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March 2022 Blog: From a Jester to a Hero: is Zelensky an epitome of the modern post-Soviet political masculinity?

‘And when you attack us, you will see our faces. Not our backs, but our faces.’

Volodymyr Zelensky, The President of Independent Ukraine 1

From a Jester to a Hero

‘Business as usual’ is how one would describe the Western media’s reaction to the presidential election victory of Volodymyr Zelensky back in 2019 when the actor and a comedian - turned politician, won by a landslide taking over 73% of the vote, defeating political veterans such as the former president Petro Poroshenko and the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.2 ‘Ukraine election: Comedian Zelensky wins presidency by landslide’ 3, ‘Comedian wins landslide victory in Ukrainian presidential election’4 , ‘Comedian upsets Ukraine's president in landslide election victory’5 - were some of the few headlines announcing Western amusement as the political scene in Ukraine was judged as another political oddity and a missed political opportunity. Nevertheless, the position taken by the Ukrainian leader in regards to the recent attack on Ukrainian independence launched by Russian president Vladimir Putin resulted in his re-branding in the international media. The headlines such as ‘Ukraine’s president Zelensky: In the streets of a war-rattled city, a hero is born.’6 or ‘How Volodymyr Zelensky found his roar.’7 proclaimed his new image as a leader who will stay by his people, whilst that of Ukraine - as a country, which will not give in. However, perhaps more importantly, Zelensky’s image as a leader who stood up to Putin’s uncontrollable political machismo and megalomania and someone, who is brokering for peace whilst being ready to give his life for his country, indicates another thing of great significance – an opportunity of moving past the stereotypes of post-Soviet nations as craving iron fist macho rulers and embracing other kinds of political masculinities that can be identified within this region.

The epitome of the modern post-Soviet masculinity?

The contemporary scholarship, indeed, recognises masculinities as a constantly evolving spectrum. The dynamic political environment produces and exposes new types, which vary in their nature and their impact. For instance, a few years ago, we witnessed the rise of the type with more positive and progressive connotations, the ‘He4She’ type masculinity (some of the best-known examples of this type of masculinity are Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the former US president Barack Obama).8 Whilst on the other side of the spectrum, we would find the ‘toxic’ masculinity. Although the term itself was constructed back in the 1990s9, it has been increasingly popular in the recent years, especially in the discussions relating misogyny or gender-based violence. The term is also often used in the political context, for example, Daddow and Hertner refer to it in the context of two right-wing political parties in Western Europe - Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) and Ukip. 10 Whilst, we also have a number of other masculinities that could be place somewhere within this spectrum, such as 'softer militarized’, ‘the violently fratriarchal’, 'the less violent' or the ‘caring/fathering’ types.

Thus, where exactly would Zelensky stand in this context? Could he be ‘placed’ with the ‘fathering and caring’ type (hence his concern for and dedication to his nation)? Or, perhaps, with the ‘'Peacekeeper masculinity'? Or maybe he should be regarded as the representative of the new Ukrainian or Slavic masculinity? Based on the evolution and various aspects of his political image (a man of culture, peace broker, patriot), I would define his phenomenon as an example of modern post-Soviet masculinity in the political space (another good example of such masculinity, would be Belarusian banker and philanthropist- turned politician and Lukashenka’s opponent, Viktar Babaryka). I suggest that this new type, when juxtaposed with, offers a contrast to the now dated neo-patriarchal and macho type masculinity, which although, being strongly associated with Putin, is also reflected in the political practices of other post-Soviet leaders, for instance, Aliaksandr Lukashenka or Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. So, how would I roughly define this modern post-Soviet political masculinity, that I suggest Zelensky is a symbol of? Firstly, it could be seen as an opposite to the ‘toxic’ or macho types, yet active masculinity, that values peace, well-being and development of one’s nation, preservation of culture and philanthropy over the quests for power (and thus distances from imperialist and megalomaniac types). Nevertheless, I must stress that more thorough research and theoretical evaluation are required to formulate the definition of the suggested concept. Whilst, despite, only time will tell the durability of ‘Zelensky’s effect’, it should be treated as a great opportunity to rethink masculinities within and beyond post-Soviet political space.

