Home News Biography of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Biography of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

15
0


Up until his decision to run for president in Ukraine’s 2019 election, Volodymyr Zelensky was largely absent from the country’s political history. He played no role in the two upheavals that shook Maidan Square in Kyiv in the first two decades of this century: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 that compelled election officials to scrap a fraudulent runoff, and the deadly clashes in 2014 that forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and invited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first military intervention. Zelensky didn’t even do his compulsory military service. His draft-dodging has long prompted jeers from political opponents.

So you would expect a new biography of the Ukrainian leader to explain how Zelensky made the transition from successful comedian and television mogul to vaunted wartime leader—complete with comparisons to Britain’s Winston Churchill.

Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko’s slim Zelensky: A Biography doesn’t quite do that. The 200-page book came out in Ukrainian last year, well before this February’s Russian invasion. The author added a few scenes to the recently published English-language edition that depict Zelensky as a wartime leader: in Bucha and in the opening hours of the war. But they add little or nothing to the public record.

Up until his decision to run for president in Ukraine’s 2019 election, Volodymyr Zelensky was largely absent from the country’s political history. He played no role in the two upheavals that shook Maidan Square in Kyiv in the first two decades of this century: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 that compelled election officials to scrap a fraudulent runoff, and the deadly clashes in 2014 that forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and invited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first military intervention. Zelensky didn’t even do his compulsory military service. His draft-dodging has long prompted jeers from political opponents.

So you would expect a new biography of the Ukrainian leader to explain how Zelensky made the transition from successful comedian and television mogul to vaunted wartime leader—complete with comparisons to Britain’s Winston Churchill.

Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko’s slim Zelensky: A Biography doesn’t quite do that. The 200-page book came out in Ukrainian last year, well before this February’s Russian invasion. The author added a few scenes to the recently published English-language edition that depict Zelensky as a wartime leader: in Bucha and in the opening hours of the war. But they add little or nothing to the public record.


Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko

Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko

Zelensky: A Biography, Serhii Rudenko, translated by Michael M. Naydan and Alla Perminova, Wiley, 200 pp., $25, August 2022

What Rudenko does provide is a portrait of Zelensky during his first nearly two years in office, when his presidency looked a lot like one more season of his popular television show Servant of the People—slapdash and chaotic. (As an actor, Zelensky played a schoolteacher who, in very unlikely circumstances, becomes president. In real life, he gave his political party the same name as his show.)

His first challenge on entering politics seemed to be convincing people that he was serious. Zelensky launched his campaign with the slogan “I’m Not Kidding.” His platform featured anti-corruption pledges alongside the catchphrase “Ukrainian centrism,” a term that turned out to be largely hollow. In a television debate, Zelensky pointed an accusing finger at incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s chocolate magnate, and declared himself to be the incumbent’s “verdict.”

Even some of Zelensky’s own advisors in that early period didn’t think he had a fly’s chance of reaching the presidency, according to Rudenko.

“They thought it could not happen, that Volodymyr was just playing,” Ukrainian political strategist Serhiy Haidai recalls in the book. “But when he won, they were even more confused. They didn’t know what to do, because they understood what a responsibility it was and that their old life was over.” 

Zelensky’s victory brought new faces to Ukrainian politics. Wedding photographers and restaurateurs won seats in the chamber. But it quickly became clear that Zelensky had no real ideology and lacked any central plan for governing. Like his television alter ego, he elevated some of his best friends to top jobs. Some would be caught seeking bribes. One newbie parliamentarian was seen swiping through a dating app during votes. 

“He had to understand very quickly what he had taken on. And then there would have been a completely different Zelensky,” Haidai said. “I think he still doesn’t understand how things work, either at the local or the central levels. He became a typical hostage of the system.”

“There is no more [Vasyl] Holoborodko,” Haidai added, a reference to the character Zelensky had played on television. “There is just Zelensky, to whom the system dictates what procedures there are, what rules there are, what he should do.” 

The deer-in-the-headlights behavior Rudenko describes also followed Zelensky onto the international stage. He looked stupefied at a September 2019 press conference when then-U.S. President Donald Trump tried to whitewash his effort to push the Ukrainian leader to investigate the Biden family’s dealings in the country. (Trump’s suspension of U.S. military aid to Ukraine during the ordeal led to his first impeachment.) 

Zelensky even thought—initially, anyway—that he could handle Putin in one-on-one diplomacy. Up until Russia’s invasion, many Ukrainians were giving him less than a passing grade in presidential polls.

Rudenko’s account is a snapshot in time, necessarily incomplete as Ukraine’s future plays out on the battlefield. Undoubtedly, Zelensky’s political education, from the initial honeymoon to elbowing out some of his top allies, would inform his leadership in wartime. Earlier this summer, Zelensky pushed out his intelligence chief, a close childhood friend, and Ukraine’s top prosecutor, a campaign ally. Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who first put Zelensky on his airwaves, has seen his PrivatBank nationalized and swept away. 

What’s unfortunately missing from the story is anything on Zelensky’s state of mind in the months and weeks leading up to the war—when he urged calm and protested U.S. intelligence forecasts warning of an imminent invasion; when he traveled to the Munich Security Conference, just days before Russian troops poured over the border, and journalists wondered openly whether he’d return to Ukraine at all. On the second night of the Russian attack, Zelensky emerged from Kyiv’s Mariinskyi Palace, under the possible threat of Russian assassination attempts, to tell the world he was still there. The events around that moment and many others will surely be picked over in future biographies. 

“[S]tarting from February 24, 2022, … we have discovered a completely different Zelensky,” Rudenko writes in the first pages of the book. “A man who was not afraid to accept Putin’s challenge and become the leader of popular resistance to Russian aggression. A president who managed to unite in this fight his supporters and opponents, corrupt officials and fighters against corruption, adults and children, people of different nationalities and faiths. A head of state who is greeted with applause in European parliaments and the US Congress.” 

But we are still left to wonder how he got there.

Previous articleRNC Sets Sights On Hispanic Vote In Colorado
Next articleIn Protecting The KGB, Gorbachev Paved The Way For Putin