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Bad Comic, Neo-Nazi, Beggar For Dollars: How Russia Tries (In Vain) To Tear Zelensky Down

Compared to the worldwide admiration for Volodymyr Zelensky, authorities in Moscow have systematically tried to demean the Ukrainian leader. Yet even among Russians, that strategy appears to be backfiring.

Bad Comic, Neo-Nazi, Beggar For Dollars: How Russia Tries (In Vain) To Tear Zelensky Down

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Bakhmut

Cameron Manley

While others watched in awe and admiration, Russia’s ruling class had a very different take on Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise visit to the U.S. this week.

As the Ukrainian president touched down in Washington on Wednesday, Russian state media had already begun taunting Zelensky: he was “prostrating himself” and “begging for money” from the Americans, “an embarrassment.”

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Pavel Danilov, a prominent Russian political scientist told Russia’s Channel Five news that the visit was “some kind of image opportunity for Ukrainian domestic consumers. He went to the American priest who confirmed that he was on our side, that everything was fine, let's carry on, lads, fight on and all that.”

Pro-Kremlin television host Vladimir Solovyov, whose sharp rhetoric has made him one of the key propagandists since the start of Russia’s war, said live on air that he “kept thinking during this [Biden-Zelensky] press conference that this bastard [Zelensky] should simply be destroyed…”


Yet these latest comments are by no means a surprise, as Moscow has consistently attempted to demean and demonize the 44-year-old leader since the war began, as everything from a “joke” to “neo-Nazi” to “the pawn of NATO countries.”

Rising star

As Zelensky’s star has risen both within Ukraine and around the world, Russian leaders appear keenly aware of how the strength of his persona is helping to carry the war effort — and are busy trying to tear him down.

Back in April, Kremlin political operativeTimofey Sergeitsev published an article on the Russian state-run media site Ria Novosti entitled“What is Russia to do with Ukraine?.” The article was a frontal assault on Zelensky personally, and his “regime,” calling for his immediate ousting from government, and his “annihilation.”

Zelensky’s emergence as a bonafide war hero was quite unexpected by the Kremlin — along with much of the world, including no doubt many Ukrainians. In his first two years in office, Zelenksy had struggled to find his footing, and was perceived in Russia’s eyes as a “mere comedian,” in over his head.

Growing dissent

But Zelensky’s actions since February 24 has shown not only that he is up to the job, but that he’s bound for the annals of history’s great wartime leaders, drawing comparisons to the likes of Winston Churchill.

This has served him well with his fellow Ukrainians at home, Western leaders and their respective populaces — and, it seems, also potentially with some Russians. As Zelensky continues to demonstrate a kind of regular man’s matter-of-fact courage, ordinary Russians are are beginning to notice that the Kremlin’s portrayal of the Ukrainian president is not matching up with reality.

Russian writer Dmitrii Bykov said in an interview with TV Rain that “the fate of the world rests on Zelensky’s shoulders”. Elsewhere, he has turned the Kremlin’s demeaning framing of Zelensky as no more than a comic actor on its head, saying “he played the hero, believed in the hero and then became the hero.”

President Vladimir Putin

Sergei Guneyev/TASS

Zelensky v. Putin

Potentially even more troubling for Moscow is that Zelensky is increasingly compared to Russia’s own leader, Vladimir Putin. In a video on his Youtube channel, Russian commentator Maksim Katz described the Ukrainian president as “one of the most celebrated military leaders on the planet.” Contrasting Zelensky today to his 70-year-old Russian counterpart, Katz recalled that Putin’s image back in 1999 was built on him being young and healthy and contrasting him with the old and out of touch Boris Yeltsin whom he succeeded. “(Putin) embodied the end of an era of Soviet elders,” Katz said.

But now there are no more credible displays of machismo, no flying fighter jets or wrestling on tatami mats. “He’s an old man who keeps telling the same joke… lost in a fictional past,” Katz said. “Putin seems to be operating on a completely different plane to the rest of the world.”

This past week, even before the dramatic visit to the U.S., the divide between the two leaders was on stark display Tuesday: Zelensky traveled to the front line in Bakhmut, a city that has been under attack by Russian forces for nearly half a year, putting himself in the firing line to support his troops; Putin, meanwhile, was presenting Russian war veterans with medals from the safety of the Kremlin palace.

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