Biography of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Until his decision to run in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections, Volodymyr Zelensky was largely absent from the country’s political history. He played no part in the two upheavals that rocked Kyiv’s Maidan Square in the first two decades of this century: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 that forced election officials to abandon a fraudulent run-off, and the deadly 2014 clashes that forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first military intervention. Zelensky did not even do his compulsory military service. His dodging of the repechage has long been mocked by political opponents.

So you’d expect a new biography of the Ukrainian leader to explain how Zelensky made the transition from successful comedian and TV mogul to vaunted warlord, with comparisons to Britain’s Winston Churchill .

The thinness of Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko Zelensky: a biography doesn’t quite do that. The 200-page book was released in Ukrainian last year, long before the Russian invasion in February. The author has added some scenes to the recently published English-language edition that portray Zelensky as a warlord: in Bucha and in the early hours of the war. But they add little or nothing to the public record.

Until his decision to run in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections, Volodymyr Zelensky was largely absent from the country’s political history. He played no part in the two upheavals that rocked Kyiv’s Maidan Square in the first two decades of this century: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 that forced election officials to abandon a fraudulent run-off, and the deadly 2014 clashes that forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first military intervention. Zelensky did not even do his compulsory military service. His dodging of the repechage has long been mocked by political opponents.

So you’d expect a new biography of the Ukrainian leader to explain how Zelensky made the transition from successful comedian and TV mogul to vaunted warlord, with comparisons to Britain’s Winston Churchill .

The thinness of Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko Zelensky: a biography doesn’t quite do that. The 200-page book was released in Ukrainian last year, long before the Russian invasion in February. The author has added some scenes to the recently published English-language edition that portray Zelensky as a warlord: in Bucha and in the early hours of the war. But they add little or nothing to the public record.


Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko

Zelensky: A Biography, Serhii Rudenkotranslated by Michael M. Naydan and Alla Perminova, Wiley, 200 pp., $25, Aug 2022

What Rudenko provides is a portrait of Zelensky during his almost first two years in office, when his presidency looked a lot like one more season of his popular TV show. servant of the people-slapdash and chaotic. (As an actor, Zelensky played a schoolteacher who, in highly unlikely circumstances, becomes president. In real life, he named his political party after his show.)

His first challenge entering politics seemed to be convincing people that he was serious. Zelensky launched his campaign with the slogan “I’m not kidding”. Its platform featured anti-corruption pledges alongside the slogan “Ukrainian centrism,” a term that has proven largely hollow. During a televised debate, Zelensky pointed an accusing finger at incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian chocolate magnate, and declared himself to be the incumbent’s “verdict”.

Even some of Zelensky’s own advisers at that time did not believe he had a chance of reaching the presidency, according to Rudenko.

“They thought it couldn’t happen, that Volodymyr was just playing,” Ukrainian political strategist Serhiy Haidai recalls in the book. “But when he won, they were even more confused. They didn’t know what to do, because they understood what responsibility it was and their old life was over.

Zelensky’s victory brought new faces to Ukrainian politics. Wedding photographers and restaurateurs won seats in the room. But it quickly became clear that Zelensky had no real ideology and had no central plan for governing. Like his TV alter ego, he raised some of his best friends to high profile positions. Some would be caught looking for bribes. A rookie parliamentarian was seen flipping through a dating app during the votes.

“He had to understand very quickly what he had assumed. And then there would have been a completely different Zelensky,” Haidai said. “I think he still doesn’t understand how things work, either at the local level or at the central level. He has become a typical hostage of the system.

“There is no more [Vasyl] Holoborodko,” added Haidai, a reference to the character Zelensky had played on television. “Only Zelensky, to whom the system dictates what procedures there are, what rules there are, what he has to do.”

The deer behavior in headlights described by Rudenko also followed Zelensky internationally. He looked stunned at a press conference in September 2019 when then-US President Donald Trump tried to whitewash his efforts to push the Ukrainian leader to investigate the Biden family’s connections in the country. (Trump’s suspension of US military aid to Ukraine during the ordeal led to his first impeachment.)

Zelensky even thought – initially, anyway – that he could handle Putin through one-on-one diplomacy. Until Russia invaded, many Ukrainians gave him less than a passing grade in presidential elections.

Rudenko’s account is a necessarily incomplete snapshot in time as Ukraine’s future is being played out on the battlefield. Undoubtedly, Zelensky’s political education, from the initial honeymoon to the elimination of some of his key allies, will inform his wartime leadership. Earlier this summer, Zelensky expelled his intelligence chief, a close childhood friend, and Ukraine’s top prosecutor, a campaign ally. Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who first put Zelensky on his airwaves, saw his PrivatBank nationalized and wiped out.

What is sadly missing from the story is anything about Zelensky’s state of mind in the months and weeks leading up to the war – when he urged calm and protested forecasts US intelligence warning of an impending invasion; when he visited the Munich Security Conference, just days before Russian troops crossed the border, and journalists openly wondered if he would return to Ukraine. On the second night of the Russian attack, Zelensky emerged from Kyiv’s Mariinskyi Palace, under possible threat of Russian assassination attempts, to tell the world he was still there. The events around this moment and many more will surely be picked up in future biographies.

“[S]from February 24, 2022, … we discovered a completely different Zelensky,” writes Rudenko in the first pages of the book. “A man who was not afraid to accept Putin’s challenge and become the leader of popular resistance to Russian aggression. A president who has managed to unite in this fight his supporters and his opponents, corrupt officials and fighters against corruption, adults and children, people of different nationalities and faiths. A head of state hailed by the applause of European parliaments and the American Congress.

But we still wonder how it got there.

Lance B. Holton