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Zelensky’s past as an entertainer may have prepared him for his most crucial role

Admirers worldwide are discovering the full spectrum of the Ukrainian leader’s appeal, from clips of his comedy, his dancing and his voicing of Paddington.

From satirical comedy to dancing and even voicing Paddington Bear, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky had a pre-presidential career like few others. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
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The video, posted the day after Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, is lit in sepia tones. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stands in the middle of a street in his war-rattled nation with several other Ukrainian officials.

“We are all here, defending our independence, our country. And it will stay that way,” Zelensky says in Ukrainian. “Glory to the men and women defending us. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”

The clip, which went up Friday and has been endlessly shared, looks like something out of an action flick — particularly the version that has been overdubbed with “Shook Ones, Part II” by rap duo Mobb Deep, which has been viewed more than 6 million times. Noted one Twitter user, “I can just see the movie version of this video in my head.”

That may not be coincidental. Before Zelensky became the president of Ukraine in May 2019, he was a comedian and actor, something of an all-purpose celebrity in the country. Now, he’s become a wartime hero, a leader who refuses to flee his country despite the Russian onslaught of the capital city of Kyiv, in the biggest European conflict since World War II.

Video clips from his past life have begun circulating on social media, including his winning Ukraine’s first season of “Dancing With the Stars” and voicing Paddington Bear for the local cuts of the movies. While they might seem jarring in light of the current war, his years as an entertainer seem to have prepared him for this moment. Since Russia’s invasion, Zelensky has continued posting videos meant to inspire and rally Ukrainians — and the rest of the world — to great fanfare.

“I think Zelensky’s past as an actor and comedian is integral to his management of the situation at hand right now. He’s used to being in front of a camera. He’s used to performing,” said Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s school of journalism. “While before this conflict his poll numbers were pretty low, they’ve skyrocketed. And that’s because he’s been able to use his strengths during this conflict.”

Woolley pointed out that there’s a lengthy history of successful TV or film stars going on to succeed in politics, including former presidents Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Politics, particularly politics today, is a game of performance,” Woolley said. “It’s a game of knowing what to say and when and how, and Zelensky seems to be hitting the nail on the head here.”

Woolley also pointed out that Zelensky “almost speaks in quotes,” recalling politicians such as Barack Obama and Winston Churchill, “dropping these turns of phrase that are highly memorable.” When the United States offered to evacuate him from Ukraine, for example, Zelensky reportedly retorted, in Ukrainian, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

“It frankly speaks to what the Ukrainian people want and need to hear,” Woolley said.

Before taking office, Zelensky had been a household name in Ukraine for decades. Nataliya Roman, a former television reporter in Ukraine who’s now a journalism professor at the University of North Florida, said Zelensky rose to prominence in part by doing sketches on comedy-competition shows in the late 1990s and the 2000s. In 2005, his success on that front earned him his own sketch series, “Evening Quarter,” which Roman described as an immensely popular “social and political satire” show, beloved for its bravery at a time “when freedom of speech was an issue in Ukraine.”

Over the next few years, his career blossomed: In addition to winning “Dancing With the Stars” and voicing Paddington, Zelensky also starred in movies, such as “Rzhevskiy protiv Napoleona” (“Corporal vs. Napoleon”), in which he portrays a womanizing Napoleon Bonaparte during his invasion of — yes — Russia.

But perhaps his most influential role came in 2015, when he began starring in the TV series “Servant of the People” as a high school history teacher who gets elected president after a video of him eloquently criticizing the political status quo goes viral.

Michael Marion Naydan, a professor of Ukrainian Studies at Penn State, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that Zelensky’s portrayal of an everyman becoming a great leader set him apart from both “the stiff and stodgy Ukrainian politicians in power and those eventually running against him in the presidential election.”

Naydan compared Zelensky’s performance to that of Kevin Kline in the 1993 movie “Dave,” which follows an ordinary guy who, in an unlikely twist of fate, ascends to the American presidency. Of course, what happened next in Ukraine would be akin to the American populace loving “Dave” enough to actually elect a President Kline.

When Zelensky announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2019, Roman says, some were skeptical — the country’s intellectual elites, in particular. But one popular line of thought, according to Roman, boiled down to, “We have tried this with traditional politicians. It did not work out. Let’s see what this guy can do.”

Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to remain in Ukraine as Russia continues its advance. The president's past life as an actor may have prepared him for this moment. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

And while Roman recalled that Zelensky’s official policy positions during his campaign were “vague,” she said the content of “Servant of the People” convinced many Ukrainians that Zelensky was sensitive to the issues real Ukrainians faced. As Roman wrote in a 2021 paper published in the European Journal of Communication, the final episodes of “Servant of the People” were released just days before the first round of Ukrainian presidential elections in 2019. “This overlapping of his fictional televised presidency with his ongoing presidential campaign,” she wrote, “may have resulted in some voters having difficulty separating his television character’s characteristics with the actor’s real characteristics.”

Since the invasion, many Americans have compared Zelensky to Jon Stewart, the comedian best known for hosting Comedy Central’s satirical “news” program “The Daily Show.” But where Stewart’s comedy on the series tended to be political, Zelensky’s sometimes veered into much goofier territory — more like Jimmy Fallon. One clip, for example, finds him and four other gentlemen standing behind a piano, their pants around their ankles. They proceed to pretend to play the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” with … well, let’s just say without using their hands.

Rather than diminish his leadership, the viral clips of his former life only serve to humanize him, said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor in Texas A&M University’s department of communication and author of “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”

They make “him feel approachable,” Mercieca said, particularly juxtaposed with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who “has always portrayed himself as an authoritarian leader who must be obeyed and respect.” The videos contrast with images of Putin that show him sitting at the end of long, empty tables — far from anyone else.

The clips make Zelensky “seem that much more heroic. That this average guy, almost, this comedian, someone who would be more like the court jester … has turned out to be this fearless leader. And I think the world is impressed with that.”

Indeed, Zelensky has quickly become a global celebrity, his name and image popping up where you’d least expect it. The Instagram account first_dogs_usa, which is dedicated to the furry friends of the White House, posted a photo of Zelensky in workout clothes, sitting on a squat rack with dogs on either side of him. “Just when we thought we know all the good things about President 🇺🇦Volodymyr Zelensky🇺🇦 and his impeccable character, we stumbled pawcross this photo of him and his puppers,” reads the caption.

On Sunday night, Michael Keaton accepted a Screen Actors Guild Award and shouted out Zelensky, “a fellow actor” who is “fighting the fight.” On Tuesday, comedian Cameron Esposito tweeted, “So far I have insufferably reminded 8 ppl today that Zelenskyy is a comedian. HE MAKES ME FEEL PROUD OK.”

On social media, many people have imagined Zelensky as a superhero, a member of Marvel’s Avengers. Others envisioned a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical about him. One viral tweet read, “BREAKING: every woman in your life now has at least a small crush on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”

Though praise of the president feels ubiquitous online, some have criticized the over-the-top comparisons as tone-deaf or inappropriate. Others have noted that the people of Ukraine, who are under attack, probably aren’t scrolling through Twitter and watching videos of their president on “Dancing with the Stars.”

But also, in Zelensky’s home country, “now everybody perceives him as a leader,” Roman said. “His previous career as a comedian, it’s not forgotten. But Ukrainians are not perceiving him anymore like a comedian. He’s a serious guy who’s defending the country.”

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