Churchill in the Era of TikTok: A Conversation with Simon Shuster

By Sally McGraneFebruary 27, 2024

Churchill in the Era of TikTok: A Conversation with Simon Shuster

The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky by Simon Shuster

IT HAS BEEN two years since Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, plunging Europe into a devastating and bloody war. At the center of Ukraine’s resistance is its president, a former actor and comedian whose previous political experience was limited to playing the Ukrainian president on TV. Volodymyr Zelensky had been in office for less than three years when Russia attacked his country on multiple fronts, and many expected him to flee. But the showman—whose unforgettable response to a United States offer to help him evacuate was, reportedly, “I need ammunition, not a ride”—turned his politically unorthodox expertise into his greatest asset, using short, emotional videos and social media to rally Ukraine and the world.

In his new debut book, Time magazine journalist Simon Shuster offers a deeply reported and engaging profile of the young wartime president. My friend and colleague, Shuster has covered Zelensky since the early days of his presidential campaign, hanging out backstage with the comedian and his crew of funny people and developing a rapport that would prove invaluable to understanding, from the inside, this Russian war and the valiant Ukrainian resistance. After Zelensky became president, Shuster kept reporting on him—through the infamous Trump call and falling ratings among the Ukrainian public. When Russia invaded, Shuster rushed back to Ukraine. As Russian bombs fell, he spent months embedded with the president’s team, talking at length with the president, his wife, advisers, bodyguards, ministers, and military commanders. He traveled with Zelensky, including on a dangerous, top-secret, middle-of-the-night train trip to the freshly liberated city of Kherson. He sifted through their stories. The result is an incredibly human account of the first year of the war, told from the perspective of the people at the center of it.

I spoke with Shuster in New York, where he’s based when he isn’t working in Ukraine, about writing The Showman: Inside the Invasion that Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky.


SALLY MCGRANE: So it’s early there, huh?

SIMON SHUSTER: Yeah, I’m sitting here in the dark.

Well, let’s just dive right in. As you write in the book, you were born in Moscow but grew up in the United States and have deep ties to Ukraine. Half your family is Ukrainian, and you’ve been reporting from Kyiv on and off since 2009. What was it like for you to report on this war?

I think my relationship to Ukraine made it both easier and harder. It was harder in the sense that I was emotionally and personally very invested in the war and everything that was happening there. Most immediately, I have family in Odesa. And while I was reporting in Kyiv with the president’s team, a lot of my family, the women and children, were evacuating to the Czech Republic to safety. So that often made it more difficult than usual, to put it mildly, to maintain the kind of distance that you usually try to have as a journalist reporting on a story.

This intimacy also helped win Zelensky’s support for writing his wartime biography.

So I think it helped me connect with the people I was reporting about. There was no language barrier. There was no cultural barrier. I understood the jokes. I understood the humor, and certainly earlier on in President Zelensky’s political career, that was very important. Humor was central to his personality and key to being around him. It was a very lively and funny group of people, who were always joking. That changed, of course, when the invasion started.

I saw on X that a new round of bombings hit Ukraine today. How do you handle reporting in these circumstances?

I think it’s similar to the way I saw President Zelensky dealing with it. You look at what you have to do immediately. So for example, if the air raid siren goes off, you think, “Okay, where’s the next shelter?” You don’t think, “Oh my God, the world is collapsing, and my life is about to end.” Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other helps you deal with—or at least push aside—the enormity and the horror of what is going on.

In the book, when the attack starts, Zelensky and members of his government head to the Soviet-era bunker under the presidential headquarters. These scenes are so vivid. How did you do that?

I set the goal pretty early in the process of writing the book that I needed to do a moment-by-moment reconstruction of the first day of the invasion—also the first week, which was spent in the bunker and was a very painful and harrowing and terrifying experience for everyone involved. I did extensive interviews, basically with everyone I could get my hands on, most crucially President Zelensky and his wife. But also advisers, aides, ministers, military commanders. Then really forcing people to go back and remember these things step-by-step. If someone remembered some detail that struck me as bringing these moments to life, I’d ask other people to comment on that detail, and it would often spark further recollections.

You describe Zelensky’s drive from his home to the presidential headquarters. He says that he remembers himself being behind the wheel, even though he knows he wasn’t driving.

As I write in the prologue and I believe very deeply, memory is flawed. And in reporting the book, I discovered just how our memories work, from person to person. So President Zelensky, I have to say, is an especially bad case for the kind of journalism that I was trying to do. In many instances, his wife would correct his recollection of events. Different aides of his would correct him during an interview. Or he would call his bodyguard or an assistant and say, “Hey, is this how it happened?” They would say, “No boss, you have it wrong. This is what happened.” For example, in one interview, he told me that on the morning of the invasion, he went into his children’s room and woke them up. His wife said, “No, he left before the children woke up. He left as the bombs were beginning to fall on Kyiv. He rushed to the office before the children woke up.” And he later said, “Yes, sorry, I misremembered that.”

I can imagine trauma distorts recollections like those.

