‘The Showman’ by TIME Magazine correspondent Simon Shuster chronicles the first year of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and into the remarkable leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comic actor, who has outwitted Putin and mobilized an efficient military and ordinary citizens to take up arms against Russian forces and fight for a sovereign Ukraine.
Shuster had been reporting on the unstable political situation in Ukraine since Putin seized Crimea in 2014 and installed puppet officials to stoke dissent among Russians living in Ukraine. Under a hollow treaty (Minsk Agreement) with Russians promising disarmament and peace between Ukrainians and Russians. As one official put it to Shuster, Putin’s tactic was a classic ‘Trojan Horse’ to bide his time, in a classic, to eventually take over the entire country.
Shuster had also been following the showbiz career of Zelensky, successful on stage, TV and movies in both Ukraine and Russia for over two decades in 2019. He played a fictional president on his hit TV show and his character articulated the Ukrainian’s rage of government corruption, so convincingly, it turned out that when he ran for president in 2019, he won.
The title of the book is not a jab at Zelensky, but an acknowledgement of his skills as an inspirational leader staring down Putin’s tyranny, and garnering support from western allies, most of whom assumed Putin’s forces would roll its tanks over Kyiv almost immediately without resistance.
But as the world soon found their invasion was ill planned and they completely underestimated Zelensky, his military and the Ukrainian people who proved a fearless civilian force. By 2019, the US was reporting that Putin was deploying weaponry, with his troupes positioning on the Belarus-Ukrainian border, convinced an incursion on Ukraine was imminent.
Zelensky continued to hope that the invasion wouldn’t be as severe as US diplomats and European allies were warning, though in the days leading up to the war he finally realized it was happening. It was a costly mistake, which Zelensky immediately corrected.
.Zelensky chose Valery Zaluzhny to head of Ukraine’s armed forces, he had already been preparing troops without the Zelensky’s knowledge. His tactics to scramble Russian intel and strategically mobilize troops to avoid detection by the Russians. On the eve of the invasion Zelensky gathered Ukrainian oligarchs, including media giants who he had alienated by shutting down their platforms, and industrialist urging them not to flee the country. He declared martial law which gave him unilateral powers. Meanwhile there was also increased personal risk to himself and his family.
Putin’s military was meant to occupy Kyiv in the first phase of the war, a plan that collapsed almost immediately. Documents found on a dead Russian soldier of the elite force had a long-outdated map of Kyiv from the 1980s, that shockingly had been used to plan the invasion. Ukraine’s held the city and their victory in Kyiv immediately exposed the weaknesses of the Russian military so much so that they were no longer perceived as an indomitable force.
Still the Russian assaults in other regions were becoming more lethal, as Russian forces advanced. Days into the incursion, Zelensky traveled to the Bucha, a suburb at the western edge of Kyiv, where he met by a local priest who took him through the bombed-out town and to torture chambers where soldiers and civilians were massacred.
In the first month of the war a million Ukrainians were displaced or fleeing relentless bombings in metro areas and across the country. The massacre at Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, was a key event in the president’s resolve drive Russian forces out however long it would take.
Shuster writes “on the day after Zelensky’s visit. He made Bucha the centerpiece of a brutal speech to the UN Security Council. Appearing on a massive screen above the hall, as he narrated the video that revealed Ukrainians being “…..shot in the back of the head or in the eye after being tortured, who were shot on the streets, who were thrown into a well so that they die there in suffering, who were killed in apartments houses, blown up by grenades and who were crushed by tanks in civilian cars in the middle of the road… Whose limbs were cut off and throats were cut. Who were raped and killed in front of their children.”
What UN Council saw on the screens was so violent and graphic, some members had to avert their eyes. He continued to push Ukraine’s allies in Europe to facilitate the pathway for his country to join NATO and the European Union. At the same time, he got the impression that the US and other allies expected him to capitulate with Putin, something he vowed that he would never do.
.When Putin surrounded Mariupol with a compound of soldiers, as well as protecting several hundred citizens, mostly women and children. Putin sealed them off without electricity, food, water. He had planned to release gas in the structure. Put amazingly, their internet access wasn’t cut off and Zelensky was able to address them directly and the people trapped inside were able to communicate through his social media platforms.
Even with the Ukrainians were winning key battles, securing territories, and getting robust support from the west, they were also shell shocked by civilian and military casualties, with the country being decimated by constant air strikes. By autumn 2022, Zelensky’s was losing wide support across the country, and his political rivals in country were capitalizing. Against his own belief of free expression, he silenced his rival TV channels spreading lies and propaganda against him. Key victories over Russian forces also brought wide support for his commander general Valery Zaluzhny, there was even talk of him becoming president.
Against military advice that it would be too dangerous for the president, Zelensky also traveled to the site of Ukrainian soldiers and officers in a region that the Russians had agreed to a cease- fire. It was instead a deadly trap set upon Ukrainian troops through the use of wire cluster bombs, which are prohibited under international rules of engagement.
Even as Zelensky garnered support from the European Union, the US and NATO nations in military and humanitarian aid, Zelensky feared that support for him was waning as the war and its brutal realities dragged on for months. But his nightly addresses to the people on social media were very effective in keeping unity and morale up.
Zelensky appointed a more aggressive military commander who would not hold back fighting Russian forces, by then manned with the ruthless Wagner group of soldiers released from Russian prisons to fill out a dwindling Russian army. Zelensky also brokered drone missiles from Hungary something that Putin didn’t anticipate or could track.
.As the first winter at war loomed, the rifts between Zelensky and Zaluzhny were more apparent. Zaluzhny wanted to mobilize a forces to reclaim territory in the south, but it would, according to the president take too much time. Instead, Zelensky saw the immediate opportunity to defeat Russian forces in Kharkiv. He went around his Zaluzhny and commissioned Oleksandr Syrsky, the second highest ranking officer to launch the attack which proved wildly successful and a high stakes victory for Ukrainian troops.
Zelensky traveled to the city for a victory speech, which humiliated Putin and sealed, at least for the moment, Zelensky’s support among Ukrainians, was fulsome and triumphant as the war entered the long winter leading into the second year of the war.
Shuster also reports, briefly on first lady Olena Zelenska, and their children, who for their own safety had to be separated from the president. In one of the most moving chapters of the book, Shuster describes Zelenska’s work to secure humanitarian aid for Ukrainian children, even addressing the US congress imploring them for more military support, and describing incidents of Ukrainian children being torn apart by Russian bombs.
Shuster’s was with Zelensky and his staff, officers, and when possible, when possible, in the field with Ukrainian troupes.. He doesn’t hold back on reporting Zelensky’s miscalculations, and even the difficulties visited on his family by his political ambitions. He brings dimension to his portrait of Zelensky- politically practical and as forthcoming, brave, and compassionate as he is guarded, cynical and avenging.
Now, as requisite military aid for Ukraine to stop Putin’s war, the issue has become political game for Republicans in the US Congress, reporting on the geopolitical realities of the war get pushed aside for vapid and exploitive headlines. In the breech, ‘The Showman’ is a reminder of how much is at stake. Shuster reporting is detailed, authoritative and altogether a riveting eyewitness account of the first year of the war and fascinating portrait of a once in a generation, transformational world leader..