Both Russian-speaking, they are symbols of the two opposing ways of seeing the world after the collapse of the USSR
The young Volodymyr Zelensky and the elderly Vladimir Putin, the assaulted and the aggressor, are the two faces of the Ukraine-Russia war, which shocked the world as soon as it emerged from the pandemic. Both Russian-speaking, they are symbols of the two opposing ways of seeing the world after the collapse of the USSR into which they were born. The former actor who has gone into politics sees a future in the West, while the former KGB agent dreams of rebuilding a sort of new USSR, replacing communism with a nationalist ideology. And if Putin never mentions Zelensky, the latter does not hesitate to say that if the leader of the Kremlin dies, the war he has unleashed will end.
Zelensky was crowned Time’s Man of the Year. And there is no doubt that he was able to embody the spirit of resistance in Ukraine in the face of the Russian aggression of February 24th. As an actor and politician, Zelensky understood the importance of symbols early on. “I don’t want a lift, I want ammunition,” he told the United States, which was proposing to flee Kiev on the day of the invasion. Almost ten months later, the US Congress gave him an ovation on his first trip abroad, after Zelensky and his family have always remained in Ukraine, defying the bombs.
The beard he has grown and the military green shirt are the icon of a president next to his soldiers. And in fact Zelensky, more than once, went to the front, or to the liberated areas, to support the military. Every day, the Ukrainian president speaks to citizens, on video or on social media, to keep the spirit of resistance alive, while countless speeches are made online with the parliaments of allied countries or at international events.
Zelensky is 44 years old and leads a country born just over 30 years ago. His is a government of forty years, with the head of the armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhni, who is 49, and the influential head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, only 36. The Ukrainian president is the symbol of a generation in his comfortable with the digital that, even before the invasion, wanted to leave behind the Soviet past to become part of the West. And that in war he showed unity, resilience and a spirit of adaptation, also using the weapon of irony to face the difficulties of war. Zelensky’s strong bond with his wife Olena, who replaced him on representation missions abroad, is a message of normality for the Ukrainians, of a president “like all of us”.
From the Kremlin, which he himself described as “a besieged fortress” in the confrontation with the West, the 70-year-old Putin appears to be a completely opposite character. Eyes of ice and impenetrable face, he wants to be the symbol of an eternal Russia that has its roots in the past. We know as little as possible about his private life. If before the war, Putin often had himself photographed in a macho attitude, performing in sports, now he wants to appear as a stern leader, determined to rebuild a new type of nationalist Russian empire, heir to the Tsarist and Soviet ones.
The Kremlin leader reports on television with his generals to show that he has the situation under control and is very attentive to his image. But he doesn’t always manage to achieve the desired effect, such as the famous photo of the long table that divides him from French President Emmanuel Macron, which ends up communicating a sense of isolation. Or the one of him with a blanket on his knees, surrounded by military elders, at the victory parade of the Second World War, a symbol of an elite of old men who send young soldiers to their deaths.
Since he unleashed what he persists in calling a “special operation”, Putin has never gone to the front. And while the war that was supposed to last a few days has been going on for ten months, the impression is that he wants to avoid any risk of contestation, lack of enthusiasm or uncomfortable questions, while Russia is becoming more and more an authoritarian state. After a rally in Moscow in March in support of the war, with buses of attendees forced to attend, Putin kept public appearances to a minimum. Other encounters, such as the one with the soldiers’ mothers, appear carefully choreographed with hand-picked participants. While the end-of-year press conference, the speech in parliament on the state of the nation and the traditional participation in the New Year’s ice hockey match on Red Square in Moscow have been cancelled.
Putin’s propaganda, which justifies the war with the alleged need to fight the Ukrainian “Nazis” and to defend oneself from NATO, continues to hold a large part of public opinion, but arouses more resignation than enthusiasm. And it is propaganda that focuses entirely on the past, which works above all among the elderly, while many young people have fled abroad so as not to become cannon fodder in Ukraine.