Dramatic change in fortunes of Volodymyr Zelensky
From posturing as a critique of political status quo in a TV show to being at the front of a historic war, Ukrainian president has cashed his ‘acting’ skills tactically to script a dramatic rise — finding his way through several controversies; Russian invasion may just be another big stage testing his capabilities
An ex-comedian, and now President of Ukraine, Zelensky has little background in the art of geopolitical warfare or dealing with an attack from a superpower but his many years as an actor and playing the popular part of President in a comedy show on television has stood him in good stead
Less than four years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was one of Ukraine's most popular TV comedians, starring in a satirical TV show and performing in a troupe where he played a piano with his penis for five minutes, according to the New York Post.
Zelensky, now 44, won the presidential election in a landslide victory in 2019 after much of his campaign was allegedly bankrolled by one of Ukraine's richest — and most corrupt — oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky.
In a scenario that even the writers of his old show, "Servant of the People" — produced by the same Igor Kolomoisky — couldn't have dreamed up, Zelensky is now the leader at the centre of a new war in Europe and at risk of assassination as Russia launched a full-scale invasion against the country.
Zelensky's popularity has increased in the West after a resurfaced montage of him being nimble on his feet and his winning ballets on the country's version of "Dancing with the Stars" from 2006 went viral on twitter and Tiktok. It has also been revealed that Zelensky, in fact, had voiced the beloved animated bear, Paddington, for both part 1 and 2 of the film, for the Ukrainian audience. "Hello to my darling friends. I, Volodymyr Zelensky, will lend my voice to the wonderful, charismatic, friendly bear Paddington," the 44-year-old politician can be heard telling viewers in the two-minute trailer shared on twitter.
Before taking office, Zelensky had been a household name in Ukraine for decades. Nataliya Roman, a former television reporter in Ukraine who's now a journalism professor at the University of North Florida, said Zelensky rose to prominence in part by doing sketches on comedy-competition shows in the late 1990s and the 2000s. In 2005, his success on that front earned him his own sketch series, "Evening Quarter," which Roman described as an immensely popular "social and political satire" show, loved for its bravery at a time "when freedom of speech was an issue in Ukraine."
Over the next few years, his career blossomed: In addition to winning the first season of the Ukrainian version of "Dancing With the Stars" and voicing Paddington, Zelensky also starred in movies such as "Rzhevskiy protiv Napoleona" ("Corporal vs. Napoleon"), in which he portrays a womanising Napoleon Bonaparte during his invasion of, yes, Russia.
But his most influential role came in 2015 when he began starring in the TV series "Servant of the People" as a high school history teacher who gets elected as president after a video of him eloquently criticising the political status quo goes viral.
Surprisingly, given his frivolous showbiz past, experts say Zelensky has more than risen to the occasion — even though his impassioned televised speeches directed at both Russians and his own countrymen before and after the onslaught did little to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin's military might.
US President Joe Biden even offered to evacuate Volodymyr Zelensky from Kiev but he declined. "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride," Zelensky said, as reported by the Associated Press, citing a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation.
When addressing Ukrainians, both on TV and online, Zelensky rallied citizens with exhortations to hold the line against the Russians and fight for their country. He has even ordered the release of all prisoners with a military background so they can join in the fight. Furthermore, he has also ordered the distribution of hundreds of thousands of assault weapons and artillery to ordinary citizens. This armoury was part of the military aid provided to Ukraine by the West.
Zelensky declared martial law and remained defiant as Russian and Belarussian forces hit Ukraine in the kind of land, air and sea invasion not seen since World War II, blocking the capital of Kyiv as residents tried to flee.
