One of the many side-plots of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the unlikely transformation of Volodymir Zelensky, from comedian-turned-president to war-time leader.
Zelensky has been impressive, not just because he stayed in the country when bombs began falling on Kiev, but also because he showed incredible stamina in speaking out about the war. In his video messages, he has been tirelessly reminding the world about the horrors of the invasion, and (perhaps more importantly) that the war wasn’t something we should just accept, shouldn’t shrug off.
Via video link, he has appeared in front of parliaments around the world, at the United Nations, and even at the Grammys. Undoubtedly helped by his past as a television personality, he has been quite media-savvy: The president’s messaging is always on point, usually delivered freely, and packed with specific cultural references for each audience, carefully chosen to make a moral appeal for support. Zelensky has been a daily presence.
And then there’s the beard.
I don’t usually veer too far into current events here, not because I don’t care about them, but because the facts are often so contested. However, I can speak with a certain confidence about the images that accompany current events—from the perspective of an observer and someone who cares about the power of images in the political context.
Before the invasion began, Zelensky appeared just like most (male) politicians: Clad in suit and tie, cleanly shaven. It’s the uniform of politics—same-ish and formal, meant to signal trustworthiness and seriousness. Of course, a politician could do their job just fine wearing whatever they wanted, but there’s that expectation to look presidential when you’ve climbed to the highest rungs of power, and even shedding the tie is a little bit of a scandal.
In the first message I can remember, Zelensky had swapped the uniform for a military green t-shirt and had stopped shaving. There are, of course, several practical reason for that: When your country is being invaded, “looking presidential” rapidly falls on your list of priorities. The new look is practical and requires little maintenance.
But there’s more to it than that—I think the appearance fulfills its own goal, and creates an image just like the clean-shaven look did before the war. Both outfit and the beard signify, at a glance, that the president is fully engaged in the conflict, spending days and nights focused on the events on the ground rather than his appearance. It’s an effective way of communicating that engagement to his people, to the foreign media, and possibly even to Russia: “Just like the rest of the country, I have single-minded devotion to this conflict, and I will not rest until it is over and we’ve won.”
At this point, it’s impossible to know where this conflict will go, who will win (if any war can even have winners), and how we’ll view the main protagonists after the fact. What’s sure is that the optics speed along the myth-making.
The image of Putin berating his ministers or meeting with other state leaders at a comically long table has been etched into our minds, cementing the view of an out-of-touch autocrat. Zelensky, meanwhile, has styled himself an unconventional leader, and I don’t believe we’ll see the new outfit nor the beard going away again—even when the war has ended (which is hopefully soon).