By Matija Šerić
When Russia began publicly threatening to attack Ukraine in late 2021 and early 2022, few could have believed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would become an international symbol of resistance. He seemed like another, albeit unconventional and fun, politician trying to do his job in the best possible way to win the next election. However, “green” because he didn’t look overconfident in responding to Russian threats. Today, the impression is, of course, very different. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelensky has become a Churchillian and Degaullean figure, the embodiment of the small country’s defiance to the aggression of a superpower.
Volodymyr Oleksandrovich Zelensky was born into a family of Ukrainian Jews in 1978. History has shown once again that great leaders come from humble origins. His father was a professor of computer science and a computer expert at a state university and his mother an engineer. He grew up in the neglected industrial town of Krivoy Rog in the Dnipropetrovsk region. Since Volodymyr comes from a Jewish family like many other Ukrainians, his mother tongue was Russian. His grandfather Simon served in the Red Army during World War II and made his way to the rank of colonel. Many of his ancestors as Jews were killed by the Germans during the war. Volodymyr spent four years of his childhood in Erdenet, Mongolia, where his father was employed for a time. He graduated law from the Institute of Economics in Krivoy Rog, although he never worked as a lawyer.
He set out to develop an acting career as a comedian. At the age of 17, he stepped into acting waters. He has performed successfully in Russian and Ukrainian comedy theaters and TV shows and starred in numerous films and series such as Love and the Big City 1, 2 and 3, Office Romance, etc. However, Zelensky’s most famous role was as President in the Servant of the People series. In the series, he became the president of Ukraine as a history professor thanks to a viral video in which he denounced government corruption. The whole series was a mix of West Wing and Monty Python.
In March 2018, members of Zelensky’s production company Kvartal 95 registered a new political party called the Servant of the People, which is the name taken from the series. At first, Zelensky rejected rumours that he would run for president, which he confirmed after several months of speculation. During the 2019 presidential race, he performed with a charismatic populist campaign that transferred his character from Servant of the People to the real world. He avoided the mainstream media and ran the campaign mostly on social media using video clips in which he was an unsurpassed master. He presented himself as an anti-establishment and anti-corruption candidate who wants to restore the people’s faith in politicians and the state. Zelensky claimed that as president he would develop the economy and attract investment to Ukraine through “restarting the justice system” and restoring confidence in the state. His two central campaign promises were to crack down on corruption and end the military conflict with Russia in Donbas. Ukrainians enthusiastically accepted him and gave him the confidence of more than 70% of the votes in the second round of elections, where he swept then president Petro Poroshenko.
After taking office, Zelensky stripped members of the Verkhovna Rada of their legal immunity. The presidential vehicle fleet was reduced to two cars, without sirens. He told government officials to remove presidential portraits from their offices and replace them with pictures of their children, to remind them of the role of their work. He also took the president’s job seriously, acknowledging that he did not have too much knowledge about politics. “He is a very attentive listener,” said John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine. Through listening to the advice of advisors, assistants and other experts, new president made the right decisions.
In the early stages of the mandate, many Ukrainians wondered what approach Zelensky would take towards Russia. Some were even worried that he might be too accommodating to Vladimir Putin’s demands and pursue “appeasement policy”. Such opinions had some basis since Zelensky was associated with Russia throughout his life. He grew up speaking Russian and later became an acting star in Russia thanks to movie roles. He won the election in large part thanks to a promise to make an agreement with Russia to end the war in eastern Ukraine. However, over time, he realized that Putin was not negotiating sincerely and that he actually wanted to dominate Ukraine – Putin was trying to put the whole of Ukraine under Russia’s zone of influence. That belief pushed Zelensky closer to the West, further angering Russian president. Because Putin wanted to keep Ukraine out of NATO at all costs, if possible the European Union as well, the Ukrainian leader had no way to avoid conflicts with Russia.
Unlike his compatriots, elsewhere in Europe many officials initially considered him frivolous. Although it may have seemed less serious and sometimes vague at first, everything changed after the start of the Russian invasion in February this year. Zelensky has become a symbol of resistance and courage which is a perception that goes hand in hand with the optimistic and patriotic vision of Ukraine that he charmingly presented during the election campaign.
After Russia invaded, Zelensky remained in the capital, Kyiv. It was recently reported that Russian special forces (paratroopers) nearly captured Zelensky and his family in the first hours of the invasion. The bombing started, and the president and his wife Olena woke up their two children to be ready to escape. Explosions and shootings echoed near the Ukrainian government’s neighborhood. The security service supplied Zelensky and a dozen of his closest associates with automatic rifles and bulletproof vests. Few of them knew how to use weapons properly, such as the veteran of the Ukrainian military intelligence service, Oleksiy Arestovich. Russian special forces twice tried to conquer government buildings while Zelensky and his family were inside. However, he rejected the offer of American and British forces to leave Kyiv and form a government in exile. Moreover, the next evening he went to the government yard and together with his associates recorded a video of resistance and encouragement for the Ukrainians in the fight against the much more powerful aggressor. The fight between David and Goliath could begin.
Zelensky is waging war every day, encouraging his compatriots through video speeches. Also, Ukrainian media publish photos and videos in which he visits wounded soldiers or civilians in the hospital and awards them medals. It comforts mothers and fathers over the loss of their children as well as residents who have lost their homes and property due to Russian missiles. Zelensky decided to stay in his country and live with his people even though Russian troops and numerous spies were trying to kill him. Due to the range of Russian cannons and bombers, there is no safe place anywhere in Kyiv, but that didn’t sway the president to stay with his people. Admittedly, any other decision would smell of cowardice.
Quite rightly, Boris Johnson stated that Zelensky is a modern Churchill because his lucid, creative and impressive speeches and performances motivate soldiers on the front lines as well as civilians who play a major role in the Ukrainian war effort. He can also be compared to the great leaders of the Czech Republic and Poland, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, although neither of them had to deal with the Russian invasion. Zelensky has the privilege of defying Russian aggression on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people with his brave performances.
The speeches to the international public and the parliaments of other countries are especially impressive. Zelensky always points out that Ukrainians are ready to fight for themselves even though they are faced with a superiorly armed enemy. At the same time, he emphasizes that this is not only a war for the freedom, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but also for the universal democratic values and human rights of the free world. In religious terms, Ukraine’s struggle with Russia can be described as a struggle of light against darkness. Public addresses to the international public are unique because of their sincerity and expression of emotions, at the same time being able to conjure up scenes of war horrors without seeking pity. When describing the war horrors, it was not Zelensky who cried, but his translator. Addressing the US Congress, he vividly commented on his own mortality: “One very real measure of freedom is to die when your time comes, not when someone else, your neighbor, wants it.”
Zelensky admitted in an interview with Time that he became aware of the significance of his role. More precisely, he became aware that he was not important as a private person but as a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance, also a global symbol of resistance to evil. In short, Volodymyr Zelensky is a hero of our time. And unlike the literary hero of Lermontov, a hero in the real world and the real time.
*Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.