Youth research

Southern Ukrainian leader with a sardonic side

“Like many officials, he has imitated President Volodymyr Zelensky’s fashion since the invasion began in late February, making public appearances sporting military drabs.”

By Joe Stenson

Vitaly Kim has a fearsome sense of humor. It may be necessary: ​​he is governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine, where a new confrontation with Russian troops is announced.

Nocturnal missiles hammer the provincial capital. Water pipes were cut and Kim’s own office was destroyed by a missile strike on the building during the first weeks of the war.

When the block was bombed in March and Kim posted grim updates on social media, he joked that he only escaped being among the 37 killed because he overslept.

His selfie videos – gloating in a seized Russian vehicle or laughing happily over jokes at Moscow’s expense – made him a cult figure in the months that followed.

Through it all, there’s an undeniable sense that the round-faced 41-year-old is trying to shed some light on the grim crisis.

“There are different ways to handle a situation,” he told AFP this week with a hint of a smile. “It’s my style, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Nevertheless, he insists: “I love every job I do.

comic relief

The Kim region is a strip of sunny southern Ukraine pressed against the Black Sea coast, where the war with Russia is shifting as it nears its seventh month.

Like many officials, he has emulated President Volodymyr Zelensky’s fashion since the invasion began in late February, making public appearances sporting military drabs.

On Wednesday, he spoke to reporters dressed in camouflage pants and a black t-shirt branded with the silhouette of the alien “Predator” from the 1987 sci-fi/horror film of the same name, incongruously captioned “departmental patrol police”.

In the shadow of the municipal building where his office once stood—and whose walls are still stained with bloody handprints—he explains the comedic leadership philosophy he developed at the start of the war.

“I made the decision to make our enemy look stupid and insane,” he said. “A lot of our people needed it, not to be afraid.”

Those early days are now over and people now “love” his humorous style. They “usually don’t need it” like they once did, he said.

His sense of humor seems to align with the broader comedic “wink and nudge” manner that Ukraine has adopted to deal with months of violence and no end in sight.

When a Russian airfield in Crimea was the scene of explosions last week, Ukrainian officials suspected of orchestrating a daring raid reacted with timid glee, without officially confirming responsibility.

Kim also believes he introduced the use of the term “orcs” to jokingly refer to Russian soldiers.

The word – now used nationwide among the military – is taken from fantasy novels and video games, alluding to evil goblin-like creatures.

“They were really like them because they were crazy,” he explained. “The propaganda in Russia for decades changed their way of thinking.”

“Even they didn’t understand what they were doing.”

Disguised tactician

But Kim, a child of teacher parents, is not a full-time jester.

Asked about the supposed Ukrainian counter-offensive in his region, he becomes impassive.

He only says that there is a “good situation” on the front line. Planning an offensive is “not so simple”. And Ukraine is engaged in “active defense”.

“Counteroffensive is a very broad term,” he says. “It’s okay, that’s all.”

Despite his effusive public persona, he gives nothing away.

There is a feeling that behind the quick-to-joke man there is another, creating contingencies for any new serious and deadly turn the ongoing war with Russia might take.

He said some people mistake his lighter side for a sign of weakness.

“That’s not true, because I can smile and I can destroy something.”