The Quotable Zelensky

I decided to stick with the simplest spelling of the Ukrainian president’s last name. I’ve seen multiple variations, which look jarring to the American eye. The double-y ending is weirdly reminiscent of a double-wide…

The above is a reminder that Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian before his unlikely rise to the presidency. The interview Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic conducted with him doesn’t shy away from his past, it celebrates it. I approve.

There’s been a lot of sappy and sanctimonious coverage of the scrappy Zelensky that I found off-putting. The Churchill comparisons aren’t far off if one remembers that Winston was a funny guy who liked brandy and champagne.

Another thing Zelensky has in common with Churchill is pre-war unpopularity. He’s now one of the most popular people in the world but popularity is evanescent. Public opinion is a fickle beast. FYI, I disagree that Putin does not have to worry about public opinion. Dictatorships come to nasty endings when the leader loses public support as Mussolini, Ceausescu, Gaddafi, and Saddam learned.

The reason I posted the picture of Sean Penn and Zelensky is that he’s among those polishing a halo above Zelensky’s head. Hagiography is always off-putting, especially when it’s premature. Suffice it to say that Zelensky is a good man who has risen to the occasion. Besides, Penn is an actor, drama is his middle name.

Zelensky’s fate likely would have been much different if President* Pennywise had been reelected. As Jonathan Chait has observed:

“Had 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin swung the other way, Zelensky would probably at this moment be in exile, in a Russian prison, or dead.”

Back to polishing the Applebaum-Goldberg interview. Did the apple-polishing joke work? Gold is shiny as well no matter what berg it’s found in…

Zelensky praises his interviewers for asking questions that he hasn’t been asked before. There’s nary a peep about a no-fly zone. The participants all know that no-fly is a no go. Other Western reporters have made Zelensky sound like a Volodymyr one note.

“Much of Zelensky’s time is spent on the telephone, on Zoom, on Skype, answering the questions of presidents and prime ministers—often the same questions, repeated to a maddening degree. “I like new questions,” he said. “It’s not interesting to answer the questions you already heard.” He is frustrated, for instance, by repeated requests for his wish list of weapons systems. “When some leaders ask me what weapons I need, I need a moment to calm myself, because I already told them the week before. It’s Groundhog Day. I feel like Bill Murray.”

Western pop-culture looms large in Zelensky’s conversation. There’s also a Beatles reference:

“As Russia has shut down alternatives to state media—closing independent newspapers, television channels, and radio stations—Zelensky has found that his old acquaintances retreated further. “Even that small share of intelligent people, which was there, began to live in this informational bubble,” and he finds it very difficult to break through. “It’s the North Korean virus. People are getting absolutely vertical integrated messages. People don’t have any other way; they live in it.” He is clear about the author of the messages: “Putin has invited people into this information bunker, so to speak, without their knowledge, and they live there. It is, as the Beatles sang, a yellow submarine.”

Imagine being stuck on a submarine with Putin. It sounds like something out of The Hunt For Red October:

Ping Crosby? He did make a lot of movies with Bob Hope whose theme song was Tanks For The Memories…

Back to Zelensky’s submarine imagery.

Sean Connery as a McRussian submarine captain was mildly amusing, but if Putin had Connery’s star quality, his grip on power would be even tighter. Propaganda keeps him in power. That brings me to our next selection.

“Now, as Russian propaganda grows more baroque, he sometimes has trouble knowing how to process it. Perhaps that’s why he often leans on pop-cultural analogies: “The way they say that we’re eating people here, that we have killer pigeons, special biological weapons … They make videos, create content, and show Ukrainian birds supposedly attacking their planes. Putin and Lukashenko—they make it sound like some kind of political Monty Python.”

The death sauce is what Putin is administering to the citizens of Mariupol right now.

A final quote couplet in response to this inquiry: Is Putin afraid of humor?

“Very much so,” Zelensky said. Humor, he explained, reveals deeper truths. The famous television series in which Zelensky starred, Servant of the People, mocked the pomposity of Ukrainian politicians, attacked corruption, and presented the little guy as a hero; many of his sketches were clever satires of political leaders and their attitudes. “Jesters were allowed to tell the truth in ancient kingdoms,” he said, but Russia “fears the truth.” Comedy remains “a powerful weapon” because it is accessible. “Complex mechanisms and political formulations are difficult for humans to grasp. But through humor, it’s easy; it’s a shortcut.”

Throughout the conversation, Zelensky displayed his gifts for spontaneity, irony, and sarcasm. He didn’t tell jokes, exactly, but he said that he cannot part with humor altogether. “I think that any normal person cannot survive without it. Without a sense of humor, as surgeons say, they would not be able to perform surgeries—to save lives and to lose people as well. They would simply lose their minds without humor.”

Thank you, President Zelensky. That’s the point I made throughout the Trump regime. Laughing through the pain doesn’t make it go away but it makes it bearable. Mockery is the best medicine.

I’ll think of Zelensky every time I hear Yellow Submarine from now on. The last word goes to The Beatles.

Let’s throw in a song from Sean Penn’s older brother Michael as well: