The world’s attention is now focused on Ukraine and are seeing its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, heading the resistance against Putin’s invasion. Many have seen the Ukrainian leader in the past as someone in over his head, but now he has risen to the occasion and is rallying his countrymen to take up arms. Ukrainians and the world see Zelenskyy and are inspired.
Zelenskyy has inherited a difficult role as Ukraine’s young and inexperienced leader. He did not come from a political background. His background was as a comedy actor, who, by a strange twist, played a Ukrainian president on a hit television comedy show. Most people in the United States had never heard of Zelenskyy until it was revealed President Trump tried to blackmail him. Trump refused to sell Ukraine much needed Javelin anti-tank missiles if the Ukrainian leader did not provide made-up dirt to smear Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in the 2020 presidential election. It was an action that led to the impeachment of the American president.
It is not second guessed that Putin is hunting down Zelenskyy to have him removed and killed. When France was invaded by the Nazi’s, Charles De Gaulle fled to Britain. The Sha fled Iran after the Revolution. More recently, President Ghani fled Afghanistan when the Taliban retook the country. Even in Ukraine, one of Zelenskyy’s predecessors, Viktor Yanukovych, fled after the 2014 revolution. But this is not what Zelenskyy has done. Instead, he has chosen to stay and fight. In a video conference with European leaders shortly after the Russian invasion began, he said it was likely it was the last time they would see him alive. When the United States offered to extricate him to safety he replied, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Zelenskyy has shown extreme bravery and has been stoic at every turn of the Russian buildup. He told the Russians, “If you attack, you will see our faces, not our backs!”
Raised in southeastern Ukraine where Russian is the dominate language, the 44-year-old Zelenskyy grew up in a Jewish family. His great grandfather along with three of his great grandfather’s brothers died in the Holocaust. This information may surprise many Russians today because Putin has led them to believe that Ukraine is run by Neo Nazi’s which he used as part of his pretext for the invasion. Zelenskyy’s father is a professor and is the head of the Department of Cybernetics and Computing Hardware at the Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics, and his mother worked as an engineer.
Zelenskyy once received an education grant to study in Israel, but his father forbade him from doing so. Instead, he studied law and earned a degree from Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics. Soon, however, he got the acting and comedy bug, setting him on course to become nationally famous. He starred in a few films before 2015 when he then went on to create and star in the hit comedy television series, Servant of the People. In the show he played a high school history teacher who is secretly recorded by one of his students while passionately ranting about the corruption and tyranny of his country. The secretly recorded video then goes viral and leads the humble everyman, who is out of his depths in nearly everything, to go on to become the country’s leader. The series was such a hit that in 2018 the cocreators of the series fashioned together a political party named nonother, Servant of the People. Volodymyr Zelenskyy then had his springboard to run for the presidency of Ukraine.
Six months before he officially announced his candidacy, Zelenskyy was already one of the frontrunners in opinion polls. His campaign echoed the plotline of his hit television show and was run almost completely using social media. He tended to avoid the country’s mainstream media, talk shows, and avoided journalists. On election day, he won against Ukraine’s sitting president, Petro Poroshenko, with nearly 73 percent of the vote.
Parts of Ukraine were still in upheaval from the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea with separatist regions propped up Putin. The situation had turned into a stalemate that had taken an estimated 15,000 lives. Zelenskyy ran on a platform that included making peace with Russia, and at one point a prisoner exchange was managed. But Putin’s intransigent demands that Ukraine further isolate itself from the West made peace talks difficult. Zelenskyy always seemed to hold onto hope.
And then Putin started massing Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders.
In the runup to Putin’s invasion, Zelenskyy at times was critical of the U.S. response. He felt the open discussion of Putin’s intentions were premature and could cause panic. Now that the war has begun, he believes Washington is not doing enough militarily and dragging its feet on his desire to make Ukraine part of NATO. These disagreements are understandable though. It is not easy having to be a cog in great power plays. If there are feelings of powerlessness, he does not show it, and he makes sure the people around him do not feel it. Zelenskyy has rallied his people to take matters into their own hands and defend Ukraine with all there might.
In the opening days of the conflict, Zelenskyy had made several appearances either on television or social media wearing olive green khaki shirts while making appeals and bolstering national morale. A photo circulated online of him in military fatigues and a flak jacket. “You are indomitable. You are Ukrainians.” he stated in a message to his countrymen. The war is a transformative event for Zelenskyy. Whatever his short comings before this past week, he has risen to the occasion. He has become the hero that not only Ukraine needs, but also the hero the world needs. Because of him, everyday men and women are grabbing guns and making Molotov cocktails to fight the Russians in Ukraine’s street.