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How a career in performance prepared Volodymyr Zelenskyy for this moment in Ukraine

One of Karl Marx’s best-known lines appears in “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” his merciless vivisection of the revolution of 1848 in France. Torn between crying and laughing at the words and actions of the French revolutionaries, who seemed to see themselves as characters in a remake of the earlier revolution of 1789, Marx panned their performance. Riffing on a line from his fellow philosopher Hegel, Marx declared that history always occurs twice: the first as tragedy, the second as farce.

In the unprecedented events of the past week in Ukraine, the words and actions of the country’s leader have upended Marx’s dictum. Thanks to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, we have discovered, almost overnight, that history first enters as farce, then — or so it appears as I write — as tragedy.

By now, most Americans know that Zelenskyy is not a professional politician, but instead a professional actor. Not just an actor, but a comic actor. Born to Russian-speaking Jewish parents in central Ukraine, Zelenskyy had, after law school, launched himself into a career in films. But it was a television series, “Servant of the People,” that brought him into stardom. In the series, which ran for four seasons during the mid-2010s, Zelenskyy stars as a history teacher who, thanks to a viral video of him cursing the incompetence and corruption of politicians, finds himself lifted by popular acclaim to the presidency.

Life proceeded to imitate art. Entering the presidential election of 2019, Zelenskyy won by a landslide. It was an event that seemed to distill the uncanny character of our post-modern age, where appearance and reality merge into a spectacle to which we are all either amused or bemused spectators. Think of it as one part Karl Marx, who warned that we had entered an age where everything solid melts into air, and one part the other Marx, who as President Rufus T. Firefly in “Duck Soup” announced, as his country Freedonia lurched into war, that not only was his Secretary of War out of order, but so too was the plumbing.

But this is where Zelenskyy pivots not to farce, but instead to tragedy — and the greatness that often accompanies it. His wry one-liners — when our government offered him help to flee Ukraine, Zelenskyy replied “I need ammunition, not a ride” — now make us look uneasily at ourselves rather than laugh loudly with him. Instead of seething in a taped video against crooked Ukrainian political leaders — as his character, Vasyl Petrovych Borodko, did in “Servant of the People” — Zelenskyy instead shames Western political leaders in a live video call from a battle-scarred Kiev, warning that unless they help, they might not see him again alive.

Though the latter video has not been made public, Zelenskyy probably appeared unshaven and wearing his now standard green tee shirt and fatigues. He has, at times, worn full battle gear in the other video messages he and his staff have made since the Russian invasion. All of this, in turn, hints at a paradox. While fatigues are required of a soldier, they are remarkable when worn by a president. Is it possible that, even now, Zelenskyy is still acting?

While the answer must be “Yes,” it does not undermine the pathos and power, or for that matter the truthfulness of Zelenskyy’s performance. Compare his recent public remarks to those made by another president who began his professional life as an actor: Ronald Reagan. In his speeches, Reagan repeatedly confused scenes from World War II movies with the war itself, most notably his account of a bomber pilot who chooses to go down in his fiery plane with a trapped tail gunner.

Ronald Reagan on a TV screen in 1980

Born Performer: It has been said of Ronald Reagan that he repeatedly confused scenes from World War II movies with the war itself. By Getty Images

It is not clear, as one observer remarked, whether Reagan was able to distinguish real life from reel life. Zelenskyy, however, is acutely alive to this distinction. He is using reel life — the knowledge he has won as a screenwriter as well as an actor — to underscore the existential stakes of real life not just for Ukrainians, but for us as well. Not only is he sincere — an affect that any accomplished actor can achieve — but he is also authentic.

Thanks to the ubiquity of flat screens, we are stepped in a virtual world where everyone, especially politicians, is almost always acting. Some, like Reagan, do it well; others, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, not so well. Then there are those who do it so well that the line between sincerity and authenticity collapses. In a speech he gave 20 years ago on actors and politics, the playwright Arthur Miller placed Franklin Delano Roosevelt in that category.

“My impulse is to say that FDR alone was not an actor, but I probably think that because he was such a good one,” Miller confessed. “He could not stand on his legs, after all, but he took care never to exhibit weakness by appearing in his wheelchair or in any mood but upbeat, cheery optimism which at times he most certainly did not feel. Roosevelt was so genuine a star, his presence so overwhelming, that Republicans, consciously or not, have never ceased running against him for this whole half-century.”

FDR’s presence overwhelmed because he grasped the overwhelming need to project optimism at a time when, with the world battered by depression and war, optimism was rare, even risible. Of course, Zelenskyy can stand on his legs. But he, too, has grasped the gravity of matters at hand, inspiring his fellow Ukrainians to stand against the Russians and stand for democracy and decency.

The title of Zelenskyy’s television show has suddenly veered from the ironic and comic to the dramatic and historic. It turns out that our man in Kiev is not just the servant of the people, but also the servant of democracy.

A professor at the University of Houston, Zaretsky is also a culture columnist at the Forward. His new book, “Victories Never Last: Caregiving and Reading in a Time of Plague” will be published in April by University of Chicago Press.

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