The Showman: The Inside Story of the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky by Simon Shuster - review by Mark Galeotti

Mark Galeotti

Comedian Who Got Serious

The Showman: The Inside Story of the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky


William Collins 384pp £22

As someone who has to consume quite a lot of Russian media, I can tell you that if there is one common denominator, it’s that whether we’re talking about a shouty TV news programme (less Newsnight, more a kind of geopolitical Jeremy Kyle Show), a stodgy government newspaper of record or a racy tabloid, no one has a good word for Volodymyr Zelensky. Of course, they have lots of bad words for him: neo-Nazi, NATO puppet, drug addict, Führer and so on. On one level, this is wholly understandable given the war that is raging and Zelensky’s unexpected and startling metamorphosis from comedian to global icon. However, it probably also reflects what I suspect is a genuine incapacity on the part of Vladimir Putin, in many ways the one-man audience for all these media, to understand his Ukrainian counterpart.

Putin is a grey man, while Zelensky’s whole career has involved chasing the limelight. Putin – in spite of his macho public persona and his invasion of Ukraine, which he thought would be a pushover – is ultimately risk-averse. Zelensky is a man who pushes himself through fear until it becomes fun. Putin doesn’t believe that Ukraine really exists, while Zelensky has essentially become an avatar of the country and its global champion. Underlying all this is the fact that Zelensky is not just a native Russian speaker but someone who, following Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, actually spoke out against the banning of Russian shows and artists in Ukraine. To Putin, who thinks that Ukrainians should actively want to be bound to Moscow and who is known for holding a particular animus for those he considers ‘traitors’, that makes Zelensky more damnable than if he were a bred-in-the-bone Ukrainian chauvinist.

This fast-moving and readable biography of Zelensky by Simon Shuster, a senior correspondent at Time magazine, contains a wealth of unexpected anecdotes that take us beyond the usual summaries of Zelensky’s rise and illuminate the complexities of the Russia–Ukraine relationship. In 1997, his big break came in a TV comedy

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