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Society

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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War In Ukraine, Day 280: Massive New 600 Billion Euro Estimate Of War Damage, EU Says Russia Will Pay

Ukrainian flag flies on the pole near the ruins of an apartment building destroyed by Russian troops in Kyiv

Anna Akage, Shaun Lavelle and Emma Albright

The European Union is committed to setting up a special court with the backing of the UN to investigate and prosecute Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and force Russia and its oligarchs to pay the growing pricetag for the destruction of the country.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised in a video statement that “Russia’s horrific crimes will not go unpunished.” She said that it was estimated so far that 20,000 Ukrainian civilians and 100,000 Ukrainian military officers had been killed so far.

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