The rise of 'Zelensky-washing'

From Hollywood actors to the British prime minister, everyone wants a piece of the Ukrainian leader

'Increasingly, the Ukrainian president has to contend with another army pouring across his border from the West: the legions of political leaders, celebrities and other groupies yearning to bask in his presence'

Typical, isn’t it? You go years without an invasion and then two come along at once. President Zelensky had enough on his plate with the advancing Russian troops laying waste to the east of his country. Increasingly, the Ukrainian president has to contend with another army pouring across his border from the West: the legions of political leaders, celebrities and other groupies yearning to bask in his presence. In the inchoate field of “Zelensky-washing”, reflected glory is the best disinfectant. Problems at home? Get to Kyiv. 

The latest to slip through Kyiv’s defences is the actor, director and writer Ben Stiller, who was granted his audience earlier this week. Meet the Parents met the Zelentz. For anyone wondering what business Derek Zoolander has in an active war zone, Stiller is also a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. The video clip of their exchange is a curious spectacle. Zelensky, in his usual olive-green fatigues, looks like a private being visited by a charismatic president. Partly it’s because Stiller, arms gym-buffed, hair a statesmanlike grey, looks like a wartime leader in a film. “You’re my hero,” he tells Zelensky. 

But there’s something more to all this: perhaps Zelensky is naturally deferential to Stiller. Given the Ukrainian leader’s previous life as a comic actor, it stands to reason that he would revere the American. Even so, it’s surprising to see him starstruck. Perhaps it is a welcome break from begging for artillery. After all, what is leading your nation’s defence against a Russian invasion compared with starring in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story? 

Stiller is not the only celebrity to make the trip east. Last month, Zelensky invited Bono and The Edge to perform in the Kyiv metro. The message to the Ukrainian citizens, who were getting used to normal life again, was clear: remain vigilant. The bombardment has eased for now, but at any moment, U2 could break out. Although we presume the musicians met the President, no pictures have been released, perhaps also at Zelensky’s request. Who decides which actors make the cut? Is there an adviser who says yes to Stiller, but no to Adam Sandler? 

When the conflict broke out, actor Sean Penn was in the country making a documentary for Vice, a multi-media platform. He was so impressed by his meeting with Zelensky that he threatened to “smelt” his Oscars if the Ukrainian was not invited to this year’s awards. As JFK said, ask not which statuettes your country can melt for you, but which statuettes you can melt for your country. Penn said he had thought about returning to take up arms. It is a noble thought, but Penn’s best use is in soft power. Specifically, he ought to get his 2018 novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, translated into Russian and distributed among the Russian troops to shatter their morale. 

But the celebrities are nothing next to the politicians. When, in April, the first group visited – the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia –  it felt like an act of solidarity. Subsequent trips have had diminishing returns. The leaders of Germany and Romania have paid their respects, but in Germany’s case without explaining when they propose to stop buying Russian gas. American politicians Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell have come to see if they can’t pilfer some of his charisma. Facing wipeout in the parliamentary elections, President Macron at last tired of being photographed in Zelensky dress-up, and went to say hello in person. He did so in the French style, embracing the Ukrainian president like an A-level girlfriend after three days apart. Zelensky looked suitably unimpressed. 

Earlier this year, clearly inspired by his Ukrainian counterpart's popularity, Emmanuel Macron had his own Zelenksy-esque makeover

Still, nothing compares to the enthusiasm of the original fan-boy, the Zelensky-washer in chief. Boris Johnson’s first visit, walking around the bombed-out Kyiv, showed a rare flash of leadership. But it also served as a convenient distraction from his problems at home. He must have found it refreshing to be somewhere where he was genuinely popular, as though he had stepped through a portal into the Tory Party Conference of 2008, with more missile damage. 

For his most recent visit, he spurned Red Wall voters to head to Ukraine. Who can blame him? In Ukraine, Johnson is Bazooka Santa, an odd-looking bloke who keeps sending rocket launchers. Boris is so popular that he inspired a Kyiv baker to name a croissant after him. To judge by the curious design, the baker may have been improvising after a disaster. But it will be cheering to a Prime Minister so enthusiastic about having cakes and eating them.

At the current rate of visitations, by this time next year, Johnson will be a non-dom. The irony can’t be lost on the Ukrainian president: before the war he couldn’t have bought a meeting with Johnson; now he can’t get rid of him. He asked for heavy artillery; he got a massive weapon. 

Still, so bright is Zelensky’s star that it is still undimmed by his association with Johnson. Life in Kyiv is increasingly back to normal. We can expect the stream of politicians and celebrities to continue. Everyone with a reputation to repair will be getting the next flight out. Johnson enjoys a hero’s reception in Kyiv, but will Prince Andrew?