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The Unlikely Showman

The Unlikely Showman

Simon Shuster's new Zelensky biography portrays a uniquely 21st-century leader whose fame is part fact, part myth.

Michael Kimmage
The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky
by Simon Shuster (William Morrow, 384 pp., $26.39)

Volodymyr Zelensky is among the world’s most famous political figures. Already he had an unlikely path to becoming Ukraine’s president in 2019. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, his physical and moral courage was extraordinary. The David to Putin’s Goliath, he is no less a uniquely 21st- century leader, using his “late-model iPhone… to wage the biggest land war of the Information Age,” as the journalist Simon Shuster writes in his new book, The Showman: Inside the Invasion that Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky’s command of contemporary mass media helped to produce the external support that, in the months following Russia’s invasion, allowed Ukraine to survive.

Zelensky’s fame has been generated by fact and myth. A fact is that his country was attacked for no legitimate reason, and that Russia has regularly targeted Ukrainian civilians in its brutal war. A fact is that Ukraine has defended itself valiantly, showing Russia’s military machine to be severely limited. Interwoven with fact, one myth is that Zelensky personifies democracy, having become synonymous with the future course of democracy in Europe—and perhaps the world over. It is a potent myth, combining the struggle of good against evil and light against darkness with the struggle of democracy against authoritarianism. Understood as myth, Zelensky is as much democracy’s savior as he is Ukraine’s savior. He is a man elevated by the majesty of having a mission.

Shuster’s book is not a take-down of Zelensky. It honors all that Zelensky has done for his country and for Europe, while tracing Zelensky’s personal evolution from actor and producer to wartime leader. Yet Shuster is among the first credible Western journalists to eschew and in some ways to dismantle the Zelensky myth. To this end, Shuster raises three separate questions in The Showman: whether there is an authoritarian streak in Zelensky’s political career; whether he may have mishandled the lead-up to the war; and whether he may excel more at managing the war’s media cadences than at setting achievable strategic objectives. Given Zelensky’s centrality to the war effort, a candid assessment of his career is not a luxury that should be saved for the postwar era. It is a necessity of the present moment.

In 2014, Ukraine underwent the Maidan Revolution, the Maidan being Kyiv’s central square. Volodymyr Zelensky kept his distance from it, spending much of that year in Moscow, where his career was flourishing. He was a post-Soviet– and neo-Soviet– celebrity who could appeal to audiences in Russia and Ukraine. Speaking to Ukrainian troops in 2014, Zelensky felt a new political vocation stirring within him, Shuster points out. Zelensky acted on this instinct a year later by creating and starring in a television series, Servant of the People, about a virtuous history teacher-turned-president of Ukraine. It ran for three years, after which Zelensky began a real-life presidential campaign, becoming president in May 2019 at a time when “the vast majority of Ukrainians wanted their leaders to pursue peace with Russia,” Shuster writes. The majority of Ukrainians also wanted a president who was not an oligarch, and who was not mired in the political depredations of the pre-Maidan past. At age forty-one, Zelensky fit the bill.

The first three years in which Zelensky was Ukraine’s president, when Ukraine was not enmeshed in large-scale war, were years of struggle. He did not strike a deal with Putin, who gave him too little to work with and had little discernible interest in a sustainable peace: in Ukraine, a vocal constituency would brook no compromise with Russia. Shuster’s Zelensky is a hard-edged competitor. Having bested Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s first president after the Maidan Revolution, Zelensky came up against Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend of Putin’s and someone whose political party “had taken a narrow lead” in the polls in late 2020. In February 2021, the government banned three television stations aligned with Medvedchuk. “There was no legal precedent for such a move in Ukraine,” Shuster observes, though (and Shuster glosses over this) these stations were the purveyors of ugly propaganda. The Biden Administration greeted Zelensky’s move warmly.

Shuster begins his book on the morning that the February 2022 war began, and he portrays a wartime Zelensky who is masterful. Such mastery was all the more startling given Zelensky’s apparent conviction—until a day or two before the Russian invasion—that war would not happen. Leaders from France, Germany, and other European countries had “assured him that the American predictions of an invasion were overblown.” Zelensky may have anticipated a pinprick strike by Russia but not anything more—“until the final hours.” Zelensky’s misreading of the situation had a trickle-down effect. “Despite the warnings from the CIA,” Shuster states, “the Russian assault on Hostomel [airport] caught the [Ukrainian] military by surprise.” Had the Russians taken Hostomel, they might have been able to take Kyiv and to win the war in the opening days. 

