In December, his name was still unknown to the general public. In a few months, Volodymyr Zelensky has become a figure of Ukrainian resistance against the Russian invader. A hero for his fellow citizens, but also in the eyes of a large part of Europeans. Régis Genté and Stéphane Siohan, fine connoisseurs of the Ukrainian president, his country and the Soviet world, undertook to write the biography Volodymyr Zelensky – Inside the Mind of a Heroin the middle of the war between kyiv and Moscow.
Child of a popular district in a Ukraine member of the USSR, first known as an actor of a famous TV series, humorist or producer, Volodymyr Zelensky became a pacifist president then a seasoned warlord. A look back with the two independent authors and journalists on the “Zelensky phenomenon”, a quadra that has become the symbol of a generation and of contemporary heroism.
How was the writing of this book?
Regis Gente: Our publisher gave us a month to write it! We are both specialists in the Soviet world. I know Ukraine well, I live in Georgia and Stéphane, in kyiv. We didn’t have to do any research, we put together thirty years of experience in the field. We did the work remotely, I wrote the skeleton during the day and he put the pulpit and the color to it in the evening.
Stephane Siohan: I had in the back of my mind the desire for a while to immerse myself in the Zelensky phenomenon. I am one of the first Western journalists to have met him when he was presidential candidate. I had accumulated a lot of material in three years: interviews, meetings, articles and also unpublished things. I just didn’t expect to do his biography in the middle of the conflict.
Were there any restrictions on writing this biography during the war?
Regis Gente: It was not necessary to fall into emotion, but to write a book that could last over time. Show the positive and remarkable hero in his entry into the war, while also telling his faults and what characterizes the character.
Stephane Siohan: It’s hard to sit down and say to yourself “this is the right time to paint your portrait”, when you don’t know the end of the story and how long it will last.
If you had to mention Zelensky’s stroke of genius…
Stephane Siohan: I think it was when, after two days of war, he took to the streets with his associates, in Beatles style, to film himself and say: “we are all here”. At that time, he had just escaped the assassination attempt orchestrated by a Russian commando. It’s a way of saying to Vladimir Putin “fuck you”, but it’s also a political masterstroke. This is the message that will sound the revolt. Before that, Ukrainians had real doubts about how their president would behave in the event of a military conflict.
What is the phrase of Volodymyr Zelensky that struck you the most?
Regis Gente: It was when he responded to the Americans who were offering to evacuate him from Ukraine to safety: “I need ammunition, not a taxi”. He defines there his relations with Westerners. We can be the greater Germany, the United States or a country providing major support, Zelensky can still speak the truth in a frontal manner. It’s relevant cheek, without being insulting.
Stephane Siohan: Zelensky is able to swing expressions that don’t mean anything. His election campaign is full of them. But in 2019, during his induction speech as president, he said “each of us is president”. He tells the people that he is not higher than them and this poses a practice of governance in a country like Ukraine which is totally anti-authoritarian, the exact opposite of Russian political culture.
Volodymyr Zelensky king of the image?
Stephane Siohan: I call him the “screen president” because he made it the basis of his career. Those of television, as an actor and producer. His production company is the largest audiovisual content company in the former USSR, outside of Russia. His team knows exactly how to frame the images and how the use of such a camera or such a lens will influence the emotions of the spectators. He is at the crossroads of all contemporary mediums: television, social networks, series, the importance of which he has understood very well. In that, he has a crazy modernity, because he masters the codes of the image better than any other European chef.
How did Volodymyr Zelensky go from president who was not taken seriously to hero?
Stephane Siohan: In 2019, when he entered the political arena, Volodymyr Zelensky did not fascinate foreign journalists at all. They were rather intrigued and very suspicious, simply because he was not on point. From my first interview with him which lasted two hours, we can throw away 80% content, completely meaningless. We had a man who had no political backbone, who was in communication. The specialists of the region observed him with circumspection, while the foreign press locked him in the too simplistic box of the “Ukrainian Coluche”. Today, he is adored by the international press which knows less about Ukraine. The journalists of the region have a little more distance, because they know the small compromises and the affairs related to his person.
Regis Gente: The question is perhaps less “why did he become a hero with us?” than “Why do Europeans need a hero?” “. Westerners have understood that behind this conflict, it is the question of the democratic future in the world that is at stake. We have the feeling that war is coming back to Europe and that someone has to stand up against it.
Is Volodymyr Zelensky the symbol of a turning point in Ukraine?
Stephane Siohan: Volodymyr Zelensky carries with him the dramaturgy and the problematic of this conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which is not an opposition between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers, people from the East and people from the West. There is a real generational divide in Ukraine between those who knew the Soviet empire and those who did not know it. The character of Volodymyr Zelensky tells this story. He was 13 when the USSR fell, so he didn’t know her. He is part of this generation for whom the USSR means nothing and that Vladimir Putin does not want to see emerge.
Volodymyr Zelensky masters the codes of image better than any other European chef. »
Zelensky, it’s that news middle-class urban: young parents, full of energy, positivism, much less cynical than those who experienced the end of the USSR and who have a real construction project for their country. Zelensky is in their image and took them in his wake to power. They understood that if Russia invaded Ukraine, they would lose everything. It’s a war of time, with Russia on one side wanting to stop it and the Ukrainians on the other wanting to speed it up.
What is this recipe that made Volodymyr Zelensky a hero?
Regis Gente: He has legitimacy through the ballot box, he embodies the project of a people, does politics from below, follows the opinion of the population. The courage he showed is the courage shown by millions of Ukrainians who are fighting.
Stephane Siohan: He is a hero because Ukraine is made up of a multitude of heroes. It is a country whose population accepts to sacrifice its personal comfort for an idea, whose citizens are ready to give their life. Volodymyr Zelensky knew it. He had no choice but to rise above it. It was the Ukrainians who forced him to become a hero.