To the surprise of many, Zelensky, who grew up speaking fluent Russian in Russian-speaking southeast Ukraine to Jewish parents, has not gone the pro-Russian route after his election but has tried to portray himself as a nationalist, with constant demands to the West for more heavy weapons and membership of NATO. He uttered dire warnings about Russia's evil intentions towards Ukraine and the West, and held a sustained campaign against separatists in the east — in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics (now recognised by Russia and supported by it in their struggle for unification with Russia since 2014) — thus enraging Putin, who has had his sight set on pro-American Zelensky since his election in 2019. Putin says Zelensky has covertly encouraged neo-Nazi forces, which the Ukrainian president refutes by pointing to his Jewish ancestry and says his grandfather fought the Nazis while being part of the Soviet army.
Originally seen as a puppet of the oligarch Kolomoisky, Zelensky rebranded himself as a crusader against oligarchs, just as he had evolved from being a native Russian-speaker brought up in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine into more of a nationalist.
"He's kept a unified government and not gone along completely with either what Russia or the US wanted," said Russ Bellant, a long-time Ukraine researcher. "He knows he's in the middle of a bigger power game between superpowers and he seems to know what he's doing. He's handling himself pretty well. He's his own man. He knows what's really at stake but he knows what happened to Viktor Yanukovych." Yanukovych, 71, was the fourth president of Ukraine who was overthrown during the 2014 Maidan revolution.
Zelensky, in his comedy troupe performances and in the plotlines of "Servant of the People" satirised the corruption in Ukraine and also showed what the country could look like if given a shot at democracy.
Life imitated art when Zelensky declared on the New Year's eve that he had decided to run for the presidential chair. His surprise announcement was greeted with cheers and derision in equal measure but ordinary Ukrainians lauded his courage in taking on the entrenched political heavyweights. He defeated the pro-Russian president Petro Poroshenko in a runoff in 2019, with more than 70 per cent of the vote.
Michael Marion Naydan, a professor of Ukrainian Studies at Penn State, said that Zelensky's portrayal of an everyman becoming a great leader in "Servant of the People" set him apart from both "the stiff and stodgy Ukrainian politicians in power and those eventually running against him in the presidential election."
During his presidential campaign, however, he used a bulletproof Mercedes registered to a business associate of him, and his benefactor, the billionaire business magnate Kolomoisky who was also TV producer of his hit show, "Servant of the People." There's a reason Zelensky watched his back when he was closely associated with Kolomoisky who co-founded PrivatBank — the largest commercial bank in Ukraine before it was nationalised in 2016.
Kolomoisky was so tough that he crushed Russian separatists with his very own paramilitary units, called the 5-foot-7 Putin a "schizophrenic dwarf," allegedly ordered contract killings and often fed a live shark in a massive aquarium in his office to intimidate guests.
The FBI began investigating Kolomoisky in 2019 for financial crimes involving some of his US interests. American prosecutors said he and a partner embezzled and defrauded PrivatBank of billions and laundered some of the money via their holdings in the US. He was also officially sanctioned by the US last year for, among other things, undermining democracy in Ukraine.
The Pandora Papers also show that Zelensky and his TV production partners were beneficiaries of a web of offshore firms created in 2012. The same year Zelensky's production company entered into a deal with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky's media group — which allegedly received USD 41 million in funds from Kolomoisky's PrivatBank, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project noted.
Despite Zelensky's ties with Kolomoisky, and him not taking any concrete action against Kolomoisky or any of the other oligarchs, he promised to be held accountable during his election campaign; he didn't live up to expectations that he'd be a buffoonish clown or a shamelessly crooked frontman for Ukrainian billionaires.
"Though many commentators label Zelensky a Ukrainian Donald Trump because of his lack of political experience and background in entertainment, Zelensky has turned into an adept political actor," Nina Jankowicz, a Ukraine expert at the Wilson Centre think-tank in Washington, DC, wrote in 2019 after a visit to the country.
