Otto English is the pseudonym of Andrew Scott, a London-based novelist and playwright.
Fighting a war means in no small part establishing a narrative, and no one knew that better than Winston Churchill. In the spring and summer of 1940, after the withdrawal from Dunkirk, the British Prime Minister brilliantly outlined the parameters of the conflict as he pitted brave, good-will Britain against the looming threat of Nazi Germany.
Today, six weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has shown himself to be equally adept at words and storytelling. He didn’t just oppose him early criticsDemonstrating leadership of truly outstanding caliber, he has harnessed the power of storytelling in times of war, much to his advantage.
The narrative arc developed by both Churchill and Zelenskyy is known among playwrights and storytellers as “Conquering the Monster.” It’s probably the oldest story of all. The story centers around Theseus and the Minotaur, George and the Dragon, Luke Skywalker and the Death Star, and it goes like this: the hero hears about a menacing monster, the hero sets off to kill the monster who Hero is almost overwhelmed by the task, but eventually returns triumphant.
In the current update of the age-old tale, the Ukrainian president has portrayed himself as our chivalrous protagonist, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as the monster – and few give credit to his storytelling, but the Russian leader’s most gullible supporters now see it in a different light .
Zelenskyj’s instinctive grasp of this tale is matched only by his mastery of the medium through which he tells it. His video messages and photos on Telegram, Twitter and Instagram have effectively neutralized Putin’s multi-billion dollar Russia Today propaganda machine. Like all the best social media influencers, the bearded president projects an extremely appealing version of himself. He comes across as charming, charismatic, defiant and – crucially – normal. Many adjectives could be used to describe Vladimir Putin – but none of them would be “normal”.
If wars were fought and won by storytelling alone, then Zelenskyy would already be holding the dragon’s head. But of course it’s not. In the last week alone, chilling evidence of Russian war crimes and atrocities has surfaced Bucha and elsewhere. And since Putin is clearly intent on delaying the war until it is seen that he has “won” something, the final scenes of this horrific saga remain unwritten. The only certainty is that there are still many dark chapters ahead of us before peace can return to the Ukrainian people.
That alone gives Zelenskyj a headache – because the longer the war drags on, the greater the danger that the global audience will lose interest. Aware of this from the start, the President has taken his show to the streets with a virtual tour of global parliaments that has garnered rave reviews. Much of this praise stems from his approach, as Zelenskyy did what all great writers and performers do. He thought primarily of his audience.
On March 1, less than a week after the invasion began, Zelenskyy addressed the European Parliament. Knowing exactly which buttons to push, he framed his struggle as one between democratic, progressive European values and those of the regressive tyrant Putin.
A week later, he appeared before British MPs in the House of Commons and once again hit all the right notes. Referring directly to Churchill’s most famous war speech, he vowed to “fight in the woods, in the fields, on the shore, in the streets” and received a well-deserved standing ovation.
On March 17, a day after the Mariupol Theater airstrike, Zelenskyy delivered another speech to the German Bundestag, calling on MPs to help him “tear down the wall.”
There was a rare misstep on March 20th, as during an address Speaking before the Israeli Parliament, Zelenskyi compared the plight of the Ukrainian people to that of the Jews in the Holocaust. But otherwise, his speeches to the Japanese, Italian, Canadian, and French parliaments have all been very well received – largely because he flattered his audience by making the script relevant to their points of reference.
Zelenskyj stands in a long tradition of writers who became politicians.
Before entering Parliament in 1837, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli spent his days writing best-selling novels. US President Theodore Roosevelt made a name for himself with a book on the founding of the American Navy; Churchill combined his job with writing fiction and non-fiction (though it was sometimes hard to guess which was which); Czech playwright Vaclav Havel became his country’s first president after the communist era; and of course US President Barack Obama had several books under his belt before running for Congress.
A good writer is first and foremost a good communicator. But the best writers are capable of projecting a vision, and at this Zelenskyy, like his predecessors, proved a master.
Given the natural rotation between careers, it’s perhaps not surprising that a few actors have also made it to the top of the political stack over the years. Notable mentions include Oscar-winning Labor MP Glenda Jackson, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of over 100 films, former Philippine President Joseph Estrada and former Mayor of Carmel, California Clint Eastwood.
Then, of course, there’s Ronald Reagan, who in many ways designed the blueprint for Zelenskyy. As an actor, Reagan earned his place in the heart of the American public by playing brilliant, all-American heroes, and he continued in that role during his time as Governor of California and later during his two terms as President.
Like Zelenskyy, Reagan was a brilliant communicator who had the gift of going straight to the heart of his people. And as with the Ukrainian leader, he mostly wrote his own lines, finding his biggest and most memorable role in his political career. The camera-savvy Reagan expertly crafted a compelling “picket fence” vision for his country as the Cold War burned to a close, crafting a narrative that played well beyond his nation’s borders and transformed the US into the “shining city on earth.” transformed Hill” – a land of opportunity, hope and freedom whose innate optimism contrasted sharply with the “evil empire” of the USSR.
Zelenskyy leads his people through a much darker series of events than Reagan ever faced – but ultimately the storyboard remains the same. The Ukrainian president’s genius was in taking the truth about his nation’s struggle and packaging it for global consumption, with his once-mocked show proving to be his greatest tactical weapon.
The world is now cheering for him and his people. But this isn’t a Hollywood movie, and there’s no guarantee of a happy ending. Zelenskyy has so far defied his critics and gained worldwide recognition, but unfortunately that alone is not enough. He has yet to slay the monster and return triumphant if his people can live happily ever after.
https://www.politico.eu/article/volodymyr-zelenskyy-ronald-reagan-remake/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Volodymyr Zelenskyy's remake of Ronald Reagan - POLITICO