The significance of Zelensky’s phenomenon for the post-Soviet world and beyond

It is beyond doubt now that post-Soviet political masculinities are in desperate need of being re-valued and re-thought. And here I cannot help but mention the cliché phrase of ‘despite over 30 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union’ as this is something that indeed needs to be stressed. The toxic and neo-patriarchal masculinities are still very much prevalent in post-Soviet space. The recent Putin’s invasion of Ukraine proved the dangers the perpetuation of machismo and megalomania-driven political leadership styles pose to the international political space. Although being one (if not the most prominent) of the examples of post-Soviet machismo and neo-patriarchy, he is hardly the only one. This trend is indeed evident across the post-Soviet region – be it the illegitimate Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who so persistently is still clinging onto his crumbling political thrown or the megalomaniacs of Central Asia, such as the resign, yet still extremely influential Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, or the second president of the independent Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov – both of whom evidently have been turning the capitals of their countries into shrines of their ‘glory’(one only needs to remember all of the monuments dedicated to their ‘might’), in this way surpassing even their Soviet political forefathers.

The transformation of Zelensky’s political image is indeed significant on many levels. Firstly, if we look at the international level, despite his rocky start as a ‘comedian’, he not only managed to gain the international respect but also to be branded as a president – hero. Whilst on the region level, he offers a stark contrast to bear-riding and self-worshiping political machos and a hope that anachronic ego and megalomania-driven political practices are on their way to becoming, if not obsolete, then at least, no longer acceptable on the global scale. Finally, his transformation is of undeniable significance in national terms. Even the toughest of his critics now could not disagree that the Ukrainian president has proved himself as worthy to his nation at the most difficult time a country could experience – war, or more in particular, a foreign invasion. Whilst, despite the evident danger, he, as I write this on February 27, 2022, still remains in the country ensuring the morale of both- his soldiers and the ordinary citizens. Himself along with the other members of the government, both males and females, have pledged to bear arms and, if the time comes to that, die for their country. As the president himself maintained in his message to the Russian nation on February the 24th , ‘if they try to take our country away from us, our freedom, our lives, lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. Not attack, but defend ourselves.’11



Ruta Skriptaite, PhD Researcher

School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham




  1. Guardian News. 2022. ‘ “We will defend ourselves”, says Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky.’ Youtube, 24 February 2022, Accessed: February 27, 2022.
  2. BBC. 2019. ‘Ukraine election: Comedian Zelensky wins presidency by landslide.’ BBC, 22 April 2019, Accessed: February 27, 2022.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Walker, S. 2019. ‘Comedian wins landslide victory in Ukrainian presidential election’, The Guardian, 22 April 2019, Accessed: February 27, 2022.
  5. Luhn, A. 2019. ‘Comedian upsets Ukraine's president in landslide election victory’, The Telegraph, 21 April 2019, Accessed: February 27, 2022.
  6. Raghavan, S. and O'Grady, S. 2022. ‘Ukraine’s president Zelensky: In the streets of a war-rattled city, a hero is born.’ The Washington Post, 26 February 2022, Accessed: February 27, 2022.
  7. The Economist. 2022. ‘How Volodymyr Zelensky found his roar.’ The Economist, 26 February 2022, Accessed: February 27, 2022.
  8. Myrttinen, H. 2019. 'Stabilizing or Challenging Patriarchy? Sketches of Selected “New” Political Masculinities', Men and Masculinities 22/3:573.
  9. Daddow O, Hertner I. 2021. ‘Interpreting toxic masculinity in political parties: A framework for analysis.’ Party Politics. 27(4):743. doi:10.1177/1354068819887591
  10. Daddow O, Hertner I. 2021. ‘Interpreting toxic masculinity in political parties: A framework for analysis.’ Party Politics. 27(4):743-54. doi:10.1177/1354068819887591
  11. Guardian News. 2022. ‘ “We will defend ourselves”, says Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky.’ Youtube, 24 February 2022, Accessed: February 27, 2022.