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How Volodymyr Zelensky became Ukraine’s unlikely hero

25 Feb 2023 6 minute read
Handout photo issued by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Jennifer Mathers, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, Aberystwyth University

“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” These words, reportedly spoken by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky in response to the Americans’ offer of evacuation from Kyiv soon after the launch of Russia’s mass invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, laid the foundations for his reputation as a hero.

Over the past 12 months Zelensky’s reputation both at home and abroad has been transformed.

Despite his landslide victory in the 2019, the years after his election were met with widespread disappointment in Ukraine. This was due to his handling of the pandemic and his failure to deliver on campaign promises, especially cracking down on corruption and ending the war in the Donbas.

By December 2021 opinion polls showed that only 27% of Ukrainians trusted him. And when more than 100,000 Russian troops were poised to invade Ukraine, there was widespread scepticism in the west about Zelensky’s ability to lead his country through a war on this scale.

A comedian and comic actor, Zelensky had been best known for his portrayal of a schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president in the popular Ukrainian television series Servant of the People. But both Ukraine and Zelensky have exceeded expectations of their performance in this conflict.

By December 2022, Ukrainians’ trust in their president had risen to 84%. The Ukrainians – soldiers and civilians alike – have demonstrated that they are both willing and able to defend their country. Not only did they resist the initial attack on Kyiv but they have also managed to retake 54% of the territory captured by Russia since February last year.

Personal courage

Zelensky’s display of personal courage and determination throughout the war has won admiration around the world. Even the president of the United States was willing to risk air raids to visit Kyiv and stand side by side with Zelensky.

Research into heroism and global politics I have conducted with my colleague Veronica Kitchen reveals the political importance of heroes and heroic narratives. Heroes and the stories that are told about them have the ability to inspire societies to come together and stay together, especially in troubled times.

There are certain actions that are typically associated with heroes and heroism, especially the willingness to risk one’s safety and even one’s life in defence of a cause or to protect the lives of others. Zelensky’s decision to remain in Kyiv and share the dangers of war with his fellow citizens is itself a significant component of his heroic story.

Another feature of heroism is the determination to overcome obstacles that may appear or be insurmountable. There is nothing heroic in an easy victory.

NLAW anti-tank missile being fired. Photo UK MOD Crown copyright

Although experts in military strategy and western policymakers have been impressed by Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield, no one expects this war to end quickly or easily. Zelensky’s vulnerability to relentless Russian attacks and repeated assassination attempts highlight that both the outcome of this war and his own survival are far from certain.

But Kitchen and I argue that there is more to becoming a hero than completing a series of tasks on a checklist.

According to the results of our research, context is vital. A hero is a hero for a specific time, place and audience. In fact, the audiences for heroic narratives are every bit as important as the heroes themselves.

Our heroes have the ability to inspire us because they are literally our best selves: ourselves as we would wish to be and to be seen by others. Our heroes embody the values that we most admire and cherish.


To understand why Zelensky is so widely regarded as a hero we need to understand the values that he represents.

In their recent book, The Zelensky Effect, political scientists Olga Onuch and Henry E. Hale argue the president emphasises the unity of all Ukrainians and expresses a civic national identity that is shared by the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens.

This means that Ukrainians’ main loyalty is to the state rather than to a region, a language or a religion.

According to an August 2022 opinion poll carried out by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 85% of Ukrainians consider themselves to be citizens of Ukraine rather than being from the eastern or western regions of the country, Russian speakers or Ukrainian speakers, Christian or Jewish.

People fleeing the military offensive in Ukraine. UN Women Europe and Central Asia (CC 2.0)

But while Zelensky’s emphasis on Ukrainian civic national identity helps to explain his ability to connect with his own citizens, it does not explain the popularity of Ukraine’s president abroad. Here, too, shared values are the key.

Zelensky consistently describes Ukrainian society as sharing the values of Europe and of the west more generally: democracy, liberalism, tolerance and freedom. He often refers to Ukraine’s aspirations to join western institutions such as the European Union and Nato, and argues that authoritarian Russia poses a threat not only to Ukraine but to the free world as a whole.

Zelensky’s ability to tailor his message to his audience also ensures that his words resonate. By paraphrasing Winston Churchill when speaking to the House of Commons, or referring to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks when speaking to the US Congress, he makes connections that encourage others to see themselves in Ukraine’s struggles.

Threats to his image

Although Zelensky’s status as a hero seems firmly established, it is nevertheless vulnerable to challenge. Such a challenge appeared earlier this year in the form of a corruption scandal affecting senior Ukrainian officials.

Zelensky acted quickly to dismiss many of those accused and reassure western donors that their money was not being wasted. But fresh allegations along these lines could tarnish his reputation in the eyes of Ukrainians and foreign observers alike.

Zelensky’s reputation as a hero rests not only on his personal courage but on his ability to articulate a message of shared values and a shared determination to resist the mass invasion by Russian forces that began 12 months ago.

Whether his heroism will continue to inspire or quickly be forgotten may depend upon his ability to maintain that unity of purpose among Ukrainians into arrangements for peace and the rebuilding of postwar Ukraine.

This article was first published on The Conversation
The Conversation

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GW Atkinson
GW Atkinson
1 year ago

Fair play to the guy, he managed to persuade the west to take sides in this war instead of ignoring it because certain countries were scared of putin. Even the corrupt English government who were being funded by putins cronies have pulled their finger out for once.

Last edited 1 year ago by GW Atkinson
1 year ago

Hero? He’s an actor, nothing more. And he Gave permission for Kill lists who target children. He’s a War Criminal who should be brought to Justice, so too should any leader who provides him aid. But alas, we know this won’t happen, War Criminality is only Brought against Those who live east of Ukraine and South of The Mediterranean.

Last edited 1 year ago by Riki
1 year ago

I’ve heard it said that the air raid siren that sounded when Biden was in Kyiv was actually a staged stunt, not an actual air raid, though I haven’t seen evidence for or against this.

1 year ago
Reply to  Mawkernewek

Yes, Russia informed the Americans that they wouldn’t fire anything while he was in Ukraine in order to not escalate tensions. But Western nations know their populations are fast asleep so it was pretty easy to fake a Danger. It’s all theatre from Ukraine. Apparently also, Zelensky ran for presidency on a promise Promoting Peace with Russia but the Americans threatened him after he came to office.

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