The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky. By Simon Shuster. New York: William Morrow, 2024. 384 pp.
This deeply reported biography of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky appears at a critical moment. Ukraine’s vaunted counteroffensive against Russia petered out. Politicians and taxpayers in the United States and Europe are increasingly questioning the wisdom of continuing support for Kyiv. And even though Ukrainians remain defiant, they are showing unmistakable signs of war fatigue. Now they are girding themselves for another winter of prolonged air attacks by the Russians, who can afford to conduct a long-term war of attrition. Ukraine, with its much smaller population and resources, does not have the same luxury.
Yet it is worth recalling that most experts gave Ukraine little chance of survival when Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022—much less that Ukrainian fighters would go on to inflict half a million casualties on their attackers, launch air raids against Moscow, and effectively drive the prize assets of Putin’s Black Sea Fleet out of their home port in Sevastopol. That Ukraine has held out as long as it has attests above all to the astonishing will and ingenuity of its armed forces and its remarkably active civil society.
And then there is the focus of Simon Shuster’s new book, Ukraine’s vastly underestimated president: There is no denying that Zelensky himself has been a major factor in his country’s success. In The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky, Shuster convincingly argues that the president’s biggest strength has been his capacity for wooing and shaping global public opinion. For a period in the spring of 2022, Zelensky “averaged one speech per day,” Shuster writes, “addressing venues as diverse as the parliament of South Korea, the World Bank, and the Grammy Awards,” and always tailoring his messages to his audiences. His lobbying paid off in streams of urgently needed materiel from around the world (p. 251).
Those audiences would have probably paid far less attention to Zelensky if he had left Kyiv in the early days of the war. By taking the decision to stay put, at great personal risk, the president dramatized the resolve of his own people and established a moral authority that would later enable him to plead his country’s case effectively on the international stage.
Notably, Shuster does not even mention the famous quote attributed to the president early in the war, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” presumably because it has never been reliably confirmed. But there are plenty of other equally powerful examples of Zelensky’s shrewd sense of his role as a morale-building symbol—such as when, just a few days into the invasion, he recorded a video showing himself and several of his key aides standing in the street outside his headquarters: “We’re all here,” he said. “Defending our independence, our country. That’s the way it’s going to be” (p. 33).
Shuster, who has been reporting from Ukraine and Russia for seventeen years (mostly for Time magazine), does an exemplary job of capturing the atmosphere within the Ukrainian leadership. He first interviewed Zelensky during the future president’s election campaign in 2019, and he has leveraged that access to excellent effect since, spending two weeks inside Zelensky’s bunker immediately after the invasion and speaking with the president several times since. All told, Shuster has succeeded in pulling off a nuanced and richly informed portrait of a leader at war.
Zelensky’s Kyiv walkabouts with his ministers, perfectly gauged for streaming on social media, were not a pose; Shuster offers a number of moments when Zelensky demonstrated genuine physical courage in daunting situations. In April 2021, Shuster accompanied the president on a trip to the front lines in Donbas, within artillery range of the separatist forces (p. 194). A little less than a year later, just days after the full-scale invasion, Zelensky took an unscheduled trip to the front lines, unnerving his bodyguards. “The Russian positions were close enough for a decent marksman to get a clean shot at the president,” writes Shuster, “who had no pressing reason to be that close to the front” (p. 103). In some ways, that was precisely the point. The president’s talent is not ordering soldiers around the front; it is marshaling the message on social media. “Most of the people around him were armed with assault rifles,” Shuster notes at another point. “But this was his weapon, the late-model iPhone Zelensky used to wage the biggest land war of the Information Age” (p. 302).
Like Donald Trump, Zelensky was elected to office precisely because he was able to position himself as an outsider, a novice politician known to voters primarily from his long years as a TV entertainer. (One of his most popular comedies, “Servant of the People,” depicted the unlikely ascent of an infuriated everyman to the nation’s highest office.) Zelensky was an unlikely candidate for a lodestar of Ukrainian nationalism; he grew up in a Russian-speaking family in a hardscrabble industrial city where little Ukrainian was heard. In his earlier years, he produced much of his content in Russian, for a broad post-Soviet audience, and spent a big part of his career wheeling and dealing in the Moscow-centered media world. During his presidential campaign, he advertised himself to voters as a man who could overcome the country’s internal divisions and explore new pathways to peace with the Russians, who had launched their assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty in 2014, annexing Crimea and invading the Donbas.
Three years later, as Putin unleashed his columns of tanks, Zelensky looked like a political has-been. His efforts to reach out to Moscow had been resoundingly rebuffed, and his efforts to lend substance to his grand promises of reform had yielded little. Three days before the invasion, journalist Olga Rudenko, one of his former media advisers, published an op-ed in the New York Times describing him as “dispiritingly mediocre,” citing his record of “scandals and tolerance for corruption,” and chiding him for an alleged inability to listen to critical voices.
Putin’s savage assault on Ukraine will not be the first time that war has drastically transformed a political career. The politically inexperienced Zelensky, boasting only a solid background in entertainment, now finds himself in a situation where striking images, emotional storytelling, and punchy sound bites have proved to be vital components of a shooting war. His grit in the face of a ruthless enemy and his ability to stir an audience have even prompted some to hail him as a new Winston Churchill.
The comparison deserves a closer look. Churchill in 1940 boasted a long record of experience in government, and he ran Britain’s war effort through a national-unity government that included prominent members of the opposition. In Ukraine, by contrast, martial law has enabled Zelensky to concentrate vast powers in the presidential office, seizing opportunities to marginalize or defame his political opponents—including those above any suspicion of sympathy for Russia. The government has consolidated television news into a single unified program, the Telemarathon, which I have heard some Ukrainians compare with Soviet TV. Even though Ukraine retains many of its hard-won freedoms (newspapers continue to break corruption scandals, for example), the country’s political institutions are currently enduring a harsh test.
Shuster, with his access to the president, deserves praise for exploring Zelensky’s successes as well as addressing his controversies. One of the most consequential: the president’s rocky relationship with Armed Forces commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny, whose military skill has made him the only public figure in Ukraine to come even close to the president’s sky-high approval ratings. When Zaluzhny created a foundation to solicit private donations to the military, Zelensky’s entourage immediately saw the move as a “sign of Zaluzhny’s political ambitions” (p. 260) and ultimately prevailed upon him to shut it down. Late last year, Zelensky publicly reprimanded his top general for describing the situation on the front as a “stalemate.”
Near the end of his book, Shuster wonders whether Zelensky will be able to manage his country’s shift to life after war. “I don’t know how Zelensky will handle that fraught transition,” he writes, “whether he will have the wisdom and constraint to part with the extraordinary powers granted to him under martial law, or whether he will, like so many leaders through history, find that power too addictive” (p. 315). Shuster says he sees signs that Zelensky understands the risks. When the president was presented with an overly heroic design for a postage stamp featuring his face, he nixed it: “It’s not the time,” he said, “to start a cult of personality” (p. 316).
Let us hope that Shuster’s optimism proves justified. Ukraine’s fate depends on it.
Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press