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This handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on September 13, 2019, shows the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing to the Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum in Kiev.STR/AFP/Getty Images
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Will the Real Volodymyr Zelensky Please Stand Up?

At the Yalta European Strategy conference, an inscrutable spectacle

Bernard-Henri Lévy
September 19, 2019
STR/AFP/Getty Images
This handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on September 13, 2019, shows the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing to the Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum in Kiev.STR/AFP/Getty Images

The annual Yalta European Strategy conference is a mini-Davos, set up 16 years ago in Ukraine by philanthropist and tycoon Victor Pinchuk.

Attending this year, as in years past, are distinguished geopoliticians, American columnists, NATO officials, ambassadors, serving and retired European heads of state, the prime minister of Qatar, artists, and writers. Opening the event, as in years past, is the president of Ukraine. This year the president is former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in May.

The moment arrives for the gala dinner, traditionally not attended by the president but at which the current holder of the office wishes to be present.

Coffee and dessert are the occasion of “the surprise,” which, each year, caps the three days of lectures and discussions. One year it was Donald Trump by videoconference; another year, Elton John advocating AIDS research; yet another, Stephen Hawking, shortly before his death.

This year, the surprise is the appearance on stage, facing the tables, of a small band of men and women whose arrival is greeted by the Ukrainians in attendance with an explosion of laughter and applause—the group being none other than the comic team of which now-President Zelensky had been a member before his election.

One does an imitation of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Another comments hilariously on an imaginary WhatsApp conversation between political leaders caught seriously off guard.

The third gently needles Victor Pinchuk, our host and one of the major benefactors who stepped up in the wake of the devastating fire that engulfed Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral a few months ago.

The last, done up as President Zelensky, plays a Ukrainian oaf, rough around the edges and speaking very bad English, who pretends to be looking for an interpreter among the hundred or so attendees and points, as if by chance, to the real Zelensky, who, after a few seconds of feigned hesitation, recovers his actor’s reflexes and jumps out of his seat to join his colleague on stage.

That is the situation.

A fake Zelensky playing the real one.

The real Zelensky pretending to interpret for the fake one and so acting as if he were the fake.

The fake president, translated by the real president standing next to him, spouting outrageous remarks that the real Zelensky is obliged to translate and which make him look slightly ridiculous.

There are moments when the provocation is so flagrant that the fake fake is reluctant to translate and the real fake (or fake real) has to pretend to get angry.

Not to mention the real Mrs. Zelensky, back at the table, to whom the real Mr. Zelensky, transformed into his own pastiche, addresses a tender word. Or so it seems. As she is seated next to the actress Robin Wright, whom everyone knows played the First Lady in House of Cards, neither we nor she can really know whether the gesture is directed to her or her doppelgänger.

A very odd spectacle, to say the least.

The unprecedented case of a president of a country at war happy to cavort with his caricature, exchange roles with his double, and, like a character from Marcel Duchamp, allow himself to be stripped naked by his clone.

And the audience… It is confronted with this case of mistaken identity, this merry muddling of the real and the fake, the original and the copy. It is faced with this dismantling of power carried out by equating it with an imitation and so reducing it to farce. It is forced to sit through this self-liquidation by a president willfully disappearing into the mirror before everyone’s eyes. And it hesitates between laughter, embarrassment, and astonishment.

One must keep things in perspective, of course.

One must remember that Mr. Pinchuk himself is a lover of contemporary art who staged the entire symposium alongside a bouquet of steel flowers by Jeff Koons, a garden of snowy light designed by Olafur Eliasson, and a forest of giant trees fabricated entirely from artificial intelligence but seeming more real and more beautiful than the real thing.

Nevertheless, as the sketch ends, two troubling questions hang in the air.

Is this the same man who, addressing us a few hours before, had fine, strong words to say about the urgency of reforms? The same man who, speaking as a commander in chief engaged in a war in the eastern part of his country that has now claimed thirteen thousand lives, exhorted his allies to maintain sanctions against the Russian aggressor? Who, at the morning session, introduced Ukrainian dissident filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who spent five years as Putin’s hostage before Zelensky, after a great struggle, obtained his release?

And then, speak of the devil, if there is one man in the world who was surely following, in real time, this extraordinary story within a story, was it not Vladimir Putin? What must he have made of this close enemy agreeing to transform himself into a simulacrum and, apparently, discrediting himself? Might he have concluded that President Zelensky, by disappearing behind his mask, proved himself nothing but a clown? Or did he suspect a trick, one new to the repertory, puzzling, subtle? In the mind of the chess-playing ex-KGB man, did little Zelensky checkmate himself by succumbing to his natural inclinations and demonstrating that he would never be more than the parody of the president he had played so successfully on television, for so many years, before being elected? Or was he instead the comic whose scathing performances and stand-up routines made him popular even deep within Russia and who, having understood that laughter can be a lethal weapon, was displaying, not impotence, but rather a sovereign freedom, a devastating audacity, and an unparalleled ability to destabilize the marble man paralyzed by his own pseudo-virile poses?

I do not know.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.

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