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Why the Ukrainian leader's speeches are so rousing

Rayna Breuer
June 7, 2022

For months, Ukraine's president has been sending his country's wartime message out to the world, via all channels and by using all kinds of emotions and arguments.

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Zelenskyy appears on a large screen in front of Davos delegates
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy addresses the World Economic Forum in DavosImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

When Volodymyr Zelenskyy took office as president of Ukraine in 2019, many doubted him because of his previous career as a comedian and actor. Few trusted him to lead a country.

Three years later, things have taken another turn altogether. Zelenskyy has proven his mettle as a leader in war time. Part of that has seen him speaking to the world on an almost daily basis, appearing everywhere from the Cannes Film Festival to the World Economic Forum in Davos as well as at numerous parliaments.

His words are well chosen and always adapted to the audience or country. He uses figurative speech and emotions, and often appeals to people's consciences. And he's been doing that almost daily for more than 100 days on various channels.

Twenty-three of Zelenskyy's speeches have now been compiled in a book, available in French and German. Proceeds from both books, titled "Pour l'Ukraine" and "Für die Ukraine für die Freiheit," in their respective languages, will be donated to Ukrainian organizations.

Zelenskyy on the big screen, connected by video to the Cannes Film Festival.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Zelenskyy drew comparisons to Charlie Chaplin's film, The Great DictatorImage: Eric Gaillard/REUTERS

'Someone is lying'

War seemed imminent even before the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24.

"We carry within us a great European longing. We want freedom, and we are ready to fight for it," Zelenskyy said on February 14, in a speech to the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians know what is coming yet the West still believes in miracles, Zelenskyy said back then.

The Ukrainian president attempted to shatter that belief just five days later, giving a speech at the 58th Munich Security Conference.

"Ukraine wants peace. Europe wants peace. The world says it doesn't want war and Russia says it won't attack. Someone is lying," Zelenskyy said on February 19 in Munich. 

Zelenskyy visits troops as fighting rages

Five days later, the Russian army invaded Ukraine.

The differences between Zelenskyy's oratorial style and that of Russian leader Vladimir Putin are stark. 

When Putin addresses his people, he is often seated at an enormous table, wearing a suit and tie. Zelenskyy, on the other hand, speaks to Ukrainians almost daily, usually in a T-shirt.

"Putin uses heroic rhetoric, us versus them, a clear enemy. But people basically don't feature in his speeches," said Franziska Davies, an expert on eastern Europe and an historian at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University. "Loss, death, grief — all the things that make a war a war, don't come up," she added.

Ordinary lives, everyday motivations

In a May 9 speech, Putin did not clarify his rationale for waging war in Ukraine's Donbas region. Zelenskyy, on the other hand, refers repeatedly to people who die or who are injured in the war. "He gives the war a human face," Davies told DW.

Zelenskyy has also sought direct dialogue with Russian soldiers in the same, personal way. On March 15, he spoke in Russian, urging Russian soldiers to lay down their arms.

"What are you dying for?" he asked in a typically direct style. "I know, you want to survive ... We know who you are. That’s why I offer you a choice: On behalf of the Ukrainian people, we give you a chance to live. If you surrender to our forces, we will treat you as humans have to be treated: with dignity." 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy via video link in the German Bundestag, MPs applaud after the speech.
Speaking to German politicians on March 17, the Ukrainian President reminded them of their historical responsibilityImage: Christian Spicker/IMAGO

Addressing the world's parliaments

Whether speaking to German , French, Japanese or American politicians, Zelenskyy demands more than lip service. He often challenges the decision-makers and his speeches to the German parliament have been particularly critical. 

At the same time, his speeches are adapated to each set of listeners. Zelenskyy uses the historical narrative of the state in question, and through this, leaves a lasting impression.

For example, in Germany he referred to the words, "never again", often used to refer to Nazi crimes. 

"I appeal to you on behalf of everyone who has heard politicians say: 'Never again.' And who saw that these words are worthless," Zelenskyy told German politicans. "Because again in Europe they are trying to destroy the whole nation. Destroy everything we live by and live for."

Zelenskyy also sets up contests. While he has denounced German hesitancy in his speeches, he has thanked other heads of state for their support. "And my special thanks go to you, Boris, my friend!" is how he ended his speech at the British parliament.

Successful symbolism

"Zelenskyy has become a symbolic figure," Davies told DW. "He does very skillful public relations work and that should not be underestimated at all. I always find it a bit presumptuous when the accusation comes from Germany that he is putting on an act. For the people who are at war, this is very important. It gives them hope and orientation," she argued.

The cover of the book "For Ukraine - For Freedom" shows Volodymyr Selenskyj against a blue and yellow background
The German version of the book of Zelenskyy's speeches, published at the end of May

In contrast, Davies said, German efforts at such symbolism have failed. "While Boris Johnson gave a brilliant speech after Zelenskyy's speech ... the German Bundestag went back to business as usual," she noted, referring to the fact that after Zelenskyy spoke to them, German lawmakers simply went back to work. 

This article was originally written in German.