Before becoming the embattled leader of a war-torn country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian.
He starred in the wildly popular satire “Servant of the People,” where, incidentally, he transforms from an everyman into the president. He dubbed the Ukrainian version of Paddington Bear. He starred in “Love in the Big City 2,” now banned in Ukraine due to “non-compliance with the provisions of the Law of Ukraine on Cinematography.”
But of all his stellar accomplishments, perhaps the crown jewel of his comedian oeuvre is one performance that harkens back to his Jewish roots.
In a cheeky live performance from 2016, Zelensky, along with three other members of a comedy troupe, mimed “piano four hands” with another part of their anatomy. Their setlist included “Chopsticks,” “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” and, of course, the Jewish folk staple “Hava Nagila.”
While his adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has also been the subject of countless online memes, including a well-known one of him riding a horse shirtless, some have argued that Zelensky’s online presence has humanized him while Putin’s has, perhaps purposefully, been used to strengthen his image as a tough guy.
Jennifer Mercieca, a professor in Texas A&M University’s department of communication, told The Washington Post that Zelensky’s online persona made him seem “approachable,” while Putin, even in the virtual realm, “has always portrayed himself as an authoritarian leader who must be obeyed and respected.”
Who among us has not played "Hava Nagila" on a piano with their genitals on stage and then gone on to lead their country against a foreign invasion? pic.twitter.com/6IlRgF83he
— Amy Spiro (@AmySpiro) February 28, 2022
She added that Zelensky’s clips “seem that much more heroic. That this average guy, almost, this comedian, someone who would be more like the court jester… has turned out to be this fearless leader. And I think the world is impressed with that.”
Another clip of Zelensky that has made the rounds online recently is one of him and his cabinet members standing in Kyiv, while Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)” plays in the background.
went and translated that zelensky selfie video from the streets of kyiv, just to know what he was actually saying in response to the russian reports that he had fled — so here it is for the rest of you, plus this music naturally felt right. enjoy. pic.twitter.com/JDLXtYAq5q
— Alex Kliment (@SaoSasha) February 25, 2022
The song, a classic hip-hop track from 1995, was revived in the pop culture landscape after the 2002 Eminem film “8 Mile” used the track’s instrumentals for the movie’s final rap battle. The clip’s tone evokes the tenor of a rap battle, essentially using this trope to call out Putin and project a braggadocious attitude to stir up the troops.
The proliferation of meme culture in the dissemination of information and propaganda has been very much a part of Russia’s surreptitious asymmetric warfare tactics for years. During the 2016 and 2020 US presidential races, Russia was put on notice for its digital efforts, including “meme warfare,” to influence the elections and sow chaos within the body politic.
This facet of Russian cyber campaigns, however, is in addition to the more traditional forms of digital malfeasance. During the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the first three days alone, cyberattacks on sites affiliated with the Ukrainian government or with its military sector jumped nearly 200%, while similar attacks against Russia climbed just 4%.