The metamorphosis of Volodymyr Zelensky

  • Themes: Ukraine, War

An actor and comedian who once played a president on TV is now the world’s most eminent contemporary wartime leader, with almost universal support for his fight for a free, unified Ukraine. How did he do it?

An address by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
An address by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Credit: American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

US President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv earlier this week highlighted a new phenomenon in international politics: Volodymyr Zelensky has become the most celebrated leader in the democratic world.

Biden’s visit was far from unique. Over the past year, since Russia widened its invasion of Ukraine that began in 2014, Kyiv has hosted visits from a succession of world leaders, including those from Poland, the Baltic States, France, Germany, Canada, as well as two British prime ministers.

The 44-year old Ukraine president appeared invariably in his habitual olive green shirt, combat pants, and boots. Yet, just four years ago, Zelensky was known in both Ukraine and Russia for quite different roles: those of actor, comedian, producer, and founder of Kvartal-95, an entertainment production company named after his neighbourhood in Krivyi Rih, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine.

His comedy troupe more recently produced a popular television series, Servant of the People, with Zelensky portraying a history teacher, Vasily Goloborodko, who suddenly finds himself president of Ukraine after the release of a videotape of him uttering profanities about corruption in his country.

The series, which began in 2015, depicts his struggles to overcome rapacious oligarchs. In 2019 it appeared to move from fiction to reality when Zelensky emerged as the main challenger to the oligarch-president Petro Poroshenko, then seeking a second term based on a patriotic election platform of ‘Army, Church, Language’.

Zelensky did not espouse a programme. He presented no platform or principles, avoided interviews, and communicated through Instagram and other media. In their one public debate at Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium in April, Poroshenko declared that Zelensky was unfit for office and would not be able to stand up to Vladimir Putin. Most of the stadium was filled with Poroshenko’s supporters. Zelensky offered himself as the candidate of a new generation, reliant on social media for communication, and an alternative to the corrupt and unsuccessful leaders of the past who had brought Ukraine to poverty. While Poroshenko was in office during 2018, the IMF ranked Ukraine as the poorest country in Europe, overtaking Moldova for this unwanted prize.

In the final round, Zelensky won over 70% of the vote in a landslide victory. Two months later, he initiated pre-term elections for Ukraine’s parliament, and his newly-formed party, also called Servant of the People, won a majority of seats, the first time in independent Ukraine that a president had a majority in the assembly.

Some argued that Zelensky was indebted to another oligarch, former governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region Ihor Kolomoisky, who allegedly defrauded his own PrivatBank of US$5.5 billion and was put on the United States’ sanctions list in 2021. Kolomoisky had funded Zelensky’s company and advised the presidential candidate on several occasions.

It seems probable that Russia also welcomed the election of Zelensky, who had vowed to end the conflict in the Donbas. On paper, he was a welcome alternative to the nationalistic Poroshenko, and a native Russophone who made frequent visits to Moscow. Indeed, Zelensky began by initiating some exchanges of prisoners with the Russian-backed separatists of the so-called national republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

He baulked, however, at Russia’s insistence on adhering to the Minsk Accords, an ill-fated armistice that brought a temporary halt to the most serious fighting in the Donbas, with France and Germany as mediators. Both Accords were signed after serious defeats for the Ukrainian army (in September 2014 and February 2015), and demanded concessions of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

In his early months in office, little seemed to go right for the neophyte president. By March 2020, Prime Minister Oleksii Honcharuk had resigned, and a new Cabinet was installed under Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal, an entrepreneur and former governor of the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Zelensky also ran into difficulties with US president Donald Trump, who tried to tie arms exports to Ukraine with efforts to uncover damaging information about his rival Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

Though he became more wary of Russia, Zelensky refused to believe the likelihood of an invasion in February 2022, pleading for Western media to cease such discussions since they undermined investment into Ukraine.

When the war began, Zelensky’s popularity had fallen to less than 30%. His governance seemed destined to be hailed as a short-term aberration.

Yet he had the basic tools for strong leadership. He had already used them to shut down several Russian-language websites and publications; place one of the most powerful backers of Putin in the Parliament, Viktor Medvedchuk, under house arrest; and ban several leftist political parties deemed treacherous.

When the invasion began, and Russia attacked on seven fronts, reaching the outskirts of Kyiv within days, the United States offered to rescue Zelensky. He turned them down, declaring that he needed ‘ammunition, not a ride’, a statement that came to epitomise his bravery and unify the country.

After the liberation of localities around Kyiv, Zelensky first visited the sites of massacres at Izium and Bucha carried out by the Russian troops. It was an occasion that visibly aged and hardened him. Thereafter, he refused to trust Putin or negotiate with the Russians. He has maintained this resolve.

The war has enhanced his natural ability to communicate in social media clips: familiar, reassuring, and not only with his own people but with much of the world. To the West, he has constantly demanded more weapons and aid, arguing that he is fighting for democracy and the freedom of those countries anxious to roll back the Russian tide.

The past problems of this troubled state have been overshadowed by Russian war crimes, the heroism of Uktraine’s defenders, and the suffering of its population. Resistance is personified by the country’s leader. Zelensky has become Ukraine.


David R. Marples