by Mary Harrington
Thursday, 28
July 2022
Debate
11:00

Don’t blame Zelenskyy for acting like a celebrity again

He is trying to reawaken awareness for the Ukrainian cause
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Vogue

‘How serious is the war in Ukraine?’ One commentator asked this in response to Ukrainian president Zelenskyy appearing with his wife Olena Zelenska in the fashion magazine Vogue, which was followed last night by an interview with Piers Morgan.

How a war gets reported is itself a battlefront of sorts, and media coverage has been part of war for as long as we’ve had media. The current war in Ukraine, though, is the first fully online war, and as such is subject to all the now-familiar effects that the internet has on discourse. Nowhere is this more so than in the amplification and decentralisation of propaganda.

In this light, cynics have suggested that Zelenskyy’s recent media appearances reveal that the war itself is mostly fake — and indeed, there is something jarring about Vogue’s glossy mood of comfort and luxury converging with a live war. It feels as artificial as Zelensky’s adherence, even in formal settings such as addressing foreign governments (and being photographed in Vogue), to the green ‘military’ t-shirt that’s become his media signature.

But however queasy it may seem, war and fashion have long coexisted: Vogue published through WW2, and conducted photoshoots amid bomb rubble. We can take as read that every report on the actual, material fighting in Ukraine is skewed one way or another, and as such we can have very little idea of what’s going on. But on the media battlefront, the entire Anglophone world is a target. So while we can surely read Zelenskyy’s media appearances as a clear sign that some kind of PR push is under way, it doesn’t follow from this that the war in Ukraine is not real.

To my eye the most plausible read is not that the war is fake, but simply that Zelenskyy is worried about waning international support. And it’s true that the world’s fickle attention has moved on: six months ago, my small Bedfordshire town was holding concerts to raise money for refugees and hanging Ukrainian flags in windows. Now Ukraine is background noise, and people are mostly worried about household bills.

Zelenskyy is probably right to worry that no longer being the current thing may have downstream effects on continued international support against Putin, especially given that economic measures against Russian President are contributing directly to an already-looming cost of living crisis across the West. And Zelenskyy was an actor playing a President before he was a President. Perhaps, then, he’s simply reverting to type, and doing what a media creature does best: raising awareness, through the media.

And at the risk of over-reading, we can also perhaps make some inferences from the choice of media outlets for this PR push. On its own, the Vogue photoshoot would imply a Marie Antoinette-ish focus only on rich women, as though war is merely emotional porn for the kind of elite progressive who might spend £28 on psychic vampire repellent on Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP website. But the fact that Piers Morgan got an interview too, splashed across the whole Murdoch media empire, implies that the PR campaign is targeting a broader demographic base.

What any of this says about reality on the ground in Ukraine is anyone’s guess. But as fuel prices continue to rise, and with them the cost of food, heating, and most other everyday necessities, we may well see much more of the Ukrainian celebrity who went from playing a President to being one. For it seems that in pursuit of his presidential goals, Zelenskyy feels he must now play a celebrity again.

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Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
19 days ago

I don’t think Ukraine is the Current Thing any more – hence Zalensky’s savvy attempt to drum up waning Western interest in the Ukrainian cause – and well done to him. But for the rest of us, what is the new Current Thing? And how can we support it? Especially in a way that costs nothing but makes us look virtuous?

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
19 days ago

Excellent comment

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
19 days ago

Not seeing any Nigerian flag and sad face emojis in the ‘ol Metaverse, are we? Yemen anyone? Syria? Myanmar? So what is the big chic thing about Ukraine? Couldn’t be that the world’s criminal/political class launders its dirty money and installs its drug-addled offspring on phony boards there, could it? Vogue isn’t going to send Annie Leibowitz to glamorize Ethiopia, I’m guessing.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
19 days ago

The Vogue piece is a practical and clever move to keep the focus on the war and should also benefit Ukraine in terms of hard cash and head space (please excuse the last 2 words!).
Let’s not forget that a propaganda war is also being fought out in the west, as the comments in Unherd testify.

Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
18 days ago

It seems to me that every war since the turn of the century has been billed as the first online war although I remain at a loss to see why that shiny gloss is supposed to improve our understanding.

Whether it is sucking up to the bourgeoisie or simply a case of the bourgeoisie having to suck it up, however you slice and dice it, Zelenskyy’s fat Fidel schtick has gone beyond the pale with this latest PR beano.

D Walsh
D Walsh
18 days ago

Sad to see Mary supporting the Neocons 🙁

Jim R
Jim R
19 days ago

I think i’ve seen this Zelinskilander movie before – isn’t the “Blue Steel” pose the same as “Magnum”?

R S Foster
R S Foster
19 days ago

…hard to blame him. As the likely impact of sanctions starts to really hurt Germany, and through them the EU (certainly presaging crisis, possibly even collapse)…he will come under increasing pressure to surrender the freedom and lives of his People and Country to Czar Putin…and with the POTUS a broken reed, and our own PM gone (although Truss looks like a woman who might hold the line)…it will be ever harder to resist the appeasers, much less the straightforward collaborators (most of the German political class)…
…he needs to get his retaliation in first, and pile up as many friends in high places as he possibly can…and Vogue is as useful for that purpose as anywhere else…

Last edited 19 days ago by R S Foster
Peter Buchan
Peter Buchan
19 days ago
Reply to  R S Foster

This latest act…and it is an act…is doubtlessly a push to recover waning public, media and political support as narratives crumble. But as usual answers are highly dependent on the quality of the questions. Here are 2 more relevant ones:

  1. Since Russia made it clear (for 8 years) that they had zero territorial ambitions for the Donbas, rebuffed the 2 regions’ attempts to hold referenda, and pushed relentlessly to have Minsk implemented on the basis “underwritten” by those European representative nations actually mentioned in the agreement (Russia wasn’t), why wasn’t Zelensky allowed to execute on the “peace ticket” he was elected on? Answer: Petro Poroshenko recently admitted that Ukraine only signed Minsk in order “to buy time to train and weapon-up” and that there “had never been any intention to honor the accords.”
  2. Why was Zelensky/Ukraine effectively prevented from following through on the peace framework reached in Turkiye in March? We all know the answer to this one.

It is certain, and always was, that Ukraine cannot win an all-out war against Russia. No serious military analyst disputes this. That this reality can even be framed as “acceptable” in the context of Russia “being weakened” in the future – as has been stated by senior US, EU and NATO officials – makes it clear that Ukrainians, who might’ve had peace by now, are de facto ideological and geo-political cannon fodder in the battle to cling to “Western hegemony” as most of the world pushes toward multi-polarity.
It is likely that history will judge Zelensky harshly, and appropriately: a second-rate stage actor who, through an emergent artefact of western socio-political organization that now rewards showmanship before substance and skill, got his turn to shine on the big media stage (something even he actually admitted publicly early on).
That Boris Johnson – the man who dragooned Ukraine into all-out war (read: utter destruction) by rejecting the Istanbul peace offer – now seems destined to head up NATO speaks volumes but, alas, only for those prepared to listen.

Last edited 19 days ago by Peter Buchan