The East Affair: Two leaders and plenty pictures

27 January, 2023

During the first few weeks of the war in Ukraine, one thing left its imprint on the gaze of those who study images: the diverging way in which the two leaders clashing together, Vladmir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, have understood to use the audiovisual medium in order to support their military campaign. In a theoretical preliminary intervention composed during the tensed days, I had put forth the presupposition that what sets the two leaders apart, at a level pertaining to public image, is less the register itself of media apparitions – formal and stiff for the former, detached and proactive for the latter – and what is more, a completely different approach regarding the ages of the image. Practically, I was saying then, if Zelensky has already won, from the onset of the conflict, the symbolic image clash, this is due to, firstly, to the fact that he knew to embrace the new formats and audiovisual channels, sending his tense composure in a perfectly democratic way, which was equally well-received on the small screen during news hours or on the smartphone app TikTok. This all the while his Moscow counterpart was content on extending a traditional and conventional public appearance habitus, full of pomp and ample preparation beforehand – Nikita Mikhalkov has supervised the entire televised interventions apparatus –, who, without a doubt, has restored the vertical rapport between the president-director and the people-extra.

Ilustrație de Dan Perjovschi

This working analysis still seems valid to me in the hypotheses that it leads to. However, it has avoided altogether, from start to end, an essential aspect, which now, omitted as it is, strikes me very upon rereading it, this is the force with which it has imposed itself ulteriorly, after a well-deserved decoupling from the unsettling coverage of the war by the media. More precisely, the fact that not only the different understanding of the ages of the image separates Putin from Zelensky, but also of its origins – or, better said, the cultural models by which the two have let themselves be guided in the quest for the fabrication of a ‘leader’s’ image, a ‘nation’s ruler’, a ‘military commander’, where all these expressions must be written with their respective quotes, as they are textbook cases for beginner semioticians. As if the camps were fervently demarcated not just in the name of the values to be followed, but also in the name of the references to be taken. As such, Putin’s lineage – it never hurts to say it, despite its air of pure redundancy – comes from a model of Soviet cinema anchored in the genre of the historical film made with great financial resources and resources generously spent (as many extras as possible, much pathos addressed to the great mother-nation, etc.), all the while Zelensky is trying to adopt an Americanophile model, posing as the macho hero, but no less a melodramatic one, of the free world. 

This last idea might seem just as redundant, but I do admit that I, for one, was slightly surprised when I first enunciated it in one breath. Practically, in terms of image, Zelensky, for the last few months, has been building himself exclusively by showing a disdain for the local audiovisual references, appealing to a code that is both more popular (especially to the taste of those born in post-Communism) and more universal (perfectly readable as a message by other nations as well). This thought coagulated especially around a pictorial with the Ukrainian presidential couple, signed by Annie Leibovitz, the famous Vogue magazine photographer, which is due October 2022. A few photographs, however, have been published. The most representative of them illustrates Zelensky dressed up in the all too familiar kaki T-shirt, flexing his muscles around his wife’s shoulders, who is posing with her curls in the wind and an adamant facial expression. One is allowed to be awed by the pictures: firstly, of course, because it defines the presidential couple’s entrance through the front door of world showbiz, the only one capable of sending someone to fame and glory and gossip. The entrance, which was most certainly being eyed by the cheap comedy actor Zelensky, which at long last closes the loop of this catapulted individual chosen by destiny, this self-made man who did not know what he was getting into, forced to become Ukraine’s president to gain the title of regional star and the chief of a state involved in war to accede to world notoriety. 

Then, the picture amazes by its glamour register that is in complete opposition with the not-at-all-cosmetic reality of the war, which is mobilized, I gather, to fulfill two functions, both political: firstly, to individualize Zelensky until he achieves the status of icon and trendsetter – the first-prize winner Emmanuel Macron did not even need more to show himself with a gruff face and wearing a casual hoodie – and so coating over his image a sort of blazon, which confirms that, yes, in the free world this leader is ‘what is needed’. (It is expected that Zelensky will become an example not only of diplomatic prestidigitating, but also one of the looks.) Secondly, it confirms some almost tautological ideas, ones that even satisfy both those on the one side and on the other of the barricade: conservators can relax, the values of the family are well anchored; progressives can pick the problem from the opposite end, with stress Olena Zelensky, the woman who, discretely yet decisively, keeps Zelensky standing and therefore, Ukraine as a whole. An appearance of cool-ism emanates from this image, something sober yet involuntarily risible, evoking in mind those postmodern facile edits from a couple of years ago, when Mona Lisa and a bearded Van Gogh are walking arm in arm, smoking and driving convertibles. 

