Zelensky’s peculiar Glastonbury appearance

25 June 2022

1:35 AM

25 June 2022

1:35 AM

Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t quite make it onto the Glastonbury line-up posters. Perhaps Michael Eavis, the owner of ever-so Worthy Farm, had last-minute difficulties with the Ukrainian President’s booking agent. No matter. An eight-foot-high image of President Zelensky’s face graced the Pyramid Stage on Friday, right before ageing indie rockers The Libertines belted out their two-decades-old bangers. ‘Time for Heroes’, but not before festival-goers had enjoyed a brief set by Europe’s very own hero. You’d be forgiven for thinking the shtick’s getting a bit tired – but at least Pete Doherty can just about hold a tune.

‘Glastonbury is the greatest concentration of freedom these days,’ Zelensky told the festival. And what greater expression of freedom is there than tucking into over-priced Vietnamese street food while some besieged leader begs your government for more weapons? Perhaps Stoke Newington’s exiles in Somerset could pop over to the Kyiv tent, nestled somewhere between Water Aid and Greenpeace, and sponsor an NLAW? They barely managed the syllabically-strained rendition of ‘Oh, Volodymyr Zelensky’ (à la ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’). But then perhaps he isn’t quite as popular with the Glasto crowd as the old Russophile Labour leader.

A message from President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy was just played on the big screens at The Other Stage, shortly before The Libertines’ stage-opening set. #Glastonbury2022

— Glastonbury Festival (@glastonbury) June 24, 2022

You can’t really blame Zelensky. He’s doing all he can to drum up support for his country. But there’s something incongruous about this virtual world tour. A couple of months ago, Vlod was beamed into Las Vegas for the Grammys so he could chivvy up support from pop stars and producers. A few hours later, he visited the site of the Bucha massacre.

It’s the PR-iness of the thing that feels strange. After all, propaganda is still propaganda, even if you happen to agree with it. But then Zelensky came to power as an actor, someone who had lampooned the office of the president so successfully that his countrymen thought he might actually do a good job of the gig. Now he’s been cast as a war-time leader, perhaps the greatest part any actor-politician could hope for. The invasion is, after all, even more blockbuster than Top Gun 2.

Perhaps that’s what Ukraine really needs: its own leading man to rally the troops. I doubt he’s down there in the bunker directing battalions and planning supply routes. Instead, he’s out there in ‘the battle for the airwaves’, a phrase loftily thrown about by those who think themselves insusceptible to agitprop. In the modern era, even conflicts need a hypeman.

It goes without saying that what’s happening in Ukraine is beyond grim. And from what I can see, Zelensky is doing a pretty good job of holding it together. But the strange thing about Ukraine is that we all seem to want a part of the story. No longer are world crises something to be watched from afar. The invasion has been subsumed into the ‘experience economy’. As Ed Cumming recently wrote in the Telegraph, Vlod has become the ultimate celeb accessory. Earlier this week he met with the Hollywood actor Ben Stiller, but even Zoolander couldn’t out-do Zelensky’s rendition of ‘blue steel’.

His gruff cajoling tone, his pectoral-enhancing military t-shirts, the stern straight-down-the-camera look. It’s extraordinarily good branding. And it’s been perfectly honed for us, the well-meaning western viewer. Look at him. The ultimate hero. And he needs our – my! – help.

Where does all this end? Insurgencies, on average, tend to last around a decade. Are we going to see Zelensky, Paul McCartney-like, wheeled out to perform his greatest hits well into his eighties? What jamboree will be complete without a quick guest appearance? An after dinner speech here, an awards ceremony there. Because it feels increasingly like we aren’t really listening. What matters is that we get our own little sliver of history, a quick Instagram story of Zelensky on the big screen to show that we #StillCare.

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