Until 24 February this year, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was a name that was not widely known outside Ukraine. True, he’d enjoyed a cameo role in the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, when it appeared that the former American president had tried to pressure the new Ukrainian president into serving up dirt on Joe Biden’s son Hunter by allegedly blocking payment of a military aid package.
But even then, he was just another leader of Ukraine, the largest entirely European nation, no more recognisable to the general populace than any of his five predecessors – the likes of Viktor Yanukovych and Petro Poroshenko. With Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic decision to invade Ukraine, however, he suddenly became a global figurehead, an international hero, a modern David standing up to the brutal Russian Goliath.
He seemed sharp-witted – when offered evacuation by the US government, he apparently replied: “I need ammunition, not a ride”, though the US authorities denied that such a conversation took place. He seem determined. And he seemed to realise that if his country were to have a chance of defending itself, he needed to rally international support as much through emotional public appeals as by discreet diplomacy.
But who is this overnight sensation, where did he come from and what does he believe in? Ukraine-watchers already knew that he was a comedic actor by profession, who had starred in a hit TV series called Servant of the People, in which he played a high-school history teacher who, after making an anti-corruption rant that goes viral, unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine.
That he then went on to set up his own political party called, after the show, Servant of the People, ran for president and won a convincing victory was like some kind of meta postmodern joke in which fiction subsumes reality. When it emerged that he was also the voice of Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the hit film, it seemed as if Zelenskiy was himself a brilliant comic invention, someone able to withstand the might of Russia through the novel means of parodic performance theatre.
All the same, the question still remains: who is Zelenskiy and what is he really about? Those looking for answers to the Zelenskiy enigma will be disappointed by this hastily written and translated book, which bills itself as “A Biography”. Written by Serhii Rudenko, a Ukrainian political commentator, it’s not really a life story, but an account of his eventful three years in office.
Actually, that makes it sound a more coherent narrative than it is. Part of the problem is that it’s written for a Ukrainian audience, people who are aware who Garik Martirosyan and Olena Malyashenko are. An added difficulty is the tone, which is often gossipy, knowing, sardonic and sometimes scathing, but in ways that it would require a working knowledge of the Ukrainian political scene to appreciate.
We do learn that Zelenskiy grew up in the tough industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, having spent his early years in the small Mongolian town of Erdenet, where his father was in charge of a mining and processing plant. He was well liked at school. He studied law at university, at the behest of his father, but after leaving set up an improvisational team with schoolfriends that came to national prominence as Kvartal 95.
It doesn’t get a lot more detailed than that faint sketch. What is evident, though, is that Zelenskiy’s political rise owed a great deal to the sense of despair felt by most Ukrainians at their corrupt political elite. Presidents came and went but, regardless of whether they were pro- or anti-Russian, they all tended to be backed by self-interested oligarchs and advised by a self-enriching band of cronies. Despite presenting himself as a clean break from the double-dealing status quo, Zelenskiy himself is indebted to Ihor Kolomoisky, the Ukranian-Cypriot-Israeli billionaire who controls the 1+1 TV channel and supported Zelenskiy’s presidential campaign. Kolomoisky, who denies any wrongdoing, has been banned from the US on suspicion of “significant corruption”.
And Zelenskiy is surrounded by his own band of cronies, one of whom, a former economics minister, was recorded telling a group of journalists how his boss had a “fog in his head” when it came to economic matters. It’s also said that Zelenskiy once made light of Ukrainian protesters in the Donbas.
So based on this – largely favourable – portrait, Zelenskiy is not the stainless paragon of western fantasies. But then he doesn’t need to be. What Ukraine requires right now is a leader who can unite the nation, embody its struggle and is able to motivate and mobilise a people under savage assault by a regime that sees Nazis everywhere but that comes closer to actual fascism than any in Europe since the late General Franco’s. It does’t really matter if Zelenskiy is acting, because wartime leaders are all actors of one sort or another, projecting an image of self-belief and resolution that few, in their private hours, truly feel. So far it’s a convincing act, indistinguishable from the real thing, which effectively makes it the real thing.
The takeaways from this uneven book are that Ukraine is a flawed democracy and that Zelenskiy, despite his reformist rhetoric, is a product of the system. But he’s hugely preferable to his adversary and if Ukraine manages to resist Putin’s attempt to drag it back into the Russian empire it will in no small way be down to a leader with the strength of character to rise to the daunting moment.