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New Biography ‘The Showman’ Follows Zelensky Inside the War Room

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The black-and-white cover of 'The Showman' features a portrait of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looking at the camera.
‘The Showman’ by Simon Shuster. (Harper Collins)

When Moscow-born journalist Simon Shuster was growing up in San Francisco in the 1990s, he couldn’t have imagined that there would be a war between Russia and Ukraine, or that he would be the one accompanying the Ukrainian president on top-secret trips to the front.

Shuster, now a senior correspondent for Time, is the only foreign reporter to receive unprecedented access to Ukraine’s President Zelensky, his wife and his cabinet during the first year of Russia’s invasion, which he chronicles in his new book The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky. Shuster shows us the invasion from inside the war room to demonstrate both the effect the comedian-turned-politician has had on the war — and the effect the war has had on him. At the heart of this book is a question: What path best prepares us for the unimaginable?

‘Time’ senior correspondent and author Simon Shuster. (Debora Mittelstaedt)

The author’s own path toward that war room wasn’t straightforward. Few immigrants from the former Soviet Union return to visit their homeland. Fewer still move there to build a career. Shuster said it was while he was dabbling in journalism at Stanford that he realized his ability to speak Russian and write in English was “a pretty cool competitive advantage that I should not squander.” He moved to Moscow to work as a reporter in 2006 and has remained a key figure in the coverage of the region ever since.

Still, when asked what it was about him that made Zelensky grant him unique access, he said he doesn’t fully know. “I think he saw my long-term commitment to covering the story. But also, the way he makes decisions is usually shooting from the hip. It’s quite intuitive.”

Zelensky’s decision-making style is evident from the start of the book. The Showman opens with a striking scene at the president’s villa at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of Russia’s invasion, when Zelensky, already dressed in a suit, tells his wife, “It’s started.” We follow him as his driver takes him toward Kyiv’s center, while “in the other direction the traffic had started to thicken.” People are fleeing. Soon, Zelensky will get offers from foreign heads of state to help him flee as well. He will find them offensive. The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the narrative, where the president’s confidence in his decisions (some brave, some irrational) forges a path for Ukraine that no one could have predicted.

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We follow him down into the Soviet-era nuclear bunker where he will spend the first dramatic weeks of the invasion and deliver some of his most stirring speeches. His life there is far from glamorous: He and his team subsist on tinned meat and packaged sweets while sleeping on twin-size cots with no sunlight, fresh air or a way to see their families. The description is a riveting reminder of just how precarious and mind boggling those initial weeks of Europe’s first 21st-century war really were.

The Showman isn’t a play by play of the first year of the full-scale war. Once the scene of the invasion is set, Shuster takes us back to Zelensky’s upbringing in a rough industrial town, through his growing popularity as a comedian and TV producer, and to his pivotal warzone tours at the start of the conflict in 2014 that sent him on his path toward politics. We also see a portrait of the president’s marriage as he and Olena Zelenska try to get comfortable with politics.

Zelensky emerges as a candid guy who isn’t politically savvy, but who is able to harness his skills as a showman to convince, inspire, fundraise and ultimately stage an unlikely resistance to annihilation.

But Shuster isn’t blind to his protagonist’s more problematic sides.

One of the most revealing threads of The Showman is Zelensky’s mistaken belief in his power of persuasion when it came to negotiating peace with Russia. While visiting the massacre site in Bucha in April 2022, Zelensky said of Putin, “I’m not sure he knows what is happening.” Shuster, just as the reader, finds this naivete astonishing. He writes, “He seemed to believe that if he could only take Putin on a tour of Bucha […], the war might stop.”

Shuster also worries whether Zelensky, who has stamped out competition and instituted control of the media, “will have the wisdom and restraint to part with the extraordinary powers granted to him under martial law, or whether he will, like so many leaders through history, find that power too addictive.”

While it is tricky to write a work of longform journalism against the backdrop of a relentless news cycle, The Showman stands as a clear-eyed insider look into this conflict. As the war enters its third year, The Showman serves as a reminder of what could happen if we turn away.

Simon Shuster discusses ‘The Showman’ at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Jan. 29 and at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on Jan. 30.

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