The double message in Volodymyr Zelensky’s selfie videos
The camera moves, but only a little. The man in the foreground, filming, wears an olive green jacket. The men around him too. Their expressions are serious. They stand close, arranged in the crumpled unity of the group selfie. If you happened to come across their video among so many others on a thread (a bunch of guys, a bit blurry in thumbnail form, poorly lit compared to the night) you probably wouldn’t realize what you’re witnessing : a president and his cabinet, outmatched but frank, declaring their challenge against an invasion. You probably don’t realize the deeper meaning of the refrain repeated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky throughout the 32-second video that doubles as a state of the union address: Тут—tут—tут. Right here—here—here.
The video, shot Friday night in Kiev, is urgently needed evidence: proof that Zelensky and members of his cabinet were, at the time of its filming, still in Kiev and still alive. His images testify against rumors that the president fled his city and his country. He hadn’t. And, he repeats, he will not. Statecraft, often, is scenography; Zelensky, who rose to prominence as an actor, comedian and producer, understands this better than anyone. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned the president into a performer of a different kind. Zelensky has used videos, briefs and self-portraits not only to document his continued presence in Kyiv, but also to rally his constituents to stand with him and fight back. “This is our land, our country, our children,” he said in a video posted Saturday morning. “And we will defend all of that.”
Videos, in this sense, are presidential speeches of last resort. These are attempts to preserve the first thing attackers will try to destroy when they attack: lines of communication. The videos summon, in their laconic message, the dark solidarity of the emergency. Last week, 43 million people going about their lives found themselves at the sudden mercy of a man stationed hundreds of miles away. Ukrainian citizens are vulnerable. What Zelensky’s videos mostly announce is that their leader has chosen to be vulnerable with them.
“This may be the last time you see me alive,” Zelensky reportedly said noted during a videoconference with European Union leaders on Thursday evening. He did not indulge in melodrama. One of the reports from Russia Goals in its invasion of Ukraine is to “decapitate” the country’s government, as the graphic understatement puts it; the US State Department has warned that Zelensky is a “preferred target of Russian aggression”. Many leaders who found themselves in Zelensky’s position left their respective capitals, either to rule from a distance or simply to flee the threat of violence: Just as there are no atheists in foxholes , there are few real “people” when the tanks come in and the missiles go down and the men in question have access to private jets. And yet, there is Zelensky – a figure who came to the presidency as a relative outsider now staying, by choice, inside the country. As my colleague Franklin Foer has said, “It is hard to think of another recent case in which a human being defied collective expectations for his behavior and provided such an inspiring moment of service to the people, clarifying the terms of the conflict through his example.
And he sets that example using the only medium people in crisis could hope to have at their disposal: a phone, connected to a stream. Zelensky’s videos feature no teleprompters, no camera crew – no part of the apparatus typically associated with power as a theatrical production. In the one he took on Friday evening, the thick glare of the lampposts, behind the assembled leaders, slices through several executives. At one point in the same video, the Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Chmyhal holds her phone up to the camera to show her lock screen timestamp. The move is reminiscent of how the hostages are forced to post the day’s newspaper to prove the value of their images. Corn ChmyhalThe version of is not an act of capitulation. It is an act of defiance. As of Friday evening, the heads of Ukraine’s democratically elected government were still alive, still in power, and still vowing to resist. “We’re all here,” Zelensky said. “Our soldiers are here. The citizens of the country are here.
The paradox of authenticity in electoral politics is that the minute you work to embody it, you’ve already lost the bet. But Zelensky’s videos flip the script. He speaks in direct phrases that might, in other contexts, be understood as cynical sound bites. (“I’m here. We’re not giving up,” he says in one.) Holding the camera, he stares straight into the lens, conversing with the viewer, seeming to negate the distance between him and his audience. He looks tired. He looks angry. But he doesn’t look downcast. In short, he looks the way many of his constituents do now. Ukraine, Zelensky noted in a speech Thursday, was “left alone to defend our state.” It’s another message embedded in the president’s display of reluctant bravery: he would rather have help in the fight.
As an actor, in the sitcom servant of the people, Zelensky played an ordinary guy who was elected to the presidency of Ukraine after an ad hoc rant he delivered went viral on social media. As current president, Zelensky has been used to harnessing the power of the web to communicate and persuade. He shot videos while driving through Kyiv, walking on a treadmill and ordering from a McDonald’s drive-thru. The waterfalls prepare him for this new solemn stage. Zelensky’s latest videos present him in stark contrast to the Ukrainian aggressor: here is Zelensky, on the street and in danger; there is Vladimir Putin, pulling the levers of history from afar, distant from violence and irresponsible for it. Before the invasion, Kiev resident Nazar Cherniha Recount The Washington Post that he was “not a fan” of Zelensky. But now he’s a supporter. The president’s videos, Cherniha said, are “a really good sign that we’re all together.” In the chaos of war, after all, few statements are as powerful as the one Zelensky delivered, to his people and to the world: I’m still here.