I don’t know how you can watch the news and not get emotional. I have cried so many times hearing and seeing the news coming out of Ukraine. What is happening there is both heart-breaking and terrifying.
And the scale is immense. One of the world’s major powers has attacked one of Europe’s largest countries and the ENTIRE WESTERN WORLD is getting involved in some way. I mean, the Swiss have taken a side. Not even Word War II could get them to do that.
Refugees are streaming out of Ukraine and, for the most part, Europe is welcoming them. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a crisis. Any time you have this many people displaced you have a crisis on your hands.
But not all Ukrainians are leaving. There are so many stories of Ukrainians FROM Ukraine. Some of them are tales of unmatched heroism. Some of them are stories of cheeky rebellion. And many are stories of desperation and fear.
Still, you know that for some people in other parts of the world, this outpouring of support must seem like a slap in the face. When refugees were streaming out of places like Syria or Latin American countries, or the Middle East, where was this acceptance? Where was this global unity when non-European countries were in crisis?
Let me be clear – this is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis. It is also a political crisis. This is one of the most immediate and tangible challenges the world has faced in generations.
But, there are parts of this that interest me particularly as a communication scholar. This is not, and should not, be the focus of the news right now, but I think in the years to come people will remember some of the communicative and rhetorical things about this crisis. They may not be the central issue now, but in years to come, they will be important.
What I’m talking about is the stories. The stories people are telling about Ukraine are so epic. This has captured the imagination of the West. The tales of heroism are completely outsized and inspiring. And the best example of that is President Zelensky himself.
I heard someone say the other day that no political leader had been as hands on during an armed crisis since George Washington. I have no idea if that’s true. I don’t even know how one would fact-check it. But it sure sounds good. And it is indicative of the kinds of stories that are coming out of this crisis. Legends are being born in real-time. And legends matter. Legends make a difference in how people see the world. Legends last.
Some of Zelensky’s larger-than-life appeal comes from the fact that he is such an improbable hero. He has no business being President, let alone an effective one.
According to Michael Idov,
His business and comedy roots lie in KVN, a longtime Russian showbiz phenomenon whose title is an acronym for a musty Sovietism—“The Club for the Jolly and the Resourceful.” KVN is a bizarre but admittedly original concept: Imagine if sketch comedy functioned as a pro sport, with city teams battling one another for a spot in the major league, and the top matches televised.
Zelensky’s troupe, called Quarter 95, repped Kryvyi Rih—a Ukrainian city—but performed in Russian, which was then considered not only normal but expected. He was team captain (under the nickname “Vovan”). Once Quarter 95 hit the big time on Russian TV, Zelensky and two partners, Sergei and Boris Shefir, formed a production company under the same name. Their studio produced dozens of shows and events for both countries’ markets, including the Ukrainian Dancing with the Stars, which Zelensky himself won in 2006 (and yes, that would be like Simon Cowell winning America’s Got Talent).
Around the same time, Zelensky began to produce, co-write, and sometimes star in trashy Russian comedies, most of them directed by a U.S.-educated filmmaker named Marius Vaysberg. The first one is representative: 2009’s Love in the City, about three friends living it up in New York when a curse from a magic fairy (played, in a moment of either inclusivity or homophobia or both, by flamboyant pop star Filipp Kirkorov) leaves them impotent until they find true love.
Even as he turned toward politics, Zelensky didn’t exactly leave his comedy career in the rearview. His latest and likely last Vaysberg comedy, I You He She, came out in theaters the same month he became president—surely a historic first. Amazingly, on some of these Russian movies, Zelensky worked with the people now de facto wishing for his death: Both his director and his co-star on An Office Romance, Sarik Andreasyan and Marat Basharov, have publicly cheered the invasion of Ukraine.
Servant of the People, the 2015 sitcom that made Zelensky a true public figure, was a huge improvement over his other work. It was a well-filmed and heartfelt satire of Ukrainian politics, daring to imagine a fundamentally decent man in the halls of power (think Mr. Smith Goes to Kyiv). Interestingly, Zelensky still played his part in Russian. He divested from Quarter 95 to run for office, but named his party “Servant of the People” after the series, providing a remarkably smooth continuity from KVN to politics; that’s also when he finally switched languages.
Zelensky’s landslide 2019 victory against the incumbent Petro Poroshenko seemed like the wildest plot twist imaginable. In fact, things could have been crazier still: Running alongside him in the same election was one of Ukraine’s best rock singers, Slava Vakarchuk of the band Okean Elzy, who unlike Zelensky never performed in Russian. Vakarchuk was not just a plausible candidate but the first choice for a large swath of progressive youth, who viewed Zelensky’s feel-good centrism as a barely acceptable Plan B. The fear was—ironically—that he would get too cozy with Russia.
Zelensky hadn’t impressed his home country in his tenure as president so much. He had been called “mediocre” by the media there. But he had a bit of a reputation in the U.S.Americans knew him because of his strained interactions with Donald Trump. Specifically, the “perfect phone call.”
Jeremy Stahl writes,
Zelensky became president in May 2019, and almost immediately, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani began a pressure campaign to try to force him to announce an investigation of a Ukrainian gas company associated with Joe Biden’s son Hunter, as part of an apparent effort to weaken Biden ahead of the Democratic presidential primaries. Giuliani also pushed Zelensky to announce an investigation into convoluted conspiracy theories that it was actually Ukraine that had meddled in the 2016 election, as a way to distract from Russia’s actual campaign to boost Trump.
In a July 22, 2019, call, Giuliani told top aides to Zelensky: “All we need from the president is to say, ‘I’m gonna put an honest prosecutor in charge, he’s gonna investigate and dig up the evidence that presently exists and is there any other evidence about involvement of the 2016 election,’ and then the Biden thing has to be run out.”