Zelensky, who has been married to Olena Zelenska since 2003, has a son, Kiril, and a daughter, Aleksandra. Architecture graduate-turned comedy writer and Vogue cover star Olena Zelenska, 44, opposed her husband's political career at first but now vows not to 'panic or cry' as she stands by his side. The mother-of-two went to the same school as her future husband but the couple only met at university. She supported him in his comedy career and became a screenwriter for his nationally-acclaimed comedy troupe. Olena kept out of the spotlight until his election victory — but has now thrown herself into the role of the First Lady. A champion of women's rights, Olena has shared rousing messages of support in the days since Russia's invasion. Zelensky claims that both he and his family are now targets for assassination by trained Russian mercenaries but vows he will not leave Kiev. The besieged president has said, however, that his family had been evacuated to safety.
"I am staying in the government quarters together with others," Zelensky said in his video address, adding, "The enemy has designated me as target number one, and my family as target number two."
The video, posted a day after Russia launched an invasion over Ukraine, is lit in sepia tones. Zelensky stands in the middle of a street in his war-rattled nation with several other Ukrainian officials.
"We are all here, defending our independence, our country. And it will stay that way," Zelensky says in Ukrainian. "Glory to the men and women defending us. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes." It seems Zelensky's role as an entertainer may have prepared him for his most crucial role. The clip, which went up a day after the invasion and has been endlessly shared, looks like something out of an action flick — particularly the version that has been overdubbed with "Shook Ones, Part II" by rap duo Mobb Deep, which has been viewed more than six million times. Noted one Twitter user, "I can just see the movie version of this video in my head."
"I think Zelensky's past as an actor and comedian is integral to his management of the situation at hand right now. He's used to being in front of a camera. He's used to performing," said Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin's School of Journalism. "While before this conflict his poll numbers were pretty low, they've skyrocketed. And that's because he's been able to use his strengths during this conflict."
Woolley pointed out that there's a lengthy history of successful TV or film stars going on to succeed in politics, including former presidents Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Zelensky had earlier shown that he has a knack for being at the front and centre of an international scandal. Trump's first impeachment stemmed from a now-notorious phone call with Zelensky in July 2019 in which Trump leaned on him to investigate the Biden family's corruption in Ukraine. The call also thrust the suspect and lucrative business dealings of Joe and his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine into the spotlight. Zelensky was again pulled back into the US political fray after a leaked Biden audio.
He then called on his law enforcement agencies to investigate the leaked audio of private phone calls several years ago between then Vice-President Joe Biden and Ukraine's pro-Russian, then-president, Petro Poroshenko, one year after his election, and said the conversations "might be perceived, qualified as high treason."
The Biden recordings, which were first played at a news conference in Kiev, shed relatively little light on Biden's role in ousting Ukraine prosecutor general four years ago. But Zelensky's comments could have been aimed at appeasing Trump and distancing himself from Biden, discrediting his rival Poroshenko and deflecting the investigators all in one swipe.
The released tapes offered no evidence that Biden pushed for Shokin's removal to help his son Hunter Biden. At the time, the younger Biden was earning USD 50,000 to USD 1,00,000 a month on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, and the company and its owner, a former government minister, was under investigation by the prosecutor general in Ukraine who was fired at Biden's insistence. Then Vice-President Biden said the firing was dependent on a billion dollars of American aid for Ukraine he was set to approve.
Now, Trump is out of office and Zelensky is begging Biden for more financial and military aid, and American and European military intervention in Ukraine with boots on the ground to defend Ukraine against the Russian onslaught, as well as membership in the EU and NATO. But only the request for military aid seems to have been heard so far.
Biden seems to have been careful in not showing overt support to Ukraine after he came to power, in a bid to calm Russia and to distance himself from his son's association with Ukraine. This may have emboldened Putin to make his incursion into Ukraine, in the belief that Biden and NATO would not militarily intervene in Ukraine so soon after Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan and the huge financial toll the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on the American economy, leaving the American people with little appetite for another costly war in Russia's backyard. For now, at least, it seems Zelensky must go it alone and call upon all his acting skills to put on a brave front in the face of an inevitable defeat.
Views expressed are personal