The Margin: President Zelensky is becoming a respected war hero and a cultural icon — but says ‘I’m not iconic. Ukraine is iconic.’

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““I’m not iconic. I think Ukraine is iconic.””

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was already winning the war of public opinion against Vladimir Putin, with many world leaders condemning the Russian president for his “unacceptable” invasion of Ukraine. And then came the “Paddington Bear” video. 

News reports have suggested that Putin has isolated himself and his country by invading Ukraine. The unprovoked attack has activated NATO troops and united the European Union to impose severe sanctions against Russia — with even Switzerland saying that the E.U. sanctions against Russia will apply within the historically neutral country.

What’s more, some Russian oligarchs have condemned the Russian invasion, and the International Olympic Committee wants sports organizations to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from World Championships and World Cups. And the FIFA World Cup has already followed suit until further notice.

Read more: ‘No war please’: Prominent Russian business leaders, artists and athletes voice opposition to the invasion of Ukraine

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Zelensky has emerged as a “hero” in the headlines of several news outlets, as his country has put up a more tenacious fight against Russia than expected.

Footage of him in the streets with Ukrainian resistance fighters, or reports that he waved away U.S. offers to evacuate him over the weekend with “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride,” consistently trend on Twitter.

The crisis in Ukraine has made Zelensky a household name — and not for the first time.

Many Americans were first introduced to Zelensky as the other half of former President Donald Trump’s “perfect phone call” that led to his first impeachment in 2019.

A refresher: Trump was charged with abuse of power for withholding nearly $400 million in military aid from Ukraine while pressuring Zelensky to investigate the Bidens ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Trump was also charged with obstruction of justice for instructing his top advisers to defy subpoenas. He was acquitted in February 2020. Zelensky didn’t criticize the call publicly at the time, and said that he didn’t see the Trump conversation as a “you give me this, I give you that” scenario.

But Zelensky was a familiar face on Ukrainian television long before that. He earned a law degree, but pivoted to pursue a career in acting and comedy, instead. He created the Kvartal 95 production company, which made many of the shows and films that he starred in — including “Servant of the People,” on which he played a history teacher who goes viral for a rant condemning corrupt politicians. The character ends up becoming the president of the country, himself. 

And in a case of life imitating art, the role inspired him to run against incumbent Petro Poroshenko for president of Ukraine in 2019. Zelensky won by a landslide with more than 73% of the vote. 

Here’s a clip of his “Servant of the People” character Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko giving an impassioned speech against corrupt politicians. 

It should be noted that there were questions about whether Zelensky was living up to his campaign promises to fight corruption and make peace with Russia before Putin’s assault, however. And Zelensky also downplayed warnings from the U.S. and other countries about Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s borders, and threats of Russia seizing Ukrainian cities, prior to the Russian attack. 

But now that conflict has come to Ukraine, he has been praised for stepping up as a wartime president. One senior European official told the New York Times that Zelensky’s 10-minute speech during the Feb. 24 emergency EU summit meeting moved some reluctant leaders to support harsher sanctions on Russia. That was the meeting where Zelensky said, “This may be the last time you see me alive,” a quote that quickly made the rounds on social media.

Read more: Russian forces surround Kyiv and bombard cities with missiles, but Ukraine is winning the information war

But the “Servant of the People” clip is not the only Zelensky video to resurface and go viral over the past few days.

Turns out, he also competed on Ukraine’s version of “Dancing With the Stars” — and he won the premiere season with dance partner Olena Shoptenko in 2006. It should come as no surprise that a video compilation of him performing in a number of colorful outfits, including a hot pink Elvis jumpsuit, has gone viral. 

And he voiced Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the 2014 hit movie based on the beloved children’s books about a raincoat-wearing, anthropomorphic bear who carries an old suitcase and loves marmalade. This came to light after British actor Hugh Bonneville, who played the Paddington’s foster father in the movie, shared the news on Twitter over the weekend.  

“Until today I had no idea who provided the voice of @paddingtonbear in Ukraine,” he wrote. “Speaking for myself, thank you, President Zelenskiy [sic].” The post has drawn several thousand retweets and close to 40K likes, and was trending on real-time Google searches on Monday morning.

As one Twitter user who listed Zelensky’s accomplishments noted, the president of Ukraine’s resume “looks 100% fake.”

But when CNN and Reuters asked Zelensky on Tuesday about his transformation from an actor to a wartime leader, he said that, “It’s very serious, it’s not a movie … I’m not iconic, I think Ukraine is iconic.”

“Ukraine is the heart of Europe, and now I think Europe sees Ukraine is something special for this world,” he continued. “That’s why [the] world can’t lose this something special.”

Another example of Team Zelensky’s social media influence: after the Ukrainian government tweeted on Friday asking for cryptocurrency donations to help fend off the Russian invasion, by midday Monday it had collected $20 million in crypto donations. The largest single donation was $1.86 million.

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