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Photo: Volodymyr Zelenskyy
David Letterman has interviewed thousands of people throughout his forty-year-plus career. However, his newest special that dropped on Netflix might just contain the most important interview he’s had the privilege of ever conducting: just over two months ago, the TV icon traveled to Ukraine to talk to the nation’s current President Volodymyr Zelesnkyy. The interview was stitched together into around 44 minutes, and while the subject at hand mainly stayed on the war effort, there were still plenty of things to discuss.
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It’s hard to believe the war in Ukraine has raged on for nearly a year now. Of course, it’s obviously not hard to believe for Ukrainians, who horrifically deal with threats to their lives daily. As he mentions during this interview, Zelenskyy is very aware of this: one of the many topics he talks about with Letterman is that he knows the struggle Ukrainian citizens and soldiers are going through. This isn’t the only thing that’s important to him. At the end of the special, he makes it very apparent that he hopes to foster honesty, understanding, and determination, all while retaining his sense of humanity and choosing to act on his highest level of consciousness as the distinctly human response to Russia’s ongoing violence.
Humor Is the Great Sympathizer
The first thing of note is that both men stress the importance of humor in the face of the war. This was a fascinating point of bonding for the two, as they actually both have been comedians. While it has only recently come to light for most Americans, most Ukranians are well aware that Zelenskyy starred in a well-known sitcom where–in a bizarre twist of fate–his character eventually became the President of Ukraine. Because of this shared experience, Letterman was easily able to affirm Zelenskyy’s appraisal of humor, and Zelenskyy’s need to find humor in order to keep himself sane. Even in times of war, the President acknowledged its continuing role in his life. As a way of proving his point, he goes out of his way to make Letterman laugh and let himself laugh at funny observations and jokes alike all throughout the interview.
This sense of humor is not lost on other Ukranians as well. Letterman briefly diverts attention from his main guest and decides to intercut a segment of him doing standup in Kyiv. Here, he met a young Ukrainian stand-up comic by the name of Anton Tymoshenko. The comic expressed a deep admiration for Zelenskyy, and had been inspired by the President’s past comedic antics. For comics like Anton, humor is a tool to connect with others about similar experiences, no matter how terrifying or hard they are to hear. This shared expression of grief can be cathartic at the right time and place, done with the right intention. People like these two Ukranians both represent the sentiment that it can be a statement of tremendous weight to say something funny.
Civilian and Soldier Strife – Zelenskyy
Another major thing touched upon in the discussion was the various ways the war affected civilians. Early on in the interview, a siren cuts their conversation short. Letterman probes about what it could mean, even asking if they need to evacuate. While Zelenskyy reassured him that there was no emergency in their immediate vicinity, he pointed out the deeper implications. It’s a reminder that when war is present, it’s never really paused. It’s happening. Even for non-soldiers and civilians whose lives haven’t been as directly affected by the violence, it takes an incredible psychological toll knowing that their country is constantly at war and that nowhere is truly safe anymore. The President went further, describing the fact that his kids know more about the war than he does. They most likely know every gun being used on the battlefield.
As impossible as it may feel when all in the above paragraph is true, it’s necessary for the mind to calm down after these constant moments of despair and robbed childhoods. The President added to Letterman’s conversation around collective Ukrainian despair by talking about the comforts that help him get by each day. He actually mentioned it has been easier to seek out things to love and enjoy every day since the war started, as the smaller things help him stay grateful. And what are some of these small things he’s focused on that keep him generally appreciative? “Children,” he calmly stated. “Life. Mornings.” At another point, Zelenskyy mentions that as often as he can, he tries to talk to his wife and kids over the phone.
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The biggest thing that stuck out to me about Zelenskyy was his devotion to retaining humanity. Near the end of the special, Letterman hones in on Russia and its viewpoint on Ukraine. Zelenskyy confirms that many Russian citizens, unfortunately, believe the genocidal rhetoric Putin and the Russian government are feeding them: that Ukraine doesn’t have anything that makes it distinct from Russia, that it is only momentarily separated from Russia, that “Ukraine” as a concept doesn’t exist. After that was said, most people would expect more sadness. However, the President was very passionate about his message avoiding a truly negative end to the current situation. Ultimately, The message he landed on was a message of being a human being first, and the responsibilities this naturally brings. It would be easy for Zelenskyy to be bitter, and to speak rashly about Putin and Russia because of their actions. While he criticizes Putin, he adamantly rejects this perspective. Instead, he chose to talk about how simultaneously easy and dangerous it is to give in to the mindset of becoming an “animal” instead of a human. The notion of staying human in times of great inhumanity is crucial to him, and therefore could make it crucial to Ukranians at large.
This is evidenced by his creation of “Unbreakable Centers.” During their second interview conducted five months later over a virtual environment, Zelenskyy had created centers where people could stay and get temporary care if their electricity had gone out for 12 hours or more. It was again a meeting of hope, with Zelenskyy ending on the fact that Putin has underestimated the Ukranians’ resilience.
Zelenskyy continues to stay in Ukraine and fight for his country’s freedom.
Starring: David Letterman Volodymyr Zelenskyy
By Zachary DePiore
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