The Ukrainian leader shows how wit and mockery can undermine brutal authority.
In interviews with the French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy in 2019, Zelensky made it clear that he was quite aware of the interconnection between his place as a clown and his role as a leader. When Lévy asked him if he could make even Vladimir Putin laugh “just as he had made all Russians laugh,” Zelensky insisted that he could. Though, he then added, “This man does not see; he has eyes, but does not see; or, if he does look, it’s with an icy stare, devoid of all expression.” They are eerie words, since one of Bakhtin’s other great themes was, so to speak, the politics of gazing, how we emancipate ourselves from our own solipsism by trying to see life through the eyes of another—a thing no dictator or tyrant can achieve. “Laughter is a weapon that is fatal to men of marble,” Zelensky told Lévy, aphoristically.