I think, even on a biochemical or physiological level, the brain begins to devote itself not to recording but to surviving. You’re not thinking, “Wow, this event is very significant. I need to remember it in detail for future generations.” You’re thinking, “What do I need to do in the next 10 minutes to survive this and for my country to survive?” So memory was an interesting kind of character in the book.

Another thing I found really interesting was how you paint this picture of war in the digital age.

That element was really core to the book, that question of, “What does it take to be Winston Churchill in the era of TikTok?” The answer came down to a lot of the qualities that President Zelensky happened to have because of his past as an entertainer, as a showman, as someone who’s very savvy with social media. He understood very quickly how his audience would be perceiving the war through their screens on social media—Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, whatever. And his audience in this case was the entire world. He knew that he needed to connect to them through social media channels.

Reading the book, several times I thought, “Zelensky’s really the right person in the right place.”

If you imagine an alternative scenario—where the person in charge of Ukraine was a much more experienced politician or statesman but didn’t have that ability to connect with people, to use social media, to rally support internationally—would Ukraine have been as successful in pushing back the initial invasion? In getting as much support and as much weaponry as it got from the West? I’ve really come to the conclusion that Zelensky had a set of unique skills developed over the course of his career as a showman that helped Ukraine survive.

The Zelensky we meet in your book isn’t perfect.

I respect President Zelensky for not asking to see anything of the book before publication. None of his aides nor the president nor the first lady ever asked me, “Simon, what are you writing? What are you doing? Can we see it? Can we check it?” There was no quote clearance, nothing like that. They certainly understood that I wouldn’t gloss over, you know, mistakes he had made early on in his presidency and leading up to the invasion and even during the invasion. So that’s all in there.

You mention that one of his mistakes was his deep denial that the invasion was going to happen. He didn’t even tell his family to pack a suitcase.

[That’s] something that he has had to answer for. In the Ukrainian public, many feel that they weren’t adequately prepared for the invasion. And that the president could have done or should have done more to warn them. I find it hard to judge him too harshly for this because I was also shocked. I also didn’t believe that Putin would make such a stupid and self-defeating decision. Anyone who had a good understanding of Ukraine knew the Ukrainians would fight back, tooth and nail. Their military had evolved a great deal since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. They had the means and the will to resist. That was one of the reasons I certainly didn’t believe the invasion would happen. I know it’s one of the reasons President Zelensky didn’t believe it. He thought that Putin couldn’t be that stupid.

As part of the biography, you talk about Zelensky’s early life, growing up in the Soviet Union, and his gradual disillusionment with the Soviet past. This shaped him personally, of course, but also professionally.

He grew up watching Soviet films, many of which were very funny and very good. He was inspired by Soviet directors and actors and comedians. These were his mentors.

But over time, he came to see his nostalgia for the Soviet past and his ideas of brotherhood between Russians and Ukrainians as having been implanted by an imperialist force.

The way he described it was that these things turned rotten inside him. Suddenly, when he watched these films from the Soviet Union, he felt this kind of nauseating void inside himself. Rather than the warm, comforting nostalgia that he felt when he watched them in previous years. I think it’s a transformation that millions of Ukrainians are undergoing right now. And honestly, it’s one that I’m undergoing too. The Soviet past is also my family history. And I think it’s something we’re all grappling with. And it was therapeutic and instructive in many ways for me as well, as someone who comes from that world too, who was born in the Soviet Union, to see the way that President Zelensky has had to grapple with that identity, that historical legacy.

At the end of the book, there’s a very moving moment where you are talking to Zelensky about the costs of the war thus far. He tells you to imagine you are a father sitting at a desk with a framed photo of a son who didn’t come back from the front or a daughter killed in a missile strike. “That doesn’t inspire the father,” he said. “For him it’s a great tragedy. That’s the price.”

I feel sorry for him, because of the enormity of the pain that he confronts every day. There’s one scene that comes to mind, where he had a very important meeting with the top official in the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen. And that morning, there was a terrible rocket attack in Eastern Ukraine. Russian missiles hit a train station and killed many civilians. He found it hard to concentrate on this meeting, which was very important for Ukraine’s ambition to join the European Union. But, as he described it to me, he couldn’t stop thinking about some of the images he had seen from the missile attack that morning. So that’s just one example where you just can’t push aside the pain that the war has inflicted. Even when he wishes that he could.


Simon Shuster has reported from Russia and Ukraine for 17 years, most of that time as a staff writer for Time magazine. His coverage of the war began in 2014, when he was the first foreign journalist to arrive in Crimea as Russian troops took over the peninsula. When the full-scale invasion began, Simon spent months embedded with the president’s team, securing unparalleled access to their compound in Kyiv, where he wrote The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky (2024), his first book.

LARB Contributor

Sally McGrane has written about topics from culture and politics to business and travel in Russia and Ukraine for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Monocle, and others. She is the author of two spy thrillers, Moscow at Midnight (2016) and Odesa at Dawn (2022). She lives in Berlin.


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