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The Zelensky Phenomenon: the Rise of Audience Democracy and Performative Politics in Ukraine

Class at Faculty of Social Sciences |


The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and successful resistance of Ukrainians to it not only increased demand for the expert knowledge on the nation and the region at large but also drew huge public attention to the war leadership of President Zelensky. His resonant public speeches on various international platforms contributed to the unified support to the Ukrainian cause on the side of the global North, which in turn triggered a number of publications on the matter – from anthologies of Zelensky’s speeches to variants of his biography, journalist investigations, and political analysis.

Ever since the landslide elections in 2019, when Zelensky received unprecedented for the Ukrainian context 73% of votes in the presidential runoff and later on secured his positions through the – again, unprecedented – parliamentary majority for his party, this political project has attracted significant attention of theorists and scholars working on the region. The political technology of winning the elections with vague promise and no clear political program caused lots of skepticism domestically to dub Zelensky “president without qualities” (Eurozine discussion) or the ‘Waldo bear’ candidate from the Black Mirror TV series (Oksana Zabuzhko). His rhetorical strategies were analyzed internationally as either part of the rising trend of populism (Andrew Wilson) or of TV celebrities / comedians going into politics (William Davies). Subsequent Trump-related scandal increased both Zelensky’s international visibility and the overall skepticism towards his presidency. However, the full-blown invasion in 2022 and Zelensky’s efficient wartime leadership shifted the perspective. An avalanche of hagiographic books and signs of symbolic recognition – like the Time’s 2022 Person of the Year award – turned Zelensky into an acclaimed politician with the global fame.

The course structure consists of two clusters – theoretical and practical sessions.

Theoretical classes will tackle literature on recent shifts in public politics bringing a set of useful notion to the discussion, e.g. “political performativity” (Jeffrey C. Alexander; Judith Butler), “audience democracy” (Bernard Manin), “disintermediation of politics” (Nadia Urbinati), “technopopulism” (Bickerton & Invernizzi Accetti), “virtual politics” (Andrew Wilson), “online democracy” (Paolo Gerbaudo), “ocular democracy” (Jeffrey E. Green) etc.

Practical sessions will focus on discourse analysis of video content: TV series “Servant of the People” (2015-2019); Zelensky’s addresses to Ukrainian people (2019-2022); Zelensky’s speeches to the international audience (2022-23).