The internet is enraged. Again.
Why this time?
Well, because the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, and his wife were recently photographed by Annie Lebowitz — who travelled to Kyiv to meet them — and then featured in Vogue’s digital edition, accompanied by a lengthy interview.
And not that surprisingly, this has provoked quite a backlash.
Many said that the pictures were inappropriate and tasteless amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some went as far as to suggest that this photoshoot is ‘everything that is wrong with the world.’
And some used this as yet another opportunity for more of the same old ‘whataboutism,’ with one Twitter user writing: ‘I don’t remember Saddam Hussein’s wife being on the cover of Vogue when Iraq was illegally invaded.’
Because comparing a democratically elected leader and his wife who stayed in their country while it’s being invaded to a guy who invaded another country and was found guilty of crimes against humanity seems fair, doesn’t it?
But while everyone is busy picking apart this photoshoot, Ukraine is still going through hell. And Russian atrocity machine is still going at full speed, committing war crimes left, right and centre. Yet we don’t see nearly as many people being outraged about the latter, now do we?
No, we don’t.
Why not, though? And should we really condemn President Zelensky and his wife for trying to bring light to the dire situation in Ukraine by any means possible?
Zelensky’s Vogue photoshoot isn’t exactly about fashion or glamour
Unlike Zelenska’s first Ukrainian Vogue cover, which appeared in 2019, shortly after her husband was elected, this year’s feature doesn’t promote any luxury brands. It actually eschews fashion credits almost altogether.
There’s only one line, under one photograph, that notes that Ms Zelenska is wearing entirely Ukrainian designers. And while that might seem insignificant, it does take the commercial aspect out of the shoot.
Whatever it’s selling, it’s definitely not clothes.
No, it’s something entirely different.
For instance, one of the most ‘controversial’ and talked about images in this photoshoot shows Zelenska standing next to female soldiers. And that’s probably all that most people see in there.
But what they don’t realise is that she’s literally standing in a war zone against the background of a military aeroplane’s wreckage at Antonov Airport in Hostomel. That’s the site of a pivotal battle in which Ukrainian forces beat Russian troops back from Kyiv.
I think it’s clear to anyone who saw these photos, read the whole interview and has been closely following the news about the war in Ukraine that this feature isn’t about Zelensky’s vanity.
Or romanticising the war.
It’s about telling the story of the pain and trauma Ukraine and its people have been through in these past months and years. And it’s about keeping their country’s needs alive in the international conversation and raising awareness of the atrocities still happening there.
And in a way, Zelensky and his wife did accomplish that.
They once again put the war in Ukraine in the headlines. And in the minds of people who may not have followed it as closely as others.
But while that’s great, I do wish people didn’t take this as yet another opportunity to ‘whatabout’ and ‘westplain.’
Because while chronically online people and politicians from across the political spectrum are busy reheating the same old nonsensical ideas, Ukrainians continue being slaughtered by Russian soldiers every single day.
And unless something changes, and it changes soon, this situation is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.
Ukrainians don’t want to be heroes or martyrs — they just want to be heard
The war in Ukraine has now entered a crucial transitional phase.
Large swaths of the country’s east and south are under Russian occupation, including the Luhansk region — one of the two eastern regions that have been the focus of Russia’s invasion — while Russian troops keep doing what the Soviets and Red Army did years before them.
They conduct point-blank executions of civilians, deliberately bomb residential complexes, torture, rape and kill children. In the town of Bucha alone, local authorities have claimed that Russian forces slaughtered 31 children under 18.
And now they’re even castrating Ukrainian soldiers.
With every passing day, and certainly since the news about the Bucha massacre started circulating, it’s becoming clearer this isn’t a war only for territory or sovereignty. No, the Kremlin doesn’t just want to conquer Ukraine. It intends to eliminate Ukrainian-ness. And to exterminate those they cannot ‘de-Ukrainize.’
To put it shortly — it’s an ethnic cleansing campaign.
And Russia isn’t even trying to hide it.
In April, their state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti explicitly defined this genocidal goal, stating that ‘Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construct’ that must be eliminated.
But that honestly shouldn’t surprise anyone who, like myself, comes from Eastern Europe or Central Asia.
Because our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and everyone who came before them have been through a very similar nightmare. Just not in this century. And as a result, we’re all too familiar with Russia’s perilous imperial dream, propaganda machine, and Russification processes.
Most of my family members don’t speak fluent Russian because they are fond of it. They speak Russian because they had no other choice.
For centuries on end, the Russian empire and then the leaders of the Soviet Union have attempted to erase our languages, our culture, and our traditions and even rewrite our history while exterminating everyone who resisted being Russified.
And although they repeatedly failed to Russify us, they’re still up to their old tricks hoping we’ve forgotten all about it.
But we haven’t.
Neither have Ukrainians.
That’s why they’re fighting back. That’s why they refuse to give up their hard-won independence and national identity to a terrorist state that’s already put them — and everyone else around them — through hell for a very long time.
But they don’t want to keep being martyrs and heroes. We already have so many of them in the history of our nations. No, Ukrainians want to be heard, understood and supported. And to be able live peacefully in their own country.
Is that too much to ask for?
We’ve really had enough of all the ‘whataboutism’ and ‘westplaining’
The thing is — contrary to what some still think — what’s happening in Ukraine today hasn’t just started. It started in 2014 in the eastern part of the country. And for eight solid years, not many people cared about it.
They only started caring once it transformed into a full-blown invasion earlier this year.
And some, not even then.
In the past months, the amount of ‘whataboutism’ and ‘westplaining’ in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war I’ve seen everywhere is astronomical.
It’s like there’s been a memo sent all over the world that every time someone brings up Ukraine, everyone in the West needs to put in their two cents — which a lot of the time just ends up being Russian propaganda — and everyone else needs to ask: but what about Palestine?
Or Yemen? Or Afghanistan?
What about all those other wars and tragedies that are completely unrelated to what’s happening in Ukraine?
And while I do not deny that Westerners privilege white over darker-skinned people, which results in double standards in media reporting, I feel like a lot of that anger and frustration is entirely misplaced.
Ukrainians are not responsible for the West’s racism, their response to this war or its media’s reporting bias. They are also not responsible for crimes committed by other nations.
And the fact that they have ‘blond hair and blue eyes’ — which largely isn’t even true— might make it easier for them to find refuge in other European countries, but it isn’t saving them from slaughter back home, is it?
But let’s not forget that, like many other countries worldwide struggling today, Ukraine is a victim of imperialism, too. Just the Russian type. And the war against them is not only being conducted on the ground or in the air but also the digital sphere and the arena of public opinion.
Is it then that surprising that Zelensky and his wife are doing everything they can — including a Vogue photoshoot and interview — to keep their country’s plight front and centre?
I don’t think so.
And I couldn’t care less if they used carrier pigeons, smoke signals, or any other way to do so.
But if you do, and if you had a stronger reaction to this Vogue photoshoot than to the images of people tied up and executed in Bucha, or the video of Ukrainian soldiers being castrated with a box cutter, I don’t know what else to tell you.
It really shouldn’t be difficult to pick sides in a war waged by a dictatorially ruled nuclear power against a sovereign, democratic neighbouring state.
Or to acknowledge the stark reality of the Kremlin’s true intentions.
The West has already learned the lesson of what happens when you allow an authoritarian government to continue down the path of genocide.
We all did.
And we must remember it again.