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Zelensky, Global Icon: Memes, Magazine Covers And What It Really Means

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has instantly become an international icon of courage in the fight for freedom. This sudden fame is as much a proof of how much is at stake in Ukraine as any one man's power — and Zelensky is the first to know his limits.

Zelensky, Global Icon: Memes, Magazine Covers And What It Really Means

Volodymyr Zelensky in the streets of Kyiv with his government cabinet just after the start of the Russian invasion.

Laure Gautherin

“I need ammunition, not a ride..."

It was just one of many phrases, perhaps the most Hollywood among them, that have turned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into an international icon. Indeed, it only took a few hours before t-shirts printed with these words — uttered in response to the U.S. offer to evacuate him to safety — and the yellow-and-blue flag were being sold on Amazon for $19.95.

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With such instant global passion around him, one could almost forget that the comedian-turned-president had often looked overmatched to the eyes of the world, from his election in 2019 to his bit part in the Donald Trump impeachment saga, up until the hours before threat of a Russian invasion became real.


But then came his first video the night after Russia's invasion began, in which he addresses his people and the world, saying he and his fellow government ministers were "present" in Kyiv, and that Ukraine would not yield before their bigger neighbor.

"Captain Ukraine"

Internet political messages

His every new word is closely monitored, his past speeches dug up – like his inaugural speech which did not make headlines outside of the country at the time – his selfie videos, on the ground, anticipated like the next blockbuster. His face on front pages and magazine covers around the globe. (See below)

If President Zelensky's bravery is helping keep the spotlight on the conflict ravaging the country he made the oath to protect, the hero tag that comes with his determination is alone not a strategy for winning the war.

“What we see in studying memes and politics is that while memification helps a political message or cause spread to many people, it often comes at the expense of a flattening of that story,” explains Sulafa Zidani, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor specializing in digital culture studies, to Wired.

But it is Zelensky himself who understands this best, noting the risks in how his image is being used. “It's very serious. It's not a movie,” he told Reuters and CNN during an exclusive interview. “I'm not iconic, I think Ukraine is iconic.”

Indeed, digging back into his pre-war archive, we see he understood this truth even then. More than an icon, Volodymyr Zelensky is a real person.


The Toronto Star (Canada)

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of Sunday Star

Courrier picard (France) 

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of Courrier picard

Daily Mirror (UK)

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of Daily Mirror

New York Post (U.S.) 

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of New York Post

Le Point (France)

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of Le Point

L'Express (France)

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of L'Express

Metro (UK) 

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of Metro

The New Statesman (UK)

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of The

Vanity Fair (Italy)

Volodymyr Zelensky on the front page of Vanity Fait Italy

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putin’s Kyiv Obsession, From Failed Feb. 24 Blitz To Coming Winter Siege

Kremlin war aims in Ukraine have never been entirely clear. Part of that is due to the setbacks the Russian army has suffered, and once again it appears that both the strategic and symbolic objective of reducing the capital of Kyiv to its knees is again central.

photo of a passerby in a residential area of Kyiv

Gray skies over Kyiv

Hennadii Minchenko/Ukrinform/ZUMA
Anna Akage

The notion that Vladimir Putin was only interested in the contested southeastern regions of Ukraine vanished on Feb. 24. His so-called “special military operation” was in fact an all-out invasion of the nation — with Kyiv as the central objective.

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Russian forces attacked the capital from the direction of the Chernobyl exclusion zone and Belarus. In addition to regular troops, OMON special police units and troops loyal to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov were directed toward Kyiv.

High among the orders was the assassination of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, along with his family and top advisers. Oleksiy Danilov, a top military chief, Russian special forces tried in vain several times to pierce the presidential quarters in the first days of the war.

Those efforts, as well as the wider attempt to capture Kyiv, were repelled by Ukrainian forces, with the battles for the city and its surroundings lasting just over a month. By early April, Moscow was diverting its war effort elsewhere, and the capital would gradually regain some semblance of daily normality.

Nearly nine months later, Russian troops have gained then lost much of the territory they have occupied, and are moving steadily back closer to the border of the 2014 conflict. During this time, the south and east of the country suffered heavy losses, and entire cities were destroyed. The retreat of Russian forces from Kherson earlier this month marked another low moment, with signs that the Ukrainian army is ready to move farther east — and perhaps even head toward the Crimean peninsula.

So where is the Kremlin looking now? Yes, Kyiv again.

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