Giuliani went on to say that doing this “would clear the air really well” and “make it possible, I think, for me to talk to the president to see what I can do about making sure that whatever misunderstandings are put aside.” This would be “a good thing for having a much better relationship,” Giuliani said.
All of this was happening as Zelensky was desperate for some demonstration of support from the U.S. president, as 13,000 of Zelensky’s people had been killed in the five-year conflict between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in Ukraine.
Three days after Giuliani’s call, Zelensky was granted what turned out to be his infamous July 25 phone call with Trump. During that call, the president increased the pressure for Ukraine to “do us a favor” and do “whatever you can do” to “look into” “Biden’s son” and Biden “bragging that he stopped the prosecution” of Burisma, the company associated with Hunter Biden. Trump brought this up in direct response to requests from Zelensky for a meeting and “to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
While Zelensky spent most of the call sucking up to Trump and vaguely affirming the president’s statements, he notably showed true backbone in refusing to commit to any tangible action against Biden for Trump. The president left the call unsatisfied, which resulted in Trump withholding $400 million in military aid from Zelensky for months afterward.
So America had a mishmashed Zelensky. A Zelensky who was willing to stroke Trump’s ego and play the fool, but also had the backbone to stand up to America’s Bully-in-Chief. It made sense that we didn’t quite know what to make of this man. He was an actor – a comic, to be precise, who had no business being in politics, who swept in on a populist wave that was having a lackluster career and couldn’t seem to decide if he was a toady or a champion.
So imagine the world’s surprise when in 2022 this same politician was being favorably compared to Winston Churchill.
When Russia invaded Ukraine the world gasped. Russia was invading a sovereign, democratic nation. This was a threat to democracy and to Europe as a whole. Everyone assumed Zelensky would do what leaders of countries do in times of crisis and go somewhere safe, so he could make decisions from a place of security. In times of peril countries need the security of a stable government, and that means safe leaders, right? But Zelensky shocked us all. He donned military gear and head to the proverbial trenches. The images of Zelensky were not of a man hidden away, safe from the tribulation, but a man in the thick of it, doing what he could to help the people fighting for his country. When he was offered a way out his response was, “I need ammo, not a ride.” This was a leader who was sticking around to fight for his country.
And so, a legend was born.
And I mean it when I say a legend. Zelensky has become a folk-hero overnight. World leaders stand when he speaks and women talk about how he is their crush. People talk about him like he’s some kind of Homeric hero.
And maybe Homer is the right allusion.
Because the stories people are telling about Ukraine really are epic in nature.
Take for example, the Ghost of Kyiv.
The Ghost of Kyiv is supposedly this unknown fighter pilot who has taken down six Russian planes since the fighting began. One of my students swears Germany has offered to send him another plane if his is damaged. It’s a story of heroism, bravery, and victory. It boosts morale, and is a classic tale of David beating Goliath.
It’s also completely made-up. It’s a product of social media. But social media allows stories to grow. We’ve seen how fake news spreads like wildfire on social media over the last few years. Now we’re seeing it again – only this time, it is stories of heroism and people fighting for freedom. Stories that stir the spirit and make people want to do good. It’s fake news, but instead of breaking democracy, it appears to be building it up.
People are gleefully sharing stories of Ukrainians stopping, if not taking, Russian tanks. Changing the road signs to confuse Russian soldiers. And men and women of all ages taking up arms to defend their country. On the one hand there are the heart-breaking stories of refugees and women and children fleeing the country. But on the other hand there are the glorious tales of bravery and heroism of every day people rising up to defend their homes.
And these stories have power.
In my propaganda and persuasion class we talk about narratives and myths and how powerful they are in terms of moving people to act. One of the things we talk about is archetypes. Specifically archetypal characters.
An archetypal character is a character that represents a universal pattern. You see, we really aren’t that creative. We’ve basically been telling the same stories for thousands of years. The same plots, the same ideas. Even the same characters. You could literally take some characters out of some stories and put them in another and the basic mechanisms would still work, because there are some characters that are just universal in western narratives.
One of these characters is “The Hero.”
The hero is somebody who is dashing, and brave. It is usually a “he” but in the last couple of decades we’ve seen the description expanded a bit. The hero is noble and fights for what is right. The hero is often either on a quest or is defending something virtuous or righteous. The hero is willing to make sacrifices. The hero has a sense of right and wrong. If the hero is not on some kind of a quest, the hero is fighting against seemingly unbeatable odds. The enemy is big and somehow monstrous, and definitely evil.
We are making heroes of the Ukrainians.
They aren’t just patriots fighting a war, they are archetypes we are fitting into a narrative. A narrative of good vs. evil that we are using to make sense of a world that seems nonsensical.
And in a world that has been particularly senseless for the past couple of years that is a huge comfort.
We’ve been battered by enemies that didn’t play by the rules, like disease and racism, so here we have an easy story of good vs. evil. There is, to our discerning, a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. This is a narrative we can make sense of. This can help us organize the world we live in.
We have been desperate for heroes for a while now. Everything has been so messed up. We’ve tried to valorize people here and there, but they have all disappointed us. Here we have people who are literally fighting evil. They are on the ground, doing what we have always thought heroes are supposed to do. Of course we are going to tell their stories. Of course we are united behind them. We’ve been desperate for this narrative for quite some time.
So as I said, the most important thing to focus on is the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. But in the years to come I think the stories we tell of this unfolding saga will have a profound effect on how we see the world, and even how we see ourselves in it.
Because we aren’t just making heroes out of the people of Ukraine. We are making legends.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.