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Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky AP
volodymyr zelensky

Zelensky’s unlikely journey from comedian to Ukrainian hero

The comedian actually became president after starring in a TV show about a teacher who seeks office after becoming fed up with corrupt politicians.

VOLODYMR ZELENSKY HAS made an unlikely journey from being a TV satirist and comedian to the president of Ukraine – and now, a national hero, as his country faces invasion from Russia.

When Zelensky was growing up in south-eastern Ukraine, his Jewish family spoke Russian and his father once forbade the younger Zelensky from going abroad to study in Israel.

Instead, Zelensky studied law at home. Upon graduation, he found a new home in movie acting and comedy, becoming one of Ukraine’s top entertainers in the 2010s with the TV series Servant Of The People.

In it, he portrayed a lovable high school teacher fed up with corrupt politicians who accidentally becomes president.

embedded265539447 Zelensky speaks to the nation via his smartphone in the centre of Kyiv Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

Fast forward just a few years, and Zelensky is the president of Ukraine for real – and as Russian troops bear down on his country and Moscow’s rockets shatter the peace of Kyiv, with much of the world looking on in horror, his new role is playing an unlikely hero for the 21st century.

With courage, good humour and grace under fire that has rallied his people and impressed his Western counterparts, the 44-year-old former actor has refused to leave Kyiv even though he says he is a target for the Russian invaders.

Political observers, many of whom once saw Zelensky as something of a lightweight, say they have been moved by his example.

After an offer from the United States to transport him to safety, Zelensky replied: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

ukraine-tensions Zelensky with members of his country’s armed forces at combat positions in Donetsk region AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

Observers say Russian forces’ chief objective is to reach the capital to depose Zelensky and his government and install someone more compliant to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Zelensky was critical of US president Joe Biden’s open and detailed warnings about Putin’s intentions, saying they were premature and could cause panic.

But after the war began, he criticised Washington for not doing more to protect Ukraine, including defending it militarily or accelerating its bid to join Nato.

The boldness of Zelensky’s stand for Ukraine’s sovereignty might not have been expected from a comedian, whose biggest political liability for many years was the feeling that he was too apt to seek compromise with Moscow.

embedded265347296 Zelensky’s defiance has drawn the admiration of many observers Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

He ran for office in part on a platform that he could negotiate peace with Russia, which had seized Crimea from Ukraine and propped up two pro-Russian separatist regions in 2014, leading to a conflict that has killed an estimated 15,000 people.

Although Zelensky managed a prisoner exchange, the efforts for reconciliation faltered as Putin’s insistence that Ukraine back away from the West intensified, painting the Kyiv government as a nest of extremism run by Washington.

Zelensky has used his own history – Jewish, from eastern Ukraine, native Russian-speaking, with close friends among Russian artists – to demonstrate that his is a country of possibility, not the hate-filled polity as described by Putin.

In spite of Ukraine’s dark history of antisemitism, reaching back centuries to Cossack pogroms and the collaboration of some anti-Soviet nationalists with Nazi genocide during the Second World War, Ukraine after Zelensky’s election in 2019 became the only country outside of Israel with both a president and prime minister who were Jewish.

embedded265411533 Zelensky with Prime Minister Boris Johnson (AP)

Zelensky’s grandfather fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazis, while other family members died in the Holocaust.

Like his TV character, Zelensky came to office in a landslide democratic election, defeating a billionaire businessman.

He promised to break the power of corrupt oligarchs who have haphazardly controlled Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

That a political upstart, campaigning primarily on social media, could come out of nowhere to claim the country’s presidency was likely disturbing for Putin, who has slowly tamed and corralled his own opposition in Russia.

Putin’s leading political rival, Alexei Navalny – also a comedic, anti-corruption crusader – was poisoned by Russian secret services in 2020 with a nerve agent applied to his underwear.

embedded265476145 The Ukrainian president inspects weapons during a visit to coast guards in Mariupol, in the Donetsk region, just over one week ago Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

He was fighting for his life when he was allowed under international diplomatic pressure to leave for Germany for medical treatment. When doctors there saved him, he chose to go back to Russia despite certain risk.

Navalny, who is now in a Russian prison, has denounced Putin’s military operation in Ukraine.

Both Zelensky and Navalny seem to share a perspective that they need to face the consequences of their beliefs, no matter what.

Polish president Andrzej Duda said on Friday: “It’s a frightening experience when you come to visit the president of a neighbouring country, your colleague, to support him in a difficult situation, (and) you hear from him that you may never meet him again because he is staying there and will defend his country to the last.”

He spent time with Zelensky on Wednesday just before the fighting started, one of many political leaders who have visited Ukraine over the past month, including US vice president Kamala Harris.

Zelensky first came to the attention of many Americans during the administration of former president Donald Trump, who used a phone call with Zelensky in 2019 to lean on him to dig up dirt on then-presidential candidate Biden and his son Hunter that could aid the Republican’s re-election campaign.

That “perfect” phone call, as Trump later called it, resulted in his impeachment by the US house of representatives on charges of using his office, and the threat of withholding 400 million dollars in authorised military support for Ukraine, for personal political gain.

Zelensky refused to criticise Trump’s call, saying he did not want to get involved in another country’s politics.

Refutes notion

Vladimir Putin has attempted to justify the Russian attack by saying two breakaway districts of eastern Ukraine must be protected from “genocide”.

In light of this, Zelensky recorded a message to Russians to refute the notion that Ukraine is the aggressor and that he is any kind of warmonger: “They told you I ordered an offensive on the Donbas, to shoot, to bomb, that there’s no question about it. But there are questions, and very simple ones. To shoot whom, to bomb what? Donetsk?”

Recounting his many visits and friends in the region, he said: “It’s our land, it’s our history. What are we going to fight over, and with whom?”

He has taped other messages to his compatriots on the internet in the last few days to bolster morale and to emphasise that he is going nowhere, but will stay to defend Ukraine.

Zelensky and his wife, Olena, an architect, have a 17-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son.

He said this week that they remained in Ukraine, and are not joining the exodus of mainly women and children refugees seeking safety abroad.

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