The Showman

By , June 23, 2024 9:01 am

What a book! A biography of a certain time in a person’s life with historical context – how perfect. If Anne Applebaum loved it, I was in (she’s the author of two incredibly detailed and horrifying books on eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Gulag: A History and The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956).

One should never go in for hero worship, including of people like Zelensky, who are doing pretty big things against very powerful enemies. I knew nothing of his background save for his comedy roots. Simon Shuster taught me that was a tiny drop in a bucket as Zelensky was not just a performer but a writer, director, and producer. He was a very successful businessman whose career was intricately linked with Russia, and who performed and spoke mostly Russian.

According to Shuster’s portrayal, built upon numerous interviews with the president and his colleagues, Zelensky was used to getting what he wanted in the entertainment/business world. Once he won the presidency (on not much of a platform other than to eradicate notorious corruption in Ukraine) with no political record to go on other than his show, Servant of the People, Zelensky was up against not only Vladimir Putin but also the west’s initial intransigence upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Big challenge even without the invasion. But then he used his background to become the face of the war and, ultimately, of Ukraine’s survival.

In his transformation from the entertainment industry to politics, Zelensky mastered social media as a political tool, as much for his own people as for the world. Through his direct appeals, he won many over to Ukraine’s cause. He also made it possible for everyone to see the war in real time. It is easy to forget from our cushy position in the west how strong and ugly a force Russian imperialism (and propaganda) continues to be. The author is perfectly placed to capture all of this.

Simon Shuster is a Time Magazine senior correspondent with an obvious focus on Russia and Ukraine. He was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to the US when he was young. He grew up speaking Russian and his mom was Ukrainian. He has relatives who have been directly affected by the war. Banned from Russia in 2015, Shuster recognizes that he doesn’t have direct access to report from there. However, he is a good researcher and a good interviewer, speaking to Zelensky’s colleagues and wife Olena Zelenska numerous times.

Most importantly, Shuster is not an apologist for Zelensky. He doesn’t turn him into a perfect leader.

A must read, as they say!

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