Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been met with every reaction imaginable on the internet — from outrageous memes, to in-depth video essays, and tweets that condense decades of geopolitics into 280-character bad takes.
Emerging from all this discourse is a man who has amassed several followers across the brutal events of the last several days. And that is none other than Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Some call him a joke, some have produced digital art pieces christening him ‘Captain Ukraine’. We’re here to clear the air surrounding Zelenskyy by tracing his journey from funnyman to an international symbol of Ukrainian solidarity.
Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy was born on January 25, 1978 in a Ukrainian city named Kryvyi Rih, back when Ukraine was still under the grip of Soviet rule. As a Jew, he was part of an extreme minority as well — less than 0.5 percent of the population even by today’s more diverse figures — with some members of his father’s family perishing in the Holocaust.
Studying at the local Kryvyi Rih National University, Zelenskyy obtained a law degree but never attempted to follow a track career. As early as 17, he joined a show that would soon change the course of his 20s; it was the Klub Vesyólykh i Nakhódchivykh or KVN, a Russian (formerly Soviet) comedy competition.
He soon joined a team called ‘Zaporizhia-Kryvyi Rih-Transit’, which performed in the KVN’s major league, winning it in 1997. Here’s one of his later appearances, recorded in 2001:
Across the next ten years, Zelenskyy became part of a bright new wave of comedians across the region, touring with a group he formed called Kvartal 95, before becoming a TV phenomenon across East Europe and Russia.
While Zelenskyy was already a household name by the mid 2000s, he catapulted into on-screen stardom by appearing as a main character in 2008’s Lyubov v Bolshom Gorode (Love in the Big City), and it’s eventual sequel. In it, he plays a Russian dentist working in America, who along with his womanizing friends, gets ‘cursed’ and is unable to have sex unless he falls in love.
Sounds a lot like a Bollywood comedy, doesn’t it? Amusingly enough, when it came to his personal life, Zelenskyy’s story was surprisingly sweet. He married his childhood sweetheart Olena Kiyashko in 2003, a screenwriter with whom he now has two children.
Soon though, Zelenskyy eventually used his influence and fame to act in and produce a TV show called Sluga Naroda (Servant of the People), which ran from . In it, he played a high-school history teacher who (in a strangely prophetic turn) who finds himself elected President after a video of him berating the Ukrainian government went viral.
The show brutally tackled issues of corruption within Ukraine’s political system, and was watched by pretty much every Ukrainian household, cementing Zelenskyy in Ukraine’s public consciousness. In the show’s final year, he announced his candidature for the presidential position.
The years leading up to this were extremely vital for Ukraine’s security. Russia had just seized nearby Crimea in 2014, while supporting insurgents in East Ukraine. Protests had kicked out then-president Viktor Yanukovych, making way for a shaky Petro Poroshenko who tried to keep a fragile Ukraine in one piece.
In 2019, when Zelenskyy contested for the post of President, he won by an absolute landslide – beating out Poroshenko with a stunning 73.2 percent of all votes.
Zelenskyy was sworn in as Ukraine’s sixth President on May 20th, 2019.
As President, Zelenskyy’s rise to power has been pretty unprecedented; perhaps only the United States can match the claim of electing a comedian to high office.
Most of his high-profile orders have been people-centric, from ousting top-level officials with records of corruption, to reforming Ukraine’s media laws to encourage competition and prevent the formation of oligarchies.
On the other hand, he has been criticized for his handling of the conflict descalation in Donbas — a key theater of war between Russia and Ukraine. He had promised to negotiate hard with Putin on this – which he reportedly did after his rise to power. In October 2019, Zelenskyy announced a preliminary deal struck with the separatists, under which the Ukrainian government would respect elections held in the region in exchange for Russia withdrawing its unmarked troops.
This was criticized heavily by opposition politicians as well as citizens. They felt that Zelenskyy had played a weak hand, agreeing to an election long after Putin’s forces had scattered pro-Ukraine residents from the area, influencing the results in his favour.
He has also taken a firm left-liberal stance on social issues suporting causes such as free distribution of medical marijuana, free abortions in Ukrainian clinics, and the legalization of prostitution and gambling. He has also openly condemned homophobic hecklers at a record-breaking 14-hour press conference — a shockingly rare feat, especially for East European leaders:
This week, Zelenskyy has made headlines around the world for standing in solidarity with his people by refusing to be airlifted by US troops, and choosing instead to stand and fight Russian forces.
(Featured Image Credits: EPA, LPLS Film Production, @ZelenskyyUa/Twitter)