Comment: Ukraine leader shows skill at statecraft, stagecraft

Zelensky used the classic tools of film and theater to make his case for more sanctions and aid.

By Peter Marks / The Washington Post

Orchestrated for maximum emotional impact, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s virtual address to Congress on Wednesday was a masterly demonstration not only of statecraft, but also of stagecraft.

It proved to be a stunning act of diplomatic showmanship, a digital performance that turned conventional world-leader speechifying on its head. And instantly raised the bar for how entreaties of global importance will be made in the future.

Here, it seemed, was a figure uniquely built for the moment, a young man with the chops of an entertainer and the gravity of a wartime executive. In a sleek presentation that could be broken down into TikTok moments, he delivered a comprehensive appeal to our better natures in three distinct acts. It was a tour de force eviscerating a brutal force.

Acts 1 and 3 were Zelensky speaking directly to an American audience, reminding us of the plight of a desperate nation. Act 2 was a film-within-a-live stream, an utterly transfixing illustration of the tragedy unfolding across Ukraine. Zelensky, a popular comedian before he became a politician, knows instinctively that it is the heart, in concert with the head, that seizes the rhetorical high ground. So, in gripping fashion he used some of the classic tools of film and theater to make his case for more sanctions and more military and humanitarian aid for his besieged country: most wrenchingly, through a video montage of the death and destruction that are being rained down on Ukraine’s cities daily by Russian forces.

The video of burning tower blocks, bloodied children and corpses being lowered into mass graves even included a poignant violin underscoring. As the searing images appeared at a breathless pace on the giant screen in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium in which Congress gathered, a viewer had intimations of a moving sequence in a film about genocide, such as Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” It was impossible to look away, and it was impossible not to be touched. One caption read: “This is murder.” Another, “Close the sky over Ukraine.”

It was a lobbying of Congress on a global stage, and Zelensky evinced an actor’s acumen in performing it. Appearing in what has become his customary wartime attire — an olive-colored T-shirt, emblazoned with the insignia of the Ukrainian Armed Forces — the president took on a folk-hero guise. He filled his 15 minutes or so with references to which American politicians and viewers collectively relate: monuments like Mount Rushmore; indelible turning points like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; cataclysms like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The appeal was to our senses of identity and nationhood, and the threats that exist to undermine them. The not-so-veiled subtext was that ours and the Ukrainian national character are one and the same.

Seated and reading from a prepared text, Zelensky somberly recited the longer first portion of his remarks in Ukrainian, as a translator spoke over him. It didn’t matter that much that the translator’s exertions were at times halting or contained grammatical imperfections. Zelensky’s intensity insured the power of the moment. He looked up into the camera from time to time, but more often kept his eyes on his text. The language was spare, unadorned. It needed no embellishment.

“Every night for three weeks, Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” he said, adding that the “reply to the terror” that was needed was “a humanitarian no-fly zone.”

“Is this too much to ask?” he said; a phrasing that conveyed both the vulnerability of Ukraine’s condition and a suggestion that the United States had not yet done all it could do.

At another point, in an echo of King’s speech, he observed, “I have a need. I have a need to protect our sky.”

Zelensky’s youthful countenance — one of the few personal references he made was that he’s approaching 45 — has become the public face, too, for Ukraine’s vigorous, young democracy. You couldn’t avoid a comparison with the visage of Russia’s 69-year-old leader in recent news footage, a figure looking puffy and dead-eyed, one who seems as removed from reality as Zelensky seems engaged and affirmative. It’s another manner in which the Ukrainian president is winning the public-relations war in the West.

Like any polished artist on a big platform, Zelensky also saved the most effective moment of his address for the finale. After the heartbreaking video, the leader shifted his appeal to English; a segue that drew us in further. A kind of linguistic close-up. His English words became more poetic: He spoke about the fight as a struggle “for the right to die when your time comes,” and not as the result of a Russian bomb. “I see no sense in life,” he added, “if it cannot stop the death.”

The congressional audience gave him the requisite standing ovation. The gesture, though, looked hollow and pro forma via television, especially in light of a guest speaker, facing real danger and exhibiting real courage. And who was asking this gathering to give him so much more. The triumph of a leader giving the performance of his life; and given the dire circumstances, maybe for his life.

Peter Marks joined The Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Previously, he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.

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