Had his presidency petered out six months ago, the political career of Volodymyr Zelenskiy would have been remembered as little more than a historical curiosity. The comic actor caused a sensational upset in 2019, when he unseated the incumbent Petro Poroshenko to win the Ukrainian presidency by a landslide, but exercising power had tested him more than winning it.
Almost two years into Zelenskiy’s term, his two campaign promises – to crack down on corruption and to end the military conflict with Russia in the east – were no closer to being realised. Aside from symbolic changes aimed at bringing his office closer to the people, such as reducing the long presidential motorcade to two cars with no sirens, his policy agenda remained as vague as it had been during his campaign. His own prime minister was secretly recorded saying the head of state had “a fog in his head” when it came to economics, and foreign diplomats who met him were struck by his intelligence but also by how much he had yet to learn.
On the international scene, Zelenskiy was perhaps best known for his unwitting cameo in the Trump impeachment. The then US president had withheld military aid to Ukraine while pressing Zelenskiy to pursue a baseless investigation into Joe Biden – a farce worthy of Servant of the People, the TV comedy in which Zelenskiy plays a history teacher who unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine.
We know now, of course, that those two years will amount to little more than a footnote in the story of Volodymyr Zelenskiy. With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the 44-year-old Zelenskiy has found himself at the centre of a world-historical crisis on a scale that few leaders ever face. Russia’s unprovoked aggression threatens the very existence of Ukraine; Zelenskiy is in charge of saving it. Instead of buckling under that pressure, he has risen to the moment in the most remarkable way.
Offered a route into exile when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on February 24th, he opted to stay at the presidential complex to lead the country’s resistance. He defied threats to his life in the early days of the invasion by walking the streets of the capital, recording pitch-perfect videophone messages that sought to reassure and rally Ukrainians. His tireless diplomatic efforts have won him global admiration and forced world leaders into radical policy shifts at unprecedented speed. He has come to embody Ukrainian resolve, and is perhaps the world leader whose approval his counterparts covet the most.
But beyond this wartime persona and the key points of his unusual backstory, Zelenskiy is relatively little known in the West. The thirst for information about him explains the quick translation into English of a biography by the Ukrainian journalist and political commentator Serhii Rudenko. Originally published in Ukrainian in 2021 and updated to include the early stages of the invasion, Rudenko’s conversational narrative, written in a gossipy tone, chronicles Zelenkiy’s rise in short, staccato chapters, from his childhood in Kryvyi Rih, a centre of iron mining and metallurgy in the southeast, through his wildly successful career as an actor and comedian and his insurgent campaign for the presidency.
The book is good on the febrile atmosphere of Ukrainian politics, a world of blackmail and double-crossing, where members of a small business-political elite vie for advantage by means legal and otherwise. To understand the overweening influence of oligarchs in Ukrainian public life is to see why Zelenskiy won so emphatically in 2019. Running as a Ukrainian Everyman fighting the prevailing culture of hucksterism, he spoke to a deep yearning for a clean, principled politics focusing on ordinary people’s concerns.
Rudenko writes approvingly of his subject, although he is critical of the president’s limited progress in reining in the oligarchs and outright dismissive of his pledge to eliminate nepotism in government, showing how Zelenskiy filled key positions in his administration with allies from Kvartal 95, his comedy troupe. It’s also clear that Zelenskiy was indebted to one of those oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose 1+1 TV channel aired Servant of the People and supported Zelenskiy’s presidential campaign.
The book is written primarily for a domestic audience. Foreign readers will be interested less in the minor characters from Kyiv’s political scene than in the broader forces shaping Zelenskiy’s life and thinking. In its focus on the former, the book frequently loses sight of the latter. Rudenko in general eschews analysis, making clear in the preface that he will focus on facts over “moralising, prejudice or manipulation”.
But there are some facts that call out for deeper analysis, not least Zelenskiy’s relationship with Russia. He was raised in a Russian-speaking family in the east and became a star in Russia thanks to his television shows. On the campaign trail he was accused of being too accommodating towards Moscow – he promised a Ukraine that was neither “a corrupt partner of the West” nor “Russia’s little sister” – and too willing to believe that Russia would strike a deal to end the war in the east.
At some point, it is clear, Zelenskiy realised that Russia was negotiating in bad faith and began to turn more decisively to the West, but the book does not shed much light on that process. Also absent is any exploration of the role of religion or history in shaping Zelenskiy’s worldview. Putin claims to be out to “de-Nazify” Ukraine; Zelenskiy is Jewish, and many of his relatives were killed by Nazis in the Holocaust.
Zelenskiy emerges from Rudenko’s book as likeable, canny and idealistic. As the world has seen, he has charisma and a gift for communication. But, shifting all the time from one persona to another – comedian, actor, businessman, candidate, president – he is also rather elusive.
Ultimately, it is the one role he never chose – war leader – that will define him.