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How Volodymyr Zelensky went from comedian to anti-corruption Ukrainian President

Born in the then-Soviet Union Kryvyi Rih (also known as Krivoy Rog)—the largest city in central Ukraine and the seventh most populous one in the country—Volodymyr Zelensky, before getting elected as president in May 2019, was mostly known as an actor and comedian as well as the founder of the production company Kvartal 95 Studio. It is through a series of unlikely, almost cinematic, events that Zelensky found his way to becoming Ukraine’s president. Let’s get into it, shall we?

Zelensky played the role of Ukraine’s president before becoming it

Among other TV shows and movies Kvartal 95 Studio produced was Servant of the People, a Ukrainian political satire comedy television series created and produced by Zelensky himself. The actor-turned-political figure also starred in it as Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a high-school history teacher in his thirties who is unexpectedly elected president of Ukraine after a viral video filmed by one of his students shows him making a profane rant against government corruption in his country.

The series aired from 2015 to 2019 and was immensely popular in the country. Shortly after, a real-life political party bearing the same name as the TV show was launched in March 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95 Studio. Let’s take a minute to pause here and process things. Zelensky’s fictional presidential character led him to create his own real political party, also named Servant of the People—promoting the same messages the character from the show originally did. It’s safe to say that Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger have nothing on the man.

He then went on to announce his candidacy for the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election on the evening of 31 December 2018, alongside the New Year’s Eve address of former President Petro Poroshenko. Previously considered a political outsider, Zelensky had since become one of the frontrunners in opinion polls for the election. He, as we know, ended up winning the election with 73.2 per cent of the vote in the second round, defeating Poroshenko.

This is where things get interesting—Zelensky identifies as a populist, meaning he has positioned himself as an anti-establishment and anti-corruption figure. This stance is part of why Russia is currently invading Ukraine.

“You don’t need experience to be president. You just need to be a decent human being.”

An anti-corruption and anti-oligarch president

After being inaugurated on 20 May 2019 and becoming the first Jewish president of Ukraine, Zelensky presented a key initiative on reintroducing criminal liability for illegal enrichment. Though it was eventually refused on 6 June, a similar bill proposed by a group of deputies was added to the parliament’s agenda. Around the same time, it was announced that the president’s third major initiative—which seeks to remove immunity from lawmakers, diplomats and judges—would be submitted after the July 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary election.

In January 2021, parliament passed a bill updating and reforming Ukraine’s referendum laws, which the country’s Constitutional Court had declared unconstitutional back in 2018. Fixing the referendum law had been one of Zelensky’s campaign promises.

As a native Russian speaker, Zelensky has been supported by millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainian voters who had felt disenfranchised by previous administrations. It is this same alienation that Russia (or more accurately its president, Vladimir Putin) has tried to exploit by supporting pro-Russia Ukrainian separatists. The mere fact that Ukraine is a democracy has been threatening to the Kremlin and Russian officials have often accused Zelensky of being a Western ‘marionette’.

Though he managed to crack down on Ukraine’s oligarch elite—which was still heavily criticised by his opposition as an attempt to strengthen his presidential powers behind a facade of populist rhetoric—Zelensky failed to deliver on his biggest campaign promise: to end the long-simmering war between government forces and the Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s East.

The conflict became critical after Russia officially recognised the breakaway territories, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. The move paved the way for the invasion only days later.

Where’s the Ukrainian president now?

Though he was slow to get around to it, appearing too calm when he first spoke publicly about a nearing invasion of his people on 19 January, Zelensky has now morphed into a wartime leader who (at least for now) is being supported by Ukrainian society, including his opponents.

“No Ukrainian president has ever dealt with a full-on invasion on his territory,” Valentyn Gladkykh, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told NBC News. “Having encountered the unprecedented threat, Zelenskyy has shown his best side.”

The president vowed to remain in Kyiv as missiles pounded the capital and Russian forces pushed inward. On Tuesday 1 March, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said during a broadcast marathon airing on Ukrainian TV channels that officials were recently tipped off that a unit of Kadyrovites (elite Chechen special forces) was on its way to kill Zelensky. After Ukrainian officials were informed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the Chechen special forces were killed Saturday 26 February on the outskirts of Kyiv, Danilov revealed.

