Journey of Volodymyr Zelenskyy: From stand-up comedy stage to battle front
Seven summers ago, a 38-year-old comic who played the president of Ukraine in a popular soap, had possibly no idea that one day he will lead his nation in one of the deadly wars in the century.
Today, Ukraine’s 44-year-old President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not only leading his country in a “lone battle” against Russia, but has also vowed not to abandon his people even though the “enemy” considers him the “Number 1 target” and his family as “Number 2”.
Born Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy to Jewish parents in Kryvyi Rih in 1978, Zelenskyy graduated in law from the Kyiv National Economic University. He, however, found his calling in comedy instead. After forming a comedy troupe known as Kvartal 95 in 1997 with other actors, Zelenskyy’s team started performing on television in 2003.
Several TV shows and stage performances later, Zelenskyy started incorporating political satires in his acts. With most of his productions being in Russian, Zelenskyy, in 2014, he protested against the Ukrainian government’s plans to ban Russian artists from Ukraine.
In 2015, his popular show ‘Servant of the People’ served as a launch pad for his political career and election as president. Zelenskyy played the role of Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a high school history teacher, whose speech against the corruption in the government of Ukraine goes viral and eventually catapults him to the post of the president.
The immense popularity of the show inspired Kvartal 95 to launch a political party by the same name (Servant of the People) three years later. In 2018, Zelenskyy announced his candidacy for the presidential elections under his party and heavily relied on his stand-up comic acts against opponents at campaign rallies. He would tour with his team Kvartal 95 and a majority of his interaction with the electorate was through social media including YouTube. During the time of the campaign, he was accused of deliberately avoiding journalists and shying away from serious interviews.
One of his key promises were to end the war with Russia and placate the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
On April 21, 2019, he successfully unseated then President Petro Poroshenko, in a landslide victory, winning 73 per cent of the votes. He was inaugurated on May 20, 2019.
Zelenskyy tried to make amends with Russia in his first year of office by establishing a dialogue with Putin, but was unsuccessful in his attempts. He took a rather hardliner position in 2020-21, a deviation from his earlier attitude towards Russia, after tensions escalated with the neighbouring country and Russia started building up of forces near the Ukrainian borders (in April 2021).
Rubbishing Putin’s claims that he was provoking war, Zelenskyy in a speech on February 23 said he neither wanted a “cold war”, a “hot war” or even a “hybrid war”. He had urged Russian citizens to “see the truth” and stop the war ”before it’s too late”.
With Ukraine having lost 137 military personnel and civilians since Thursday, Zelenskyy on Friday lashed out at western leaders for staying silent on his country’s NATO membership. While the US and NATO have sent military help to Ukraine, they have been silent on sending troops to fight the Russian forces as Ukraine is not a member of the NATO and the western powers do not want to escalate a bigger war by joining forces with Ukraine.
Zelenskyy has decided to stay in Ukraine with his family even as Russian forces close in on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.