Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, is the unlikely hero who is the man of the moment as all eyes in the world turn to his country in its battle against the Russian invasion.
A comedian who was once unafraid to strut his formidable dancing talents on stage, he later portrayed a beloved teacher who became the President of Ukraine in a television series. Life soon imitated art, as Zelensky was voted into office in 2019 — and the rest is history.
Since that time the young politician has walked a fine line between the Russian separatists in the eastern part of his country and the West, at times castigating western nations for supposedly drumming up tensions in the leadup to the war, damaging the economy of Ukraine.
But after Zelensky found himself in the crosshairs of the Russian military in the February invasion of his country, the West worked as one to shore up its vast military reserves, sending military equipment and materiel to Ukraine as nations around the world imposed identical sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its invasion.
The leader then famously rebuffed the US’ attempts to evacuate him safely from the country, declaring “The fight is here (in Kyiv); I need ammunition, not a ride.” He has filmed himself and posted to social media as he strode the sidewalk outside government headquarters in Kyiv, exhorting his compatriots to stand firm against the Russian onslaught.
Clearly, the man is not easily intimidated. And his fearless reaction to the invasion has made it even easier for other world leaders to rally around the cause.
Thank you for the warm conversation, Your All-Holiness #Bartholomew. Your words are like hands that hold us up in this difficult time. Ukrainians feel the spiritual support and strength of your prayers. We hope for the soonest peace.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) February 27, 2022
Zelensky: “Nobody is going to break us. We are strong. We are Ukrainians.”
“And just as Vladimir Putin thought that he would destroy European unity, exactly the opposite thing has happened,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters on Monday.
“Cooperation is solid as a rock,” he noted, adding “This is demanded by the circumstances of history. Demanded by circumstances that none of us could have imagined.”
Zelensky spoke recently with Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, who also gave his full support to the embattled head of state. A statement from the patriarchate said that the Ukrainian leader told the prelate he was grateful for Bartholomew’s support and asked for continued prayers for Ukraine’s freedom and “territorial integrity.”
Bartholomew assured Zelensky of the church’s “solidarity and constant prayers that the hostile fire may cease and the military conflict may stop immediately,” and congratulated him “for his vigorous fighting spirit, as well as for the inspiration and support that he provides the Ukrainian people with his courageous attitude,” the statement said.
Later, Zelensky posted a message about the conversation on Twitter.
“Thank you for the warm conversation, Your All-Holiness #Bartholomew. Your words are like hands that hold us up in this difficult time. Ukrainians feel the spiritual support and strength of your prayers. We hope for the soonest peace.” Zlenesky later spoke with Pope Francis, who also gave him assurances of his prayers and full support.
Who is this man who is being compared with Churchill?
But exactly who is Volodymyr Zelensky and how did he get to where he is today, at the center of the Western effort to defend Ukraine?
Zelensky, born in 1978, grew up as the son of Jewish parents in Kryvyi Rih, a Russian-speaking region in southeastern Ukraine which was at that time called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
His father is a professor and the head of the Department of Cybernetics and Computing Hardware at the Kryvyi Rih State University of Economics and Technology; his mother, Rymma Zelenska, once worked as an engineer.
Members of his extended family on his father’s side were murdered in the Holocaust.
Prior to his acting career, Zelensky obtained a degree in law from the Kyiv National Economic University. In September 2003, Zelensky married Olena Kiyashko, with whom he had attended school. The couple have a daughter, Oleksandra, and a son, Kyrylo.
He then pursued comedy and created the production company Kvartal 95, which produces films, cartoons, and TV shows including Servant of the People, in which he played the role of president of Ukraine.
In 1997 he created and headed the comedy writing team called Kvartal 95, later touring Moscow and previously Soviet countries in eastern Europe. In 2008, he starred in the feature film Love in the Big City, and its sequel, Love in the Big City 2, the film Office Romance, Our Time in 2011 and Rzhevsky Versus Napoleon in 2012. Zelensky was a member of the board and the general producer of the TV channel Inter from 2010 to 2012.
Zelensky criticized banning of Russian actors in Ukraine after 2014
In August 2014, Zelensky became politicized when he spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine. In 2018, his romantic comedy Love in the Big City 2 was banned in Ukraine in a possible retaliation for his stance.
After Ukrainian media reported that during the 2014 war in the Donbas, Zelensky’s party Kvartal 95, had donated 1 million hryvnias to the Ukrainian army, some Russian politicians and artists petitioned for a ban on his works in Russia; however, Zelensky continued to speak out against the banning of Russian artists from Ukraine.
In 2015, Zelensky starred in the television series “Servant of the People,” in which he played the role of the president of Ukraine. In the series, Zelensky’s character was a high-school history teacher who won the presidential election after a viral video showed him ranting against government corruption in Ukraine.
With life imitating art, a political party named Servant of the People was created in March of 2018 by people who work in the television production company called Kvartal 95, which also created the television series of the same name.
Zelensky announced his candidacy for the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election on the evening of December 31, 2018. Despite his status as a political outsider, he had already become one of the frontrunners in opinion polls. In an interview at that time, he stated that as president he would try to end the ongoing war in Donbas by negotiating with Russia.
His quest “to bring professional, decent people to power”
In a March 2019 interview with Der Spiegel, Zelensky stated he went into politics to restore trust in politicians and that he wanted “to bring professional, decent people to power” and “would really like to change the mood and timbre of the political establishment, as much as possible.”
He won the election with 73.2 percent of the vote in the second round.
Identifying as a populist, he originally positioned himself as an anti-establishment figure who fights corruption — just like his television alter ego. But now he has taken on the mantle of the defender of his country — despite all its flaws — drawing universal admiration from across the world.
Zelensky was a tireless proponent of unity between the Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking parts of the country. And ironically, it was Zelensky who promised to end Ukraine’s protracted conflict with Russia as a campaign promise; he even attempted to engage in dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His strategy during the Russian military buildup along its borders was to reassure the Ukrainian people that the situation would not deteriorate. At the same time, he also called for security guarantees and military support from NATO to “withstand” the threat.
After the invasion, however, Zelensky declared martial law across Ukraine and called for a general mobilization, barring men from age 18 through 60 from leaving the country.
Campaign promise to end crisis in the Donbass region
Zelensky is the first Jewish President of Ukraine. With Volodymyr Groysman as his first Prime Minister, Ukraine became the second country to have both a Jewish President and Prime Minister, making Russian President Putin’s claims of widespread Nazi activity in the government of Ukraine appear even more ludicrous.
One of Zelensky’s central campaign promises had been to end the War in Donbas and resolve the Russia-sponsored separatist movement there.
On 11 July 2019, Zelensky held his first telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which he urged Putin to enter into talks, mediated by European countries. The two leaders also discussed the exchange of prisoners held by both sides.
In October 2019, Zelensky announced a preliminary deal struck with the separatists, under which the Ukrainian government would respect elections held in the region in exchange for Russia withdrawing its unmarked troops.
The deal was met with heavy criticism and protests by both politicians and the Ukrainian public. Detractors noted that elections held in Donbas were unlikely to be free and fair, that the separatists had long driven out most pro-Ukrainian residents out of the region to ensure a pro-Russia majority, and that it would be impossible to ensure Russia kept its end of the agreement.
Zelensky defended his negotiations, saying the elections would not be held before a Russian withdrawal.
2021 appeal to join NATO alliance
In April 2021, in response to Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders, he spoke to American president Joe Biden and urged NATO members to speed up Ukraine’s request for membership.
On January 19, 2022, the Ukrainian president urged the country’s citizens to not panic via a video message, appealing to the media to be “methods of mass information and not mass hysteria.” On January 28, Zelensky called on the West not to create a “panic” in his country over a potential Russian invasion, adding that constant warnings of an “imminent” threat of invasion are putting the economy of Ukraine at risk.
In the early hours of February 24, shortly before the start of the Russian invasion, however, Zelensky recorded an address to the citizens of both Ukraine and Russia that acknowledged the seriousness of the impending crisis. In part of the address, he spoke in Russian to the people of Russia directly, appealing to them to pressure their leadership to prevent war.
He also refuted claims of the Russian government about the presence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government and stated that he had no intention of attacking the Donbas region, while highlighting his personal connections to the area.
On the morning of February 24, Russian missiles struck a number of military targets in Ukraine, and Zelensky declared martial law.
The next day, Zelensky said that despite Russia’s claim that it was targeting only military sites, civilian sites were also being hit. In an early morning address on Friday, Zelensky said that his intelligence services had identified him as Russia’s top target, but that he is staying in Kyiv and his family will remain in the country.
Zelensky: “I need ammunition, not a ride”
“They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state” he said.
In the early hours of February 26, during the most significant assault by Russian troops on the capital of Kyiv, the United States government urged Zelensky to evacuate to a safer location, and said it stood ready to assist him in such an effort. Zelenskyy turned down the offer and opted to remain in Kyiv with its defense forces, famously saying that “the fight is here (in Kyiv); I need ammunition, not a ride.”
With this, amid his continued determination to stay and fight, the Ukrainian President rocketed to fame all around the world, sparking admiration from nearly everyone across the political spectrum.
Historian Andrew Roberts has even compared Zelensky to Winston Churchill in his defiance of the greater military might of the invading army.
On Tuesday morning, the sixth day of the invasion of his country, Zelensky took to the airwaves yet again as he addressed the European Parliament — this time reducing a male translator to tears as he relayed his leader’s recounting of the Russian assault of the second-largest city in Ukraine, Kharkiv.
“This morning was a very tragic one for us,” Zelensky stated, going on to describe the scene after two Russian cruise missiles struck hte city which has the largest number of universities in the country, at twenty.
Two missiles hit “Freedom Square,” in the city, he said, with dozens killed, “This is the price of Freedom. We are fighting for our land,” he intoned. He went on to say that no one will be coming to help the Ukrainians in their fight to defend their country. He added that from this time on, every main square in the country, no matter what it is called now, will be called Freedom Square.
“Nobody is going to break us. We are strong. We are Ukrainians.”