Volodymyr Zelensky (1978-) is the current president of Ukraine. In a past life, he was an actor and comedian. Now he leads his country against a Russian invasion.
Zelensky was born in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine to a Jewish family. Family members perished in the Holocaust and his grandfather fought in the Red Army in WW2. At age 20, Zelensky won a comedy competition and began a career in stand-up. He transitioned to acting and, by the 2000s, was a household name, starring in the Russian rom-com ‘Love in the Big City’ (2005) winning Dancing with the Stars and voicing Paddington Bear.
In 2015, Zelensky produced and starred in the political satire series ‘Servant of the People’. His role was a high school teacher who posts a video criticising his country’s corruption and the ineptitude of its politicians. The video goes so viral it gets him elected president.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. In 2018, the television network ‘Kvartal 95’ formed its own political party named after the show with Zelensky as its head. Servant of the People won the next election with 70%. Zelensky styled himself much like his character – an everyman outside of the establishment challenging the oligarch class. Some say he is just playing another role.
Since 2014, Ukraine has fought separatists in its Russian speaking eastern territories. Russia is concerned about Ukraine’s increasing closeness with the West and fears it will join NATO, an American led alliance. Zelensky sought dialogue with Russia and unity between his country’s Ukrainian and Russian speaking populations while pushing for closer ties with the west. His tenure was middling in its effectiveness to combat poverty and corruption and, like any politician, he had critics aplenty.
On February the 24th 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Harnessing his charisma and stage appeal, Zelensky emerged an unlikely hero, as he urged his people to come together and fight a near-impossible foe. Tens of thousands of everyday Ukrainians have taken up arms, and make Molotov cocktails in the streets.
When the USA offered to airlift Zelensky to safety, he refused, saying he would stay and fight. While critics may claim his move as foolish and impractical, one should not underestimate its effect on morale. These days, many world leaders hide in bunkers, when threatened by protest or riot. The historical memory of the Holodomor, Nazi invasion and communism are still strong in Ukraine. Its citizens do not take independence for granted. In this regard, Zelensky is no different from the millions who would rather give their lives than flee.
Sources: BBC, CBS, Chatham House, New York Times, Politico