Since the start of Russia’s most recent offensive in Ukraine, the respective presidents have been in the public eye, worldwide, in various settings. Putin is usually aspiring to look very much the statesman, wearing a suit and tie, and seated at a desk or a table. Often, an extremely long table has kept visitors as far away from him as possible; even his top military staff was demonstratively held at bay this way, as were foreign presidents. Putin was allegedly trying to avoid a Covid infection, yet the general impression, gleefully relayed by reporters, was that the president was fearful or even—like Stalin—growing paranoid about his closest allies possibly turning against him. We cannot know the truth of this. But we can see that Putin, in giving cause for speculation of this sort, has lost ground to the West in the visual war.
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Russian president Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with permanent members of Russia’s Security Council via video conference in the Kremlin, Moscow, February 25, 2022. Photo: Alexei, Nikolsky/Kremlin Pool/Sputnik/EPA/picture alliance
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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov in Moscow, Russia, February 27, 2022. Photo: Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow, Russia, February 7, 2022. Photo: Sputnik/Kremlin via REUTERS
In fact, images of Putin at a long table (not a round table!) have spawned countless ironic or sarcastic memes that reduced the respectable professional to an object of ridicule and scorn. Even images issued by Putin long before the war, showing him as Judoka, for instance, or on horseback, have served as blueprints for memes.

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Putin on horseback, meme from
Putin appears to have sensed that his public image as a remote and cold-hearted president could probably use a corrective. In early March, he met with a group of Aeroflot flight attendants, presenting himself as a caring ruler in touch with “the people,” here conveniently personified by an attractive and all-female bunch of professionals. Various commentators have insisted that this footage was a deep fake. Certainly, the images were staged—and Putin came across as neither charming nor sincere, but only stiff.
In mid-March, Putin organized a mass event at a sports stadium, where he was cheered by tens of thousands of Russians against a backdrop of white, blue, and red flags. Here, the message was clear: countless patriots ardently support of their president. This may well stand up in Russia. Yet the West commented on these images, just as it had on the flight attendant show: with mockery. It is supposed, moreover, that many of the flag-wavers were not there voluntarily, but for fear of repression.
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Putin in a sports stadium in Moscow. Photo: Mikhail Klimentev/Sputnik/AFP
Zelensky, in sharp contrast, quickly abandoned his suit and tie for an olive-green T-shirt or a uniform, and acquired first a 5 o’clock shadow, then a beard. This makes it easy for viewers to distinguish between the pre-February and the post-February statesman. While the clean-shaven president conjures the businessman and comedian that he was before taking office in 2019, the bearded president evokes an image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara that was for decades an icon of the anti-imperialist Left.
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Pre-February: Official portrait of the 6th and current President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky.
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Post-February: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 7, 2022. Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP
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Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in Havana, Cuba, in 1962. Photo: Tony Ortega/AP

While Putin is shown keeping his distance, in Western media, Zelensky comes up close to every available camera. From the very start, he has made selfies with foreign visitors or members of his government. And, despite shelling in Kyiv and the fact that the Russian Secret Service was clearly on his heels, he has taken to the streets. The impact of a selfie and video clip shot by Zelensky out in Kyiv, after nightfall, can hardly be overstated. Instantly circulated in both official and social media, worldwide, it visually underscored Zelensky’s determination to take responsibility for his country instead of skipping out.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the nation via his smartphone in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 26, 2022. Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP
The soldier-style president with a neatly trimmed designer beard has meanwhile become a Ukrainian brand that everyone (in the West) wants a slice of. A long list of parliaments is broadcasting the Ukrainian president’s addresses via Zoom and an impressive (and seemingly never-ending) line-up of politicians is traveling to Kyiv to speak to Zelensky—and take selfies with him.
Unlike Putin, a Secret Service breed who has always preferred to keep his private life out of the limelight, Zelensky has long been posting family snapshots on Instagram. They show him as the nice guy next door and as someone who takes very seriously his responsibility for future generations. As one commentator has noted on Twitter: “During his inaugural address in 2019, Zelensky told lawmakers: ‘I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol, or a portrait. Han[g] your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.’”
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Photo of Zelensky and his family circulating on social media, here from Twitter.
Two factors are likely to have determined the Ukrainian respectively the Russian style of visual communications so far. Firstly, the Ukrainian president is a media professional. Before running for president, he was the founding director of Kvartal 95, a TV production company that emerged from a successful comedy team of the same name. Zelensky is also a former actor, so he knows how to face a camera. Secondly, being 44 years of age, Zelensky is a digital native. Producing selfies, either as still or moving images, comes naturally to him. He needs no sophisticated setting when addressing the public–his smartphone alone is always enough.
Putin, by contrast, is 69 and apparently has never really found his way into the digital age; he still favors “protocol photography” over street photography. Much has been said and written about the old-fashioned telephones on his desk. They suggest that Putin’s communications are by and large stuck in the simple sender/receiver model, as part of an outmoded law and order mindset once common both in the USSR and in the West. And this is where yet another factor comes into play: humor is anathema to totalitarian regimes. While former comedian Zelensky’s charisma rests on an ability to poke fun at himself, Putin strives above all to avoid being laughed at. This antagonism is emblematic of the clash between an ever more isolated and totalitarian Russia and a Ukraine that is heading steadily towards the European Union.