In fact, this image does nothing else but to constitute an apotheosis of Zelensky’s legitimacy – body, frowned face, a mouth that will not shut up during all the politically intended meetings and said a-political, from summits to the Cannes Festival – as a mondain and cultural object. It is remarkable, in this sense, to follow the long path of the Ukrainian president in audiovisual terms, from the poor short films posted on TikTok during the first days of the conflict from the precarious safety of the place where he was sheltering to the month’s pictorial in Vogue magazine. An in-between, temporary station along his route is represented by the two clips that the Zelensky administration launched on the 9th of May, on commemorating the victory over Nazism. Here Zelensky appeared to be moving using two gears, following multiple targets: he used black-and-white and color, a static frame and travling, the by-gone archival image and the amateurish recent ones, as if he had set out – among other things – to test the ability of cinema to deliver a simple and inevitable message. It is interesting to note that he did it by seemingly keeping in mind two distinct audiences, a local one and an international one, based on which he dressed either in a casual gray military outfit or in a T-shirt on which it lay written ‘I’M UKRAINIAN’.

Ilustrație de Dan Perjovschi

I may be sinning by over-interpreting a fact that is as clear as daylight, more precisely Zelensky’s despair, who has used any platform in order to try and sway in his favor the international public opinion – and this is the reason for which, given such momentum, he fired up the engines of patheticalness beyond bearableness. But dismissing these small official productions as bonkers propaganda does not seem useful to advancing knowledge – they must be carefully analyzed, with the conviction that within them lay hidden some precious clues about the state of alphabetization in terms of audiovisual of the present moment. Zelensky has delivered speeches amidst antitank ‘Czech hedgehogs’ and in front of a demolished building on which one could read clearly the scars of bombing. Zero subtility, but maximum efficiency, exacerbated by the loud tearjerking music that doubled the leader’s words. In the much more complex movie between the two, he mixed a static black-and-white present and a moving past also shot in black-and-white, until the two strata became hardly distinguishable in spite of the amateurish editing, reflecting the idea of continuity of a brave people, hit by bigger and greedier nations. 

By contrast, the media man Vladimir Putin is a rare sight and less fertile in terms of analysis. His version on manhood does no longer excite interest, for it is too specific – it must include an animal to be tamed or a natural element to be overthrown –, almost caricatural in its machismo transparency with buffed up pectorals. Putin has made a rare appearance ever since the war broke and he did it in such an emblematic way for the soft dictatorship in Moscow, that it is just the sign of a man who has grown tired of appearances – the ‘PR’ department, so vital in the West, has become useless in Russia – and it defies all the expectations of democratic countries. Putin does not feel the need to resort to Zelensky’s tricks to convey his message: the illusion of the people’s man is so passé, just like the so-called existence of a free electoral cast, proof being the megalomaniac meeting that took place on the stadium in April, where he made his appearance wearing the exclusivist coat brand Loro Piana. At the same time, the recording that showed the meeting of the generalissimo and his high dignitaries reunited around him, seasoned with the hesitation of the director of the Russian espionage agency, seems taken from a B-rated Hollywoodian production, in which the head of state is a choleric caricature with Borat’s accent, ready to send anyone to the nearest prison camp at the first sign of going off the script. Ever since, Putin has consoled mothers who’ve lost their sons in the war and has visited infirmaries – an image resource that Zelensky has mostly avoided, for it makes one think of a kind of war that he, understandably, wishes done with, and also of a tactical leader (not a vlogger) and directly involved (not an onscreen instigator).

Ilustrație de Dan Perjovschi

Overall, Zelensky is a man of the image – comfortable in front of the camera and perfectly aware of the advantages in terms of territorial coverage and message delivering efficiency –, while Putin seems captive in a state of humanism marked by the lack of trust in the audiovisual. It is not clear at all if, in accord with this intensive use of formats and devices, Zelensky truly proposes a greater understanding of the means of making of a story, of revealing, of moving people. It rather seems that he’s operating with a simple updating of the same sensationalist reflexes that have made the breaking news in the democratic world caught in the war. Putin opposes a stiff and authoritarian approach: nothing more alien, in its essential nature, than a frivolous TikTok video, when even his infamous masculinized photo shoots owed their success to the immense lag between his severe posture and, in short, his desire to show off. This war indicates the clock in what regards the image in the top politics positions: for Putin, who doesn’t fool anyone anymore, the match was lost from the beginning because the pool of his references is doomed, and the form (the dictator whishing himself a son of the people) discredited itself once some more inclusive, more popular and more just versions of political regimes emerged. For Zelensky, things are a bit more nuanced, but the global sensation is that synchronizing with the new trends in terms of audiovisual, in fact, represent a misleading operation, one that pretends to introduce a horizontal rapport with the viewer just to manipulate them more fiercely. 

More significant effort is needed to introduce (yet again) respect for the audiovisual in our leaders’ padded offices once this war is over.


This article was published first in the 2022 printed issue of the magazine, still available in our online shop.

Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris.