How Volodymyr Zelenskyy Went From TV Comic To Churchillian War Leader

A former actor, winner of Dancing With The Stars and voice of Paddington Bear has become the unlikely symbol of Ukraine's defiance.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a TV star before he became president
Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a TV star before he became president
Volodymyr Zelenskyy Instagram

For too many years western leaders have shied away from standing up to Vladimir Putin but one man has stepped in to take the starring role.

A former TV comic and actor - derided by his enemies as a mere funny man - has become the symbol of Ukraine’s resistance.

Just last week an essay by Ukranian journalist Olga Rudenko in the New York Times bore the headline: “The comedian-turned-president is seriously in over his head.”

But as Russia’s brutal invasion gathers pace, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been lauded as an icon of leadership.

“I need ammunition, not a ride.”

- Volodymyr Zelenskyy

He has used diplomacy, social media, defiant speeches and pithy quips to rally his nation and the West against Putin’s military machine.

Whether dressed in military fatigues in a bunker or giving a suited and booted address to the world, Zelenskyy has become Ukraine’s David to Russia’s Goliath.

Amid rumours that he had fled the country, the president dropped a video last Friday proving he had stayed alongside his people.

“We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in the clip filmed on the streets of the capital alongside his top advisers.

The 44-year-old comic-turned-commander-in-chief has even been compared to Winston Churchill by British politicians.

Chair of the UK’s foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat said Zelenskyy showed a “courage and determination” not seen since the British wartime prime minister.

While another Conservative MP Robert Halfon commented: “The Churchill spirit lives on with this man.”

Boris Johnson is said to have turned to an aide following a phone call with Zelenskyy on Friday morning and commented: “Jesus, that guy is brave.”

Zelenskyy won Ukraine's Dancing With The Stars back in 2006
Zelenskyy won Ukraine's Dancing With The Stars back in 2006

Zelenskyy’s transition from president to war leader was solidified when he rejected the USA’s offer to evacuate him, saying: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

An internet meme has sprung up in response, paying homage to Zelenskyy’s role as the voice of Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the films.

The brave little bear is a perfect metaphor for the president who is refusing to leave Ukraine, despite reports Russian troops have orders to kill him.

Only today The Times reported that more than 400 Russian mercenaries are operating in Kyiv on orders to assassinate Zelenskyy and his government in order to prepare the ground for Moscow to take control.

Facing death, rallying the nation and hammering the phones to world leaders in a secret bunker is a far cry from Zelenskyy’s former life as an entertainer.

But some observers argue that his previous life helped pave the way for the role he was born to play.

Zelenskyy was best known for his role as a high school teacher in the TV satire Servant of the People.

His character became an unexpected political star after a video of him ranting against corruption goes viral, leading him to be elected as president.

In a remarkable case of life imitating art, Zelenskyy decided to form his own political party named after his TV show - which won the 2019 elections.

“What is important is to understand that the Zelenskyy is also an actor. He’s been playing the president, he understands how to adapt to a different script.”

- Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine forum at Chatham House

Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine forum at Chatham House, suggested few expected Zelenskyy to make such a defiant wartime leader.

She told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: “It’s absolutely unexpected. Zelenskyy is becoming the symbol of refusal to surrender, defiance, courage, bravery.

“He simply turned from the show businessman into president first and then into a wartime leader.”

Zelenskyy had no experience of politics when elected president less than three years ago but is managing to lead his country in a conflict many in the West fear will turn very bloody.

Lutsevych said the turning point was when he refused to take the US airlift, adding: “If you follow civil society and political opposition, there was quite a lot of criticism of him.

“Now everybody is rallying behind the flag, around the landscape and 90 per cent support - that’s the most recent public opinion poll - 90 per cent support Zelenskyy and his leadership in the country during the war.”

Born in Russian-speaking southeast Ukraine, Zelenskyy has been able to directly address the Russian people in his speeches.

And whatever his fate, Zelenskyy’s emotional last-ditch appeal to Russian citizens on the eve of invasion, on February 24, will go down in history.

“I know that they [the Russian state] won’t show my address on Russian TV, but Russian people have to see it,” he said.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky makes a speech in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 28, 2022.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky makes a speech in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 28, 2022.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Zelenskyy said Russian needed to “know the truth” and that it was time to stop now “before it is too late”.

That same day the Ukrainian president told EU leaders: “This might be the last time you see me alive.”

But the world is listening.

The UK, US, EU and Canada have struck an agreement to remove some Russian banks from the global payment system Swift.

And Germany has vowed to send anti-tank weapons and missiles to Ukraine - after previously saying they had “historical responsibilities” stopping them from providing arms to conflict areas.

Lutsevych said it was important to remember Zelenskyy was an actor, adding: “He’s been playing the president, he understands how to adapt to a different script.

“And clearly what happened in Ukraine since the 24th of February is a completely different reality.”

Her comments highlight the skepticism some Ukrainians had over Zelenskyy’s candidacy in the 2019 presidential election.

Plenty thought it was a joke that one of the country’s best-known television comics wanted to run for president.

Yulia McGuffie, editor-in-chief of the Novoye Vremya news website, told the BBC she was upset when he was elected as she had no faith in his ability to lead a government.

But Ukrainians have rapidly warmed to their president in the past week, she said.

“Full support and respect came, I think after Russia started its war - all Ukrainians have closed ranks around Zelenskyy.

“He is playing a uniting and I would say inspiring role, partly by his own example. He is leading a government that is repelling Putin’s army, and for that many sincerely admire and respect him.”

Another Zelenskyy skeptic, Andrei Shevchyk a software developer, told the Telegraph: “Personally, I didn’t vote for him, or take him seriously because of his background, and when he was first elected I planned to leave the country - I thought ‘this is the end’.

“But he has stepped into his role and is defending Ukraine. That video from him on Friday night was very important, as people are expecting the Russians to hit us very hard. It symbolised our independence.”

Zelenskyy on stage during the recording of his "Evening Quarter" comedy concert in Kyiv, March 2017.
Zelenskyy on stage during the recording of his "Evening Quarter" comedy concert in Kyiv, March 2017.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s not just at home that he is winning fans. Zelenskyy’s unconventional background has endeared him to others around the world.

He was recently pictured with Hollywood actor Sean Penn, who is making a documentary about the Russian invasion.

And while Ukrainian film fans will know about Zelenskyy’s role as Paddington, it was revealed to many Brits when actor Hugh Bonneville tweeted: “Until today I had no idea who provided the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukraine.

“Speaking for myself, thank you, president Zelenskyy.”

A montage of the Ukrainian president’s performances on their version of Strictly Come Dancing has gone viral.

Dressed in a pink Elvis-style suit, the president can be seen jiving on Dancing With The Stars - the competition he went on to win in 2006.

Clips show him Waltzing, performing the Paso Doble and even dancing blindfolded.

He has also become an unlikely sex symbol, with Twitter users commenting: “BREAKING: every woman in your life now has at least a small crush on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”

Unfortunately for his legion of new fans, the president has a wife called Olena who he married in 2003.

The pair, who went to the same school but did not know each other there, have a daughter Aleksandra, 17, and son Kiril, nine.

In a stark warning on Thursday, Zelenskyy told the world: “According to our information, the enemy marked me as target No1, my family as target No2.

“They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”

His family are said to have been whisked away to a secret location somewhere in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy was born in January 1978 in the large Russian-speaking city of Kryvyi Rih in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

He was 12 when the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine gained its independence.

His father is a computer science professor at the institute of economics there, while his mother is a former engineer.

Zelenskyy’s family is Jewish, his grandfather fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazis and many of his relatives were killed by Nazis in the Holocaust.

His election meant Ukraine became the only country outside of Israel that had both a president and prime minister who are Jewish.

It shows Putin’s justification for his invasion in order to “denazify” Ukraine as little more than a vile slur.

Zelenskyy and his wife Olena kiss after the second round of presidential elections in Kyiv, in 2019.
Zelenskyy and his wife Olena kiss after the second round of presidential elections in Kyiv, in 2019.
via Associated Press

Growing up, Zelenskyy reportedly enjoyed listