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28 June 2022

Volodymyr Zelensky behind the mask

Serhii Rudenko’s biography is a portrait of a wartime hero whose troubled past may return to haunt him.

By Lyse Doucet

“Good evening friends,” began Volodymyr Zelensky. It was five minutes to midnight. Ukraine’s wartime president, hailed the world over for his masterclass in leadership, now speaks every night to the people of Ukraine, and many beyond. But this address on New Year’s Eve 2018, on the independent TV channel 1+1, came as a surprise to everyone, including the then-president, Petro Poroshenko.

“Dear Ukrainians, I’m promising you I will run for president. And I’m doing it right away.”

Ukrainian social media exploded. Poroshenko supporters who’d been settling in, Champagne glasses at the ready, for the traditional interruption of regular programming for a presidential New Year’s greeting, were incensed. “Who? This clown?” they asked. “Who is he to run for president?”

That was the night Ukraine’s star comedian and actor – famed for his cheeky, at times crude, comedic routines – entered the political stage. Was it just a publicity stunt, people wondered – another Zelensky antic to promote his popular TV series Servant of the People produced by his media company Kvartal 95 Studio, in which his character, the history teacher Vasiliy Holoborodko, is catapulted into the presidency?

It was no joke. Poroshenko was soon crushed by a whopping 73 per cent of the vote by a fresh-faced, clean-shaven 41-year-old – the same guy who’d spent years making jokes about him. Now Zelensky was promising to end cronyism and stop a shooting war in eastern Ukraine where Russian boots first crossed the border in 2014.

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[See also: The Zelensky myth: why we should resist hero-worshipping Ukraine’s president]

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Now the world knows this Zelensky, his face bearded and lined, the supreme commander-in-chief uniting his compatriots, inspiring people the world over as he stands up to the shadowy figure of Vladimir Putin, bent on bombing and besieging Ukraine into submission. In those first breathtaking weeks after Russian tanks rumbled across the borders, the internet sparkled with every Zelensky gem. “Did you know he was the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear?” “He won Ukraine’s Dancing with the Stars in 2006!”

But today this conflict drags on with no end in sight; it’s everyone’s war now. The cost of the food on our tables and the power keeping the lights on in our homes connects to this barbaric conflagration in Europe’s far corner.

Zelensky now disrupts the world’s media landscape, addressing parliaments from Germany to Japan via video, popping up everywhere from the Grammys to Glastonbury. A consummate communicator, he hits all the right notes: in Britain, he channels his inner Churchill; in Germany, he invokes Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” Berlin speech; in America, Pearl Harbour and 9/ll. One of the few rebukes came from Israel when Ukraine’s Jewish leader tried to draw history lessons from the Holocaust. A team of former top journalists and old TV buddies helps shape this stream. But the first and last word is said to come from Zelensky – a president who films his own video selfies, urging his nation to hold its nerve and berating Western allies to send ever more weapons in a war he’s fighting to secure their future too.

It was only a matter of time before a publisher rushed something into print about this man of the moment. The first, by the Ukrainian writer and commentator Serhii Rudenko, known for his political biographies, was initially published in Ukrainian in 2021, with a title that translates as “Zelensky without Make-Up”. Comprising 38 small chapters, some just a few pages long, the text has been updated with a preface, “Zelensky’s Political Oscar”, and an epilogue, “The President of War” – bookends of an extraordinary life story, which is still being written. Reading this biography now, in the wake of a war that upended our understanding of both Zelensky and Ukraine, presents his personal history in a new light.

It’s not a tidy chronology: Rudenko takes us back and forth in time, offering us Zelensky’s story as if it were a chocolate box, a morsel at a time. But this is no fairy tale. Some chapters tell of endearing childhood dreams. Of course, there’s a section on his entanglement with Donald Trump, who famously telephoned the unsuspecting Zelensky in 2019 looking for a little help to bring down his rival Joe Biden by asking for Biden’s son Hunter to be investigated. And there are the anecdotes of corruption, betrayals and break-ups – the unfinished business of Ukraine’s day-to-day politics that was pushed to the bottom of the pile once the task of fighting an existential war took over.

Every once in a while, the old stories creep in. This month, the European Commission’s beaming president, Ursula von der Leyen, dressed in the brilliant yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, announced Ukraine’s candidacy to join this European club. But behind the effusive statements, there are the whispered warnings. Although Zelensky pushed for the fast track for EU membership, Ukraine will be on a very slow road to rein in its oligarchs, crack down on corruption and build far more effective institutions of state. Cynics say it will never get to the end of that road.

“Ukraine’s packaging is great,” an international adviser in Kyiv recently told me. “But there’s not much beneath the president and all his advisers.”

Zelensky was born to Jewish parents in 1978, in Kryvyi Rih in southern central Ukraine, a “city of miners and metallurgists” and at the time one of the most polluted places in the USSR. Zelensky’s father wanted him to excel in sciences: a “B” grade in maths for Zelensky was “a day of mourning” in their home. But, in Rudenko’s telling, all his school teachers “without exception mention Zelensky as a diligent and intelligent child whose ambition was to be on the stage”. He studied law but dazzled in the KVK championships, a popular contest of comedy and song on Russian television.

But this book about the making of a charismatic communicator is also about his unmaking – at least until a war got in the way. Like the schoolteacher-turned-president he once played on the screen, Zelensky came to power promising “no to nepotism and friends in power”. But kumy– cronies or close buddies – soon turned up everywhere. They included staff from Zelensky’s production company. As Rudenko describes it, “a year after [Zelensky’s] election, the Poroshenko family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by Kvartal 95 Studio”.

And it wasn’t just talented TV types. That 1+1 TV channel which broadcast Zelensky’s first election campaign speech on New Year’s eve was controlled by Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs. He had funded a private army to fight in the region bordering the Donbas in eastern Ukraine when Russian-backed separatists grabbed territory in 2014. Rudenko asks, but doesn’t answer, whether Kolomoisky (who happened to be Poroshenko’s nemesis) and Zelensky launched the TV series Servant of the People as a rehearsal for the real political party that eventually emerged and took the same name.

But Kolomoisky’s relationship with “his” president soon started unravelling, fuelled by his unsuccessful attempts to regain control, and compensation, for his nationalised PrivatBank. And now he is being investigated in the US for money laundering.

[See also: Putin and Zelensky offer contrasting visions of the future]

In the book’s last pages we read how, the day before Russia’s invasion, Zelensky gathered 50 of Ukraine’s most prosperous citizens to urge them to play their part in the coming conflict. They’d been fighting another battle since last September, when Ukraine’s parliament passed a law directed at them. Zelensky had described the register, meant to be put in place this spring, as a way of resolving, once and for all, the relationship between the state and the oligarchs. “Or… more accurately,” as Rudenko puts it, “Zelensky’s own relationship with them.” Rudenko details how Zelensky’s team repeatedly tried to send Poroshenko to jail but concludes that “there are considerable doubts about whether Zelensky actually wants to put Poroshenko behind bars”.

The comedian who did everything possible to make Ukrainians smile had promised, “I will do everything possible so Ukrainians at least do not cry.” But now he is the nation’s consoler-in-chief as entire cities are wiped off the map, countless lives shredded, soldiers slaughtered. He keeps repeating his election pledge to do everything he can to end this conflict – including attempting talks with the man in Moscow. 

Rudenko reveals that, in 2019, “Zelensky sincerely believed that, if he looked into the eyes of the Russian president he would at least see some sign of sadness about the 14,000 dead in the Donbas.” Even more, he “seemed convinced that his actor’s charisma and unique charm would work wonders”. No more.

Zelensky’s first, and so far only, opportunity to look into Putin’s eyes came in the December 2019 Normandy Format talks in Paris, which grouped together Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. But when the fateful moment came, Ukraine’s novice “was noticeably nervous”.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is given a rough ride by Ukrainians for daring to hint at the need for territorial compromise, had struck up a relationship with Zelensky long before others did. In April 2019, between the first and second rounds of Ukraine’s presidential election, he invited both Poroshenko and Zelensky to the Elysée Palace. Again, Zelensky was “visibly nervous”. But Rudenko also notes that “Zelensky and Macron understood each other almost instantaneously”.

Fast-forward to June 2022 when Zelensky, in trademark T-shirt, confidently stands outside his office in the Kyiv sunshine to welcome the finely suited Macron, along with German, Italian and Lithuanian leaders. He extends his visibly muscled arms for firm handshakes and fraternal hugs. His visitors’ admiration is palpable. So many, including Putin, had misjudged Zelensky. They expected – even urged – him to flee on the first flight out of Kyiv in those early jaw-dropping days as Russian forces closed in. Ukraine’s military prowess was underestimated; Russia’s overestimated. War is the stuff of metal – and mettle.

It’s much the same on the home front. Critics, among them Zelensky’s close friends and senior officials who had turned against him within months of his electoral triumph, made snide remarks off camera about the president’s inexperience and understanding when I interviewed them in the run-up to Russia’s invasion. Now even the ex-president Poroshenko, who, like Zelensky, has taken to wearing military garb, has rallied behind his former opponent. He recently told me, “Our unity is our most effective weapon against Putin because he’s trying to undermine us from within.” “We’re all soldiers now,” he insisted as he stood in his sandbagged position.

And Rudenko, who watched Zelensky’s early political acrobatics close-up, also can’t resist the swell of patriotic feeling. In his updated biography, he hails a leader who came to power when “few if any believed in the fighting abilities of the president… who didn’t have a clue what the Ukrainian army was”.

He doesn’t take us inside Zelensky’s head; he just gives us the stories behind his presidency. “These tribulations showed us the real Zelensky,” is his conclusion after the invasion.

But now this performer turned president turned wartime leader speaks, visibly pained, of a new stage in a grinding war which is “spiritually difficult, emotionally difficult… We don’t have a sense of how long it will last, how many more blows, losses and efforts will be needed before we see victory is on the horizon.” This phase of the conflict may be Zelensky’s toughest test yet. He’s already shown himself to be less sure-footed as he veers from vague talk of compromises to save lives to vowing to take back every inch of Ukrainian land. As a leader who can read the room, he knows Ukrainian views are hardening in this miasma of Russian war crimes. But he also senses – and warns against – the “war fatigue” in some capitals; one day it will overwhelm his own. It’s the hardest of high-wire acts, even for Zelensky.

Zelensky: A Biography
Serhii Rudenko
Polity Press, 200pp, £20

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[See also: What Antony Beevor gets wrong about Russia]

This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness