Who is Zelensky? His unlikely journey from comedy to Ukrainian hero

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When Volodymyr Zelenskyy was growing up in southeastern Ukraine, his Jewish family spoke Russian, and his father once forbade the young Zelenskyy from going to study abroad in Israel. Instead, Zelenskyy studied law at home. After graduating, he found a new home in film and comedy – exploding in the 2010s to become one of Ukraine’s top entertainers with the TV series ‘Servant of the People’.

In it, he portrays an adorable high school teacher who is fed up with corrupt politicians who accidentally becomes president.

Fast forward just a few years, and Zelenskyy is the president of Ukraine for real – and as Russian troops descend on his country and rockets from Moscow smash the peace of beautiful, old Kiev, as Much of the world watches in horror as his new role plays an unlikely hero for the 21st century.

With a courage, good humor and grace under fire that has rallied his people and impressed his Western counterparts, the 44-year-old dark-haired, compact former actor has refused to leave Kyiv as he claims he has a target on his back . Russian invaders.

Political observers, many of whom once considered Zelensky a lightweight, say they were moved by his example.

In a show of courage, after an offer from the United States to transport him to safety, Zelenskyy fired back on Friday: “I need ammunition, not a round.”

On Saturday, Russian forces surrounded Kiev on the third day of the war, and the main objective, according to military observers, is to reach the capital to depose Zelenskyy and his government and install someone more in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin. .

In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy had criticized President Joe Biden’s open and detailed warnings of Putin’s intentions, saying they were premature and could cause panic. But after the war began, he criticized Washington for not doing more to protect Ukraine, including defending it militarily or accelerating its NATO bid.p

The boldness of Zelenskyy’s stance for Ukraine’s sovereignty might not have been expected of a comedian, whose greatest political responsibility for many years was a sense that he was too inclined to seek a compromise with Moscow. He ran for office partly on a platform that he could broker peace with Russia, which seized Crimea from Ukraine and backed two pro-Russian breakaway regions in 2014, leading to a frozen conflict. which had killed about 15,000 people.

Although Zelenskyy succeeded in a prisoner exchange, reconciliation efforts have failed as Putin’s insistence on Ukraine departing from the West grows increasingly intense, portraying the government in Kiev as a nest extremism led by Washington.

Zelenskyy used his own story: Jewish, originally from eastern Ukraine, ethnic Russian-speaking, with close friends among Russian artists, to demonstrate that his country is a land of possibilities, not the hateful politics of Russia. imagination of Putin.

Despite Ukraine’s dark history of anti-Semitism, dating back centuries to Cossack pogroms and the collaboration of some anti-Soviet nationalists with the Nazi genocide during World War II, Ukraine after Zelenskyy’s election in 2019 has become the only country outside of Israel with both a president and prime minister who were Jewish. (Zelensky’s grandfather fought in the Soviet army against the Nazis, while another family died in the Holocaust.)

Like his TV character, Zelenskyy came to power in a landslide Democratic election, defeating a billionaire businessman. He promised to break the power of the corrupt oligarchs who had haphazardly controlled Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

That this newcomer, campaigning mostly on social media, could come out of nowhere to claim the country’s highest office was likely troubling for Putin, who has slowly tamed and surrounded his own political opposition in Russia.

Putin’s main political rival, Alexei Navalny, also a comedian and anti-corruption campaigner, was poisoned by the Russian secret service in 2020 with a nerve agent applied to his underwear. He was fighting for his life when he was allowed, under international diplomatic pressure, to leave for Germany for medical treatment, and when doctors rescued him he chose to return to Russia despite certain risks.

Navalny, currently being held in a Russian prison, denounced Putin’s military operation in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy and Navalny seem to share a perspective they need to deal with the consequences of their beliefs, no matter what.

“It’s a scary experience when you come to visit the president of a neighboring country, your colleague, to support him in a difficult situation, (and) you hear from him that you may never see him again because he stay there and will defend his country until the end,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Friday.

He spent time with Zelenskyy on Wednesday just before the fighting began, one of several political leaders who have visited Ukraine over the past month, including US Vice President Kamala Harris.

Zelenskyy first came to the attention of many Americans during the administration of President Donald Trump, who in a phone call with Zelenskyy in 2019 leaned on him to dig up dirt on the presidential candidate. Biden and his son Hunter who could help Trump’s re-election campaign. . This “perfect” phone call, as Trump later called it, resulted in Trump being impeached by the House of Representatives for using his office and threatening to withhold $400 million in authorized military support from Ukraine, for personal political purposes.

Zelenskyy declined to criticize Trump’s appeal, saying he did not want to get involved in another country’s politics.

Putin’s attack, which the Russian president called a “special military operation”, began early Thursday. Putin for months denied intending to invade and accused Biden of stoking war hysteria when Biden revealed the number of Russian troops and weapons. which had been deployed along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus – surrounding Ukraine on three sides.

Putin justified the attack by saying it was to defend two breakaway districts in eastern Ukraine from “genocide”.

With Russian media presenting such an image of his country, Zelenskyy recorded a message to Russians to refute the idea that Ukraine is the aggressor and that he is some kind of warmonger: “They told you that I I ordered an offensive on the Donbass, to fire, bombard, that there is no doubt about it. But there are questions, and simple ones. To fire on whom, to bombard what? Donetsk?

Recounting his many visits and his friends in the region – “I saw the faces, the eyes” – he said: “This is our land, this is our history. What are we going to fight for and with who ?”

Unshaven and in a khaki olive green shirt, he has recorded other messages to his compatriots on the Internet in recent days to boost morale and stress that he will not go anywhere, but will stay to defend Ukraine. “We are here. Honor to Ukraine,” he said.

Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena, an architect, have a 17-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. He said this week that they had remained in Ukraine, not joining the exodus of refugees, mostly women and children, seeking safety abroad.

“The war transformed the former comedian from a provincial politician with delusions of grandeur into a true statesman,” Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center for Foreign Affairs wrote on Friday.

While he could be faulted for not pushing through political reforms fast enough and dragging his feet on hardening Ukraine’s long border with Russia over the past year, Haring said, Zelenskyy “showed a stiff upper lip. He displayed enormous physical courage, refusing to sit in a bunker but openly traveling with soldiers, and an unwavering patriotism that few expected from a Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraineer.”

“To his great credit, he has been irremovable.”

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Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska contributed to this report from Warsaw.

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