Volodymyr Zelenskiy is perhaps the closest thing to a mythical hero modern politics has to offer. Ukraine’s courageous wartime president captured the world’s imagination with his haunting, straight-to-camera monologues delivered under bombardment. A comic actor turned leader of the resistance, his story is a political fairytale. But is it almost too good to be true?
Truth and fiction collide in the Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko’s quirky and fascinating biography, describing how a man best known for playing a teacher who unexpectedly becomes head of state subsequently did something similar himself.
When Zelenskiy interrupted his own show on New Year’s Eve 2018 to announce his real-life presidential candidacy directly to viewers, many wondered if it was a joke. Even at the end of the campaign, Rudenko writes, there was still “no such thing as Zelensky the politician”; just a comedian fronting an essentially virtual movement, with no formal members and little ideology beyond appealing to Ukrainians’ exasperation with corruption. “I am not your opponent, I am your verdict,” he memorably told the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, during a TV debate.
As Rudenko points out, however, the idea of disrupting politics by starting a party from scratch potentially served a more serious purpose for Ihor Kolomoisky, the powerful oligarch owner of the TV station behind Zelenskiy’s show. Kolomoisky’s lawyer became one of the candidate’s closest advisers, prompting suspicions about who was really pulling the strings. Yet, in time, the new president would distance himself from his original patrons, finally emerging from their shadow – at least in Rudenko’s telling – as the man we see today.
This hero is not perfect, of course. His inexperience is painfully obvious in early dealings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin or on economic policy. Having promised to stop cronyism, he gives jobs to friends and media colleagues; scandals engulf some of his new MPs, and the cars of his political enemies develop an odd habit of catching fire. Disillusionment sets in. But then Putin invades, instantly uniting Ukrainians behind their charismatic leader in an existential battle that, Rudenko patriotically concludes, could signify the “final rupture” between Russia and Ukraine.
The book was originally intended for a Ukrainian audience, who I suspect may be able to read things between the lines that foreigners can not, particularly in chapters involving some of the more scurrilous rumors about Zelenskiy. But whatever nuances are lost in translation, Rudenko’s central argument could not be clearer: it’s that Putin fatally underestimated his opponent, and will now pay the price. But is that really how the story ends?
The former BBC Moscow correspondent Philip Short’s magisterial Putin: His Life and Times takes a more sober view. Eight years in its gestation and based on access to a Who’s Who of senior politicians, diplomats and intelligence sources, it’s an illuminating attempt to understand the Russian leader from a Russian rather than western perspective. The KGB man-turned-president is, the author suggests, “no more an aberration in Russia than Donald Trump in America, Boris Johnson in Britain or Emmanuel Macron in France”. Like it or not, he is one of the defining figures of our age, and all too often we’re reading him wrong.
A series of eccentric public appearances on the eve of war prompted some to question a clearly frail Putin’s sanity. But Short interprets these as a version of Richard Nixon’s “madman” gambit, “intended to make him appear so irrational and unpredictable that adversaries would hesitate before testing his resolve”. (If so, the west’s cautious approach to military involvement in Ukraine suggests it worked.) Where some see a cold-eyed killer routinely murder opponents, Short distinguishes between attacks he thinks the president could conceivably have authorized personally – such as the poisoning of the former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, or the attempted murder of his rival Alexei Navalny – and those more likely attributable to freelancing among allies, while noting that allowing powerful figures to feel “that they could literally get away with murder” is not morally much different from ordering it.
Short’s Putin is a man of violent emotions ruthlessly repressed; habitually late (a powerplay over those kept waiting), devoid of small talk, so inscrutable that when he proposed to his wife she initially thought he was dumping her. This knack of being what the German security expert Franz J Sedelmayer calls “perfectly gray” in his intentions helped Putin transition seamlessly first from an unremarkable intelligence career into politics (initially working for the powerful mayor of St Petersburg) and then up through the Kremlin’s ranks without being perceived as a threat.
He is pragmatic – not necessarily a compliment in 1990s St Petersburg, where Short writes that “the distinction between politicians, businessmen and criminals was almost completely effaced” and running the city involved opening channels to organized crime – rather than ideological. But his guiding beliefs are nostalgia for past glory, a hankering for a national identity to fill the gap left by communism, and an abhorrence of showing weakness. The lesson of a childhood trading blows with local neighborhood toughs, he has said, is that if “you want to win a fight you have to carry it through to the end, as if it were the most decisive battle of your life”. The defining event of his life, however, is the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, about which he once raged that “Russia had lost too much, it had been too humiliated”. Ukraine’s misfortune is to embody this humiliation for him.
Short traces the roots of conflict from promises made to Russia in the 1990s that NATO would not expand eastwards, through the Bush administration’s flirtation with the idea of Ukraine joining, to Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea – which Putin insisted was to keep Ukraine out of NATO. (The author gives rather less space to the counter-argument that, however wounding it is to Russian pride, former Soviet republics are free now to make their own choices, including over how to defend themselves from their volatile neighbor.)
Putin’s goal in the current war, Short thinks, is both to make Ukraine declare neutrality and “to show that the United States was powerless to prevent it”. Victory for him may be defined less by territory gained, and more by whether America’s reluctance to intervene directly causes NATO members such as Poland or the Baltics to wonder whether their allies would risk nuclear war to save them either, thus undermining the alliance.
One question haunting this book is whether there was a way of avoiding all this, given Putin’s initial willingness to work with the West in return for economic benefits he thought would help him domestically, plus Europe’s desire for peace. Towards the end, Short lists the decisions he thinks put Washington and Moscow on a collision path, arguing essentially that both sides did what seemed logical to them at the time, but failed at critical moments to grasp how that looked from the other side. There could be no more powerful case for reading both these books than that conflict is so often rooted in human failures of understanding.
Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko is published by Polity (£ 20) and Putin: His Life and Times by Philip Short is published by Bodley Head (£ 30). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.