The motif of Zelensky as showman cuts two ways for Shuster. Zelensky is not just an exceptional communicator. He is exceptionally human in his manner of communication. Zelensky himself prefers George Orwell and Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill, to whom Zelensky is so often compared. Orwell diagnosed the many maladies of modern propaganda, focusing on simplicity of language, which informs Zelensky’s speeches and videos. In his 1940 film, The Great Dictator, Chaplin applied humor and the decency of an everyman to the horrors of dictatorship. Zelensky does this regularly as well. He contrasts his own everyman self, unshaven and modestly dressed, to the cold and contemptuous formalities of Vladimir Putin, isolated from all humanity in the gilded Kremlin. Thus does Zelensky get people to identify with Ukraine.

The open question is not whether Zelensky has too little talent for showmanship. It is whether he is too reliant on showmanship and whether showmanship might at times detract from the Ukrainian war effort. Zelensky’s philosophizing to Shuster, who has spent a considerable amount of time speaking and traveling with Zelensky, is illuminating: “‘You have to be winning, because people love winners,’” Zelensky says toward the beginning of the war. “‘It’s bad guys attacking good guys, and good guys winning. That’s what people love… Of course it’s true that America supports Ukraine because of our shared values, but that supports starts to weaken when they don’t see results.’” Zelensky’s preferred narrative came to fruition in the first six months of the war, when Ukrainians rose up to defend their country, pulling off one surprise victory after another. This narrative of the war, however, no longer obtains.

Showmanship figures in the tension between Zelensky and Valery Zaluzhny, whom Zelensky asked to lead Ukraine’s military in 2021. Zaluzhny proves a pivotal and charismatic general, and one, according to Shuster, who “had earned enough adoration among voters in the first months of the invasion to challenge Zelensky in a presidential race.” Zaluzhny and Zelensky differed, in the fall of 2022, about whether to strike back at Russian forces in the South, as Zaluzhny preferred, or in the East. Zelensky opted for the East first and then the South, because he rightly saw the potential in the East for a tremendous media coup, for which Zaluzhny was not in the position to take credit. Zelensky gave the United States what it wanted. For the next year, the United States delivered massive amounts of aid. Ultimately, Ukraine made modest progress in the South, where it has recently returned to defense. Shuster implies that Zaluzhny, not Zelensky, may have been right about the best course of action.

In The Showman, Zelensky’s obsession with appearances, with plotting and with media, casts a shadow on domestic Ukrainian politics. That was the case before the war, when Zelensky pulled the rug out from under Medvedchuk—because he was pro-Russian when Russia was still at war with Ukraine, but also because he was a political adversary. During the war, the government has consolidated its control over media coverage, and Zelensky has not been “shy about calling the [television] studio to complain if the programming made Zelensky look bad or veered too far from the official line,” Shuster writes. “As a result, the television news served up a sanitized picture of the president.” Shuster’s reporting here is worrisome on its surface, and is especially worrisome in light of the postponed presidential election, which had been scheduled for 2024. Because Ukraine is under martial law, this will not take place in the immediate future. Zelensky is a decent man and a patriot. Nevertheless, he wields a power that may be insufficiently checked by Ukraine’s judiciary, by its legislature, and by its fourth estate.

Zelensky the Charlie Chaplin admirer will not become the dictator of Ukraine. Shuster eloquently describes him as someone who has “set out to break a cycle of imperial oppression that began generations before he was born.” The nobility of this venture is neither an act nor a showman’s trick; it is not made for television. Zelensky’s daring in resisting the imperial oppression is proverbial. Almost two years into the war, however, Zelensky’s task remains crushingly difficult: he must maintain outside support, on which Ukraine has become dependent, and must marshal Ukraine’s existing resources to secure the safety and independence of its citizens. As Zaluzhny tells Shuster, it will take years and perhaps decades for Ukraine to subdue the Russian threat. The war has the aura of being interminable, while the attention of those who are not Ukrainian is dissipating. Zelensky’s showmanship has clearly started to wear thin.

Going forward, Ukraine’s success will depend on Zelensky pivoting in his role. He will have to be less invested in showmanship, less preoccupied with momentary victories, and he will have to devote himself to the careful balancing of ends and means, to the economic and military prioritization that will boost Ukraine’s fortunes in a long war of attrition. These are not efforts that his government has neglected, but they will demand every bit of energy and creativity Zelensky can bring to them. Outside of Ukraine, it would be better to place the Ukrainian people rather than their president on a pedestal, to center the ethical substance of the war on their heroism and on their sacrifices, and to subject Zelensky to the critical inquiry and uninhibited debate that are the hallmarks of a democratic culture. Fortuitously, The Showman by Simon Shuster has already begun this process. For Zelensky’s and for Ukraine’s sake, it should continue apace.

Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His book, Collisions: The War in Ukraine and the Origins of the New Global Instability, is due out with Oxford University Press in March 2024.

Image: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky visits the advanced checkpoint of the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade in Avdiivka.(Flickr: President of Ukraine)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyCultureEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaPolitical PhilosophyUkraineBook Reviews