Review of “The Showman” by Simon Shuster – Zelenskiy’s Unforgettable Performance
Real life is not as neat and satisfying as fiction. The good guys do not always come out on top, the villains do not always receive their deserved punishment, and the underestimated underdog does not always emerge victorious just because we want them to. Volodymyr Zelenskiy would make a great protagonist in a simplistic Hollywood movie, similar to Independence Day: Mr. Average Saves the Nation. If Russia’s unnecessary and ugly war against Ukraine were a blockbuster, the climax would include Ukraine’s armed forces triumphantly reclaiming Crimea, Putin being overthrown by a democratic revolution, and Zelenskiy returning to his role as a comedy star on television. His wife and children would stand in the shadows behind the studio cameras, watching with admiration and love.
It is possible that the final part may still occur, but the outcome is unlikely to be as expected. Despite Ukraine’s attempts to retaliate, Russia’s significant military advantage is starting to have an impact. Putin has successfully overcome the only threat to his authority, while Zelenskiy is traveling around the world seeking assistance from countries who are preoccupied with other matters. Instead of witnessing a triumph of good over evil, it is more probable that there will be a sordid negotiation over which territories, taken from a sovereign nation, Russia will be allowed to keep. Additionally, it is likely that if Donald Trump is re-elected, he will repeat his pattern of making deals in which he sacrifices his strongest position in exchange for empty promises, similar to what happened with North Korea and Afghanistan. This reality, rather than a happy Hollywood ending, seems to be the most likely outcome. In Kyiv, political opponents who have remained silent since the Russian invasion are now beginning to openly criticize Zelenskiy. The idealism of a superhero movie is giving way to the complexities of everyday life.
However, we cannot overlook Zelenskiy’s excellent performance. He remains genuinely down-to-earth and modest, never losing sight of his roots in TV comedy and soap operas. Simon Shuster’s biography, The Showman, is certainly definitive, thoroughly researched, and deeply insightful. As a trained actor, Zelenskiy constantly ponders how a true leader would handle his position, making him a relatable and compassionate individual. Out of the 200 presidents, prime ministers, and other leaders I have met and interviewed, I have only truly admired three of them: Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, and Zelenskiy. In person, Zelenskiy is just as warm, genuine, and emotional as the other two. He does not exude superiority or take pride in his role; instead, he treats others as equals. When confronted with tough questions, he does not become irritable or evade them. If this is all an act, it is one that he has mastered.
“The Showman” is a highly personal and well-informed biography, surpassing the typical coverage of politicians by journalists. Shuster, the author, is a candid and knowledgeable biographer, well-equipped for the task at hand. Born in Moscow to a Ukrainian father who grew up near Zelenskiy’s hometown, and a Russian mother, Shuster and his family immigrated to the United States in 1989. He eventually became a staff writer for Time magazine. In 2014, when Crimea was annexed by Putin’s forces, Shuster was the first foreign journalist to arrive on the scene and report on the events. During the 2019 presidential campaign, he had the opportunity to meet and interview Zelenskiy. After Zelenskiy’s election, Shuster spent several months embedded with the presidential team, a level of access that most foreign correspondents can only dream of.
Reporters are often influenced by their relationship with the subjects they cover, leading them to produce content that aligns with their preferences. However, Shuster and his team have maintained a strong level of integrity in their coverage of Zelenskiy and his administration. This is reflected in the fact that Time is considered a reliable source for information on their actions and beliefs. Even when faced with accusations from Putin’s supporters, Shuster has consistently addressed controversial topics such as the Azov Brigade’s connections to Nazism and the widespread corruption in post-Soviet Ukraine. He has also been transparent about Zelenskiy’s potential suppression of political opposition, yet the president’s team still trusts his reporting.
Shuster’s writing effectively portrays Zelenskiy’s bravery in remaining in Kyiv with his family during the initial Russian invasion, ultimately leading to the failure of the attack. However, as the conflict continues, the balance of power has shifted in favor of Russia due to their greater numbers and support from the US government. As a result, Zelenskiy’s political standing has weakened. If he were to step down from his position, he would surely receive accolades for his efforts, much like the legendary Roman leader Cincinnatus.
Presumably, he will continue to be the naive and innocent person he has always been. One of the most striking parts of this insightful book is when Shuster shares an interview with Zelenskiy that was given to a German journalist right after viewing disturbing images of dead Ukrainian civilians. A few days prior, Zelenskiy had visited the town of Bucha, located outside of Kyiv, which had been taken over by Putin’s soldiers at the beginning of the invasion. The inhabitants were randomly executed and dozens were brutally tortured. However, in the interview, Zelenskiy did not express any animosity towards Putin himself. According to Shutter, it was as if Zelenskiy was still holding onto the belief he had before becoming president. He seemed to think that if he could only show Putin around Bucha and bring him to the pit in the churchyard to see the bodies, the war might come to an end. He stated, “I don’t think we have any other option. Despite our intense efforts, I don’t see any other choice but to sit down with him at the negotiating table and talk.”
Unfortunately, this is an overly simplistic view. Once the war comes to a conclusion, the outcome will be a tense and volatile peace. Russia will likely retain control of the majority of the territory it has taken, and Putin will have the ability to manipulate and provoke conflict in Ukraine as he sees fit. The belief that he can be forced to confront the consequences of his actions and undergo a transformation is based on sentimental notions.
What about Zelenskiy? He is not seeking fame and admiration, as he already had plenty of that before running for president and will likely continue to have it for the rest of his life. He states to Shuster that his ultimate goal is to free Ukraine from Russia’s control and influence, and in that aspect, he has certainly achieved success with the country’s eventual membership in the EU and Nato. However, this success has come at a high cost, and while the righteous side may not have lost, they cannot be considered victorious either.