Otto English is the pen name used by Andrew Scott, a London-based writer and playwright.
Waging a war is, in large part, about establishing a narrative, and no one knew that better than Winston Churchill. In the spring and summer of 1940, after the retreat from Dunkirk, the British Prime Minister brilliantly set the parameters of the conflict, pitting brave Britain, defending all that was good, against the encroaching threat of Germany. Nazi.
Today, six weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has shown himself to be just as capable of speaking and telling stories. Not only did he challenge his early reviewsdemonstrating leadership of a truly exceptional caliber, he embraced the power of wartime storytelling to his advantage.
The story arc from which Churchill and Zelenskyy drew is known to playwrights and storytellers as “Overcoming the Monster”. This is probably the oldest story of all. The story is central to Theseus and the Minotaur, George and the Dragon, Luke Skywalker and the Death Star, and it goes like this: The hero hears of a menacing monster, the hero sets out to kill said monster, the hero is almost overwhelmed by the task but eventually returns triumphant.
In the current update of centuries-old history, the Ukrainian president has cast himself as our chivalrous protagonist, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as the monster – and credit for his storytelling, but the ruler’s most gullible supporters. Russian now see it in a completely different light.
Zelenskyy’s instinctive understanding of this narrative is matched only by his mastery of the medium through which he tells it. His video messages and photos on Telegram, Twitter and Instagram effectively neutralized Putin’s brilliant billion-dollar Russia Today propaganda machine. Like all top social media influencers, the bearded president projects an extremely attractive version of himself. He comes across as charming, charismatic, defiant and – above all – normal. Vladimir Putin could be described with many adjectives – but “normal” wouldn’t be one of them.
If wars were fought and won on narrative alone, then Zelenskyy would already hold the dragon’s head. But of course that is not the case. In the past week alone, horrifying evidence has emerged of Russia’s war crimes and atrocities Bucha and elsewhere. And since Putin clearly intends to prolong the war until it can be seen that he has “won” something, the final scenes of this terrible saga remain unwritten. The only certainty is that there will be many dark chapters before peace can return for the Ukrainian people.
That, in itself, poses a headache for Zelenskyy – because the longer the war drags on, the greater the risk of global public disinterest. Aware of this, from the start, the president put on his show on the road, with a virtual tour of world parliaments that earned him rave reviews. Much of that adulation rests on his approach, as Zelenskyy did what all great writers and performers do. He thought first and foremost of his audience.
On March 1, less than a week after the invasion began, Zelensky addressed the European Parliament. Knowing precisely which buttons to push, he framed his struggle as one between democratic and progressive European values and those of the regressive tyrant Putin.
A week later he appeared before British MPs in the House of Commons and once again struck all the right notes. Directly referencing Churchill’s most famous wartime speech, he pledged to “fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets”, and received a well-deserved standing ovation.
On March 17, a day after the airstrike on the Mariupol theater, Zelenskyy gave another speech to the German Bundestag, in which he called on MPs to help him “tear down the wall”.
There was a rare misstep on March 20 when, during an address in front of the Israeli parliament, Zelenskyy compared the fate of the Ukrainian people to that of the Jews during the Holocaust. But otherwise, his speeches to the Japanese, Italian, Canadian and French parliaments were all extremely well received – largely because he flattered his audiences by making the storyline relevant to their points of reference.
Zelenskyy is part of a long tradition of writers turned politicians.
Before entering Parliament in 1837, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli spent his days writing best-selling novels. United States President Theodore Roosevelt rose to prominence with a book on the creation of the United States Navy; Churchill combined his day job with writing fiction and non-fiction (although it was sometimes hard to guess which was which); Czech playwright Vaclav Havel became his country’s first post-communist president; and, of course, US President Barack Obama had several books to his credit before he ran for Congress.
A good writer is above all a good communicator. But the best writers are able to lay out a vision, and in this Zelenskyy, like those who came before him, proved himself a master.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that over the years a number of players have risen to the top of the political pile as well, given the natural crossover between the professions. Notable mentions include Oscar-winning Labor congresswoman Glenda Jackson, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of more than 100 films, former Philippine president Joseph Estrada and former mayor of Carmel, Calif., Clint Eastwood.
Then, of course, there’s Ronald Reagan, who in many ways defined Zelenskyy’s plan. As an actor, Reagan earned his place in the hearts of the American public by portraying genius American heroes, and he continued to play that role throughout his tenure as Governor of California and then through his two terms. presidential.
Like Zelenskyy, Reagan was a brilliant communicator who cut right to the hearts of his people. And as with the Ukrainian leader, he mostly scripted his own lines and found his greatest and most memorable role in his political career. Deftly establishing a compelling “stockade” vision for his country as the Cold War burned to a close, the camera-savvy Reagan crafted a narrative that played far beyond his country’s borders, transforming United States in the “shining city on the hill” – a land of opportunity, hope and freedom whose innate optimism contrasted sharply with the “evil empire” that was the USSR.
Zelenskyy leads his people through a far darker series of events than Reagan ever faced – but, ultimately, the storyboard remains the same. The genius of the Ukrainian president has been to take the truth about his country’s struggle and package it for global consumption, his once-derided showmanship proving to be his greatest tactical weapon.
The world is now rooting for him and his people. But it’s not a Hollywood movie, and there’s no guarantee of a happy ending. Zelenskyy has so far defied his critics and won global applause, but unfortunately that is not enough on its own. He must still kill the monster and return triumphant, if his people can live happily ever after.