How Ukraine’s Zelenskyy is winning hearts and minds in Russia

The Ukrainian president’s New Year address overshadowed Vladimir Putin’s and won the praise of many Russians.

Zelensky address
In his 13-minute New Year's address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for national unity [Youtube/screengrab]

On New Years eve and, as per the long-standing tradition, the presidents of two ex-Soviet countries, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, delivered their national addresses on TV. How these speeches were received in the two countries, which are engaged in a continuing armed conflict over Ukraines Donbas region, speaks volumes about what type of leadership is currently in demand in the post-Soviet region.

As leaders, the two men, who in December met for the first time for peace talks in Paris, cannot be more different. A former KGB officer, Putin, 67, has been in charge of Russia for two decades, during which the country saw a steady deterioration in democracy and human rights. Zelenskyy, 41, on the other hand, is a professional stand-up comedian who unexpectedly burst onto Ukraines political scene and won the presidential election last April by a landslide, despite having no political experience.

The key to his success was projecting the image of an open, ordinary man who knows and understands the pains of his fellow citizens and who has not been tainted by the divisive Ukrainian politics of the past five years.

Both leaders enjoy very high levels of approval in their countries – hovering slightly above 60 percent, according to various polls.

Putin’s speech was short and indistinguishable from most New Year addresses he made in the past. It focused on the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, which is the main pillar of his nation-building ideology.

Zelenskyyaddress was quite different. Once again he stressed his rhetoric of I am one of you” by talking about people of different backgrounds, social class and regions of the country. It doesnt matter what is your street called as long as it is clean and asphalted,” Zelenskyy told his country which in recent years saw a controversial push for replacing communist-era street names, sometimes with those celebrating World War II Nazi collaborators. It doesnt matter under which monument you meet your date,” he said, hinting at the demolition of Soviet monuments which was spearheaded by the Ukrainian far right in the wake of the 2014 Maidan revolution.

He was then joined by a few dozen cultural, political and business figures from all over the country who also spoke of the need for political change, action on corruption, economic prosperity and national unity. They spoke in Ukrainian, Russian and even Crimean Tatar.

But behind over-the-top theatrics, reminiscent of Zelenskyys own entertainment production, there was a clear political message – that Ukrainians are one people, no matter what language they speak, where they live, and which political parties they follow.

This message is crucially important in a country whose linguistic, cultural and political divides are being actively exploited by the aggressor state, Russia, as well as by the hawkish forces within the Western political establishment which see Ukraine as a battleground in their confrontation with Moscow. 

For many Ukrainians, Zelenskyys address reflected their dream of normality after six years of conflict in which national unity is upheld and divisive and alienating ethnonationalist narratives set aside. Naturally, a substantial and vocal minority, which supports the previous president, Petro Poroshenko, lashed out at Zelenskyy for being insufficiently pro-Ukrainian and way too tolerant of multiple vestiges of Russian influence and culture in Ukraine.

But Zelenskyys speech was watched and discussed way beyond the borders of his country. It was surprisingly well-received by many Russians – and not just by the supporters of the anti-Putin opposition. The address became an instant hit on social networks, with many people contrasting Zelenskyys heartfelt style and unifying message with Putins uninspired and somewhat menacing demeanour. It did not help that the Kremlins video producers made Putin look like a wax figure with a dark Gothic sky over illuminated Kremlin towers in the background.

Writing on Facebook, a Kremlin-friendly pundit, Nikolay Zlobin, praised Zelenskyys address as extremely powerful” while advising Putin to change his speechwriter. Another prominent political strategist, Abbas Gallyamov, compared Zelenskyys address with Nobel Literary Prize winner Joseph Brodskys famous monologue on identity, in which the poet placed universal values above nationality and ethnicity.

A political consultant who advised Putin in his early years as president but now sides with the opposition, Marina Litvinovich, wrote on Facebook: Zelensky is making right steps towards unifying Ukraine.” Prominent musical producer and radio host Mikhail Kozyrev said Zelenskyys speech was outstanding” and on par with John Kennedys famous speeches.

While prominent Russians poured praise on Zelenskyy, it did not go unnoticed that Russias two main TV channels – Rossiya 1 and First Channel – removed like/dislike options under Putins speech on their YouTube accounts. National TV channel NTV left this option on for its YouTube video, which as of publication time had 24,000 likes and 91,000 dislikes.

Zelenskyy, who shot to fame thanks to the televised Russian stand-up comedy competition known as KVN (short for the Club of the Humorous and Industrious), is about the only non-Russian politician who has been able to reach Russian audiences over the heads of the Kremlin leadership. 

The latter clearly feel the danger of the Ukrainian president being able to compete with Putin for the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians. Their fear became apparent in December when the Russian entertainment channel TNT was forced to stop broadcasting Zelenskyys famous TV series, Servant of the People.

In the series, Zelenskyy plays a school teacher who accidentally gets elected as Ukraines president thanks to peoples disillusionment with the political class (a feat he repeated in real life). TNT abruptly took the series down after showing the first three episodes.

In the first half of 2019, Servant of the People became one of the top three most-watched series on Russian online video streaming platforms, along with Game of Thrones and Chernobyl.

Coincidentally or not, some prominent Russian stand-up comedians, who tended to avoid political criticism over the past two decades, have taken to blasting the Kremlin recently. Maksim Galkin made fun of various aspects of Kremlins policies, especially the aggressive TV propaganda, in videos that were shot at his performances and went viral on Russian social networks. In another popular video, comedian Timur Batrutdinov said he felt that under Putin, Russia has returned to the Soviet times after a gulp of fresh air in the early 1990s.

Of course, it is unlikely that Putin will face a comedian contender any time soon (Galkin said he would be shot dead before inauguration if he tried), but the reactions of the Russian public are quite significant.

They show that after six years of toying with toxic ethnonationalism in the wake of the Maidan revolution and Russian aggression, Ukraine may finally be moving towards fulfilling the Kremlins biggest nightmare – becoming a role model for progressive politics and democracy for Russians to look up to.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.