“We are well aware of the special operation that was to take place directly by the Kadyrovites to eliminate our president. And I can say that we have received information from the FSB, who today do not want to take part in this bloody war,” Danilov said. “And thanks to this, the Kadyrov elite group was destroyed, which came here to eliminate our president.”

Faced with few options as the Russian offensive intensifies, as of now, Zelensky remains defiant.

Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine comes an unsettling social media trend: video warcore

The horrors surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine are hard to miss—as the tragedies rise, so do the views on TikTok videos. Amid the trauma of this war comes a form of ‘warcore’ content we have never experienced before. Beginning as a defining term for a fashion trend, it appears that the aestheticisation of war now comes in video format.

Fashion’s problematic warcore movement

Initially coined by Vogue as a response to the menswear shows of 2019, ‘warcore’ was used as a term to describe fashion’s reaction, or perhaps reflection, of the events of the wider world. In the midst of a year that had the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a worsening Trump presidency, a global #Metoo movement and troubling climate change impact, it’s safe to say there was a lot going on—and fashion followed suit.

“Arguably, this strain of warcore clothing is reflective of the violence, chaos, and widespread anxiety in the world at large. Athleisure, gorpcore, workwear and streetwear are all obvious antecedents, what’s new is the sense of survivalism,” Vogue writer Steff Yotka explained. With such a statement, one must wonder who such ‘survivalism’ is for. Fashion’s ‘reflection’ of the times may actually just be a co-option of a struggle and an aestheticisation of war.

In 2019, Troy Patterson wrote about the trend in The New Yorker where he pointed to the 1996 work of critic Suzy Menkes in The New York Times in which she noted “the linkage of fashion with war [as] problematic” and suggested that the industry’s “raiding of blood-soaked references” may appear “crassly exploitative.” Such analysis can be applicable beyond the realm of warcore fashion into the current cultural reactions to war, or more accurately the Russian invasion of Ukraine, online. It is where performative activism, an obsession with graphic content and ‘aesthetic’ converge to create a TikTok-like warcore.

Patterson’s words ring as true today as they did in 2019, “Now, in a time of endless war, heedless consumption, and great social stratification, all bets are off.”

The rise of video warcore on TikTok

SCREENSHOT spoke to one Ukrainian citizen on the day the current immediate offence began—24 February—and revealed her views on the sinister “reality show” element of the war on her people. “The last two weeks became especially tensive. People are different all over the world so there were diverse reactions to the situation,” she said. At the time, she went on to share that she felt “doomed” by the situation, wishing for more to be done to help the country.

“I feel like the whole world is watching, empathising and can’t do anything. It reminds me of times when everyone was watching Squid Game. We are like the next reality show to people.”

And a reality show it seems to be. In the strange dystopian-like world we live in, the biggest war to hit a European nation since World War II is being watched on TikTok. This is, of course, not the first time social media has been used in times of war; made clear by writer Gugulethu Khumalo for SCREENSHOT in her piece Following the Tigray genocide, here’s how the African youth is redefining politics on TikTok, both TikTok’s role in Africa and Facebook’s use in the Arab Spring were citied. The arguments of social media’s positive use in spreading information to the masses are without doubt valid and true—it helps cut through the censorship of some major news organisations or governments to show people evident on-the-ground reality. However, what is surfacing today has become a little more than just that.

The ‘aesthetics’ of war have reached beyond the menial realms of clothing and have developed into a deeply intriguing, as well as ultimately tragic, cultural phenomenon online. Away from the typical content we have witnessed surface among times of war on social media comes a movement that edits gruelling, painfully traumatic and violent moments into music dominated, short trailers of sorts.

@donvsdada

#kiev #ukraine #fyp

♬ bringing the era back yall - chuuyas gf
@martavasyuta

🙏🏽🇺🇦 #Ukraine Spread awareness!

♬ bringing the era back yall - chuuyas gf

Perhaps made with good intention at heart, and possibly even a motivating or encouraging element for those affected by the horrors of this invasion, such clips fit the bill. It is a strange part of the emotional discourse online that rightly aims to spread as much support for Ukraine as possible, however, there is something insidious to be said about individuals editing real horrific events into a punchy montage.

@laminaprod

🇷🇺 Russian Major captured by Ukrainian troops 🇺🇦. #russia #ukraine #nato #peace #war #foryoupage #foryou #fyp #fy

♬ Slava Ukraine -

These are real Ukrainians with real trauma who are having their lives movie-fied for likes into a, much like SCREENSHOT’s Ukrainian source cited, Squid Gamelike “reality show.” Speaking of Squid Game, in an article by Jack Ramage titled Why are we all so damn obsessed with death game TV? which seeks to address the immense popularity of the genre, the writer largely explained that there is very little research out there to better understand such phenomena but stated “horror can be a satisfying experience of ‘unrealism’—the enjoyment of knowing, for a fact, that it’s all fake anyway.”

This time, however, it’s not fake, it’s real. But it appears that large pools of social media users have yet to understand this. Users have been using footage from other crises, like that of a Palestinian girl, and wrongfully labelled it as being from Ukraine—with nearly a million likes on the video, that is cause for some serious concern. Instead, TikTok users have turned legitimate blood-shed into a romanticised Call of Dutylike (COD) game they play on TikTok with the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ as their choice player.

https://www.tiktok.com/@staystrongukrainee/video/7068807547460848902?_d=secCgwIARCbDRjEFSACKAESPgo8znpq7IECVT3t%2BGyIhWvgKsvz55y8vLGAJwUYh7GVBj5%2BCLcPBP2SxVEo%2FuetLchL8QbFpBUJBCLGS%2F1OGgA%3D&checksum=4b1f3bef61cb7ab1a15a1afca47201fe64d710313b82f4f7d7e042ae5a766354&clips_cover_ab=v4&enable_clips=1&language=en&preview_pb=0&sec_user_id=MS4wLjABAAAAFlNgtB-OYjEDEKUR0MtVBYXd3fKxsw-Io_MvMWlB0yntqxntmm-3uMx0kpz-8qmm&share_app_id=1233&share_item_id=7068807547460848902&share_link_id=1B888A8D-C730-4A68-8DE0-CE77FACB00E8&social_sharing=v1&source=h5_m&timestamp=1646322206&tt_from=sms&u_code=db58318efjc918&user_id=6798634545987666949&utm_campaign=client_share&utm_medium=ios&utm_source=sms&_r=1
https://www.tiktok.com/@.zebbra/video/7069202250526149889?_d=secCgwIARCbDRjEFSACKAESPgo8fv8VMh5xGyZ0t0mZlPH47QxIvAf5sIQKQsZGLbxulotUo5d6GU8JolwFkuYVVxdHWEol27iDqCCeuARSGgA%3D&checksum=f83a5bf1b8438ca5b95d19a3671353cbdbe6f12ce9d463ea2dec8467aa51da4c&clips_cover_ab=v4&enable_clips=1&language=en&preview_pb=0&sec_user_id=MS4wLjABAAAAFlNgtB-OYjEDEKUR0MtVBYXd3fKxsw-Io_MvMWlB0yntqxntmm-3uMx0kpz-8qmm&share_app_id=1233&share_item_id=7069202250526149889&share_link_id=26181345-C6FB-4E23-B198-D5C523452D89&social_sharing=v1&source=h5_m&timestamp=1646322398&tt_from=sms&u_code=db58318efjc918&user_id=6798634545987666949&utm_campaign=client_share&utm_medium=ios&utm_source=sms&_r=1

It is ironic that I wrote such a statement alluding to COD before stumbling upon a comment on the above video, with over 30,000 likes, that writes, “There is no way this doesn’t become a COD mission.” Yes, that’s a real comment.

Our society’s worrying infatuation with being an observer to murder, war and violence has perhaps played its role in our overall desensitisation to war itself and its impact on human beings—especially for those of colour, in the Middle East and Africa, whose similar experiences with war are not met with the same support, empathy or respect.

Not to mention there are real dangers in finding yourself immersed in the warcore side of the internet. It’s not just those well-meaning videos aiming to share the news or rightly advocate for Ukraine and its freedom, others with ulterior motives have access to such tools too. Reports have surfaced that Russian powers are also pushing their own tactics in this ‘digital war’ by using fake Ukrainian social media profiles to promote its propaganda. Despite some pushback from social media platforms that have aimed to block Russian activity, these trailer-filled trenches online run deep.