed the European Parliament. Knowing precisely which buttons to push, he framed his struggle as one between democratic, progressive European values and those of the regressive tyrant Putin.
A week later, he appeared before British MPs in the House of Commons and, once again, sounded all the right notes. Making a direct reference to Churchill’s most famous wartime address, he pledged to “fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets,” and was given a much-deserved standing ovation.
On March 17, a day after the airstrike on the Mariupol theater, Zelenskyy gave yet another speech to the German Bundestag, in which he called upon MPs to help him “tear down the wall.”
There was a rare misstep on March 20, when, during an address to the Israeli parliament, Zelenskyy compared the Ukrainian people’s plight to that of the Jews in the Holocaust. But otherwise, his speeches to the Japanese, Italian, Canadian and French parliaments have all been extremely well-received — largely because he has flattered his audiences by making the script relevant to their points of reference.
Zelenskyy sits in a long tradition of writers turned politicians.
Prior to entering parliament in 1837, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli spent his days writing best-selling novels. United States President Theodore Roosevelt made his name with a book on the creation of the American navy; Churchill combined his day job with writing fiction and non-fiction (although it was sometimes hard to divine which was which); Czech playwright Vaclav Havel became his country’s first post-communist era president; and, of course, U.S. President Barack Obama had several books under his belt before he ran for Congress.
A good writer is, first and foremost, a good communicator. But the best writers are capable of setting out a vision, and in this, Zelenskyy, much like those before him, has proved himself a master.
It is perhaps unsurprising that over the years quite a few actors have also made it to the top of the political pile, given the natural crossover between the trades. Notable mentions include the Oscar-winning Labour MP Glenda Jackson, former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of over 100 films, former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, and the one-time Mayor of Carmel, California, Clint Eastwood.
Then, of course, there is Ronald Reagan, who, in many ways, set the blueprint for Zelenskyy. As an actor, Reagan won his place in the American public’s heart by playing genial all-American heroes, and he carried on playing that role right through his time as governor of California, and later during his two presidential terms.
Like Zelenskyy, Reagan was a brilliant communicator who had the gift of cutting straight to his people’s core. And as with the Ukrainian leader, he mostly scripted his own lines and found, in his political career, his greatest and most memorable role. Adeptly setting out a compelling “picket fence” vision for his country as the Cold War burned to its end, the camera-savvy Reagan crafted a narrative that played far beyond the borders of his nation, transforming the U.S. into the “shining city on the hill” — a land of opportunity, hope and freedom whose innate optimism contrasted distinctly with the “Evil Empire” that was the USSR.
Zelenskyy is leading his people through a far darker series of events than Reagan ever faced — but, ultimately, the storyboard remains the same. The Ukrainian President’s genius has been to take the truth of his nation’s struggle and package it for global consumption, his once-derided showmanship turning out to be his greatest tactical weapon.
The world is now rooting for him and his people. But this is not a Hollywood film, and there is no guarantee of a happy ending. Zelenskyy has thus far defied his critics and won global plaudits, but that by itself is, unfortunately, not enough. He still needs to slay the monster and return triumphant, if his people can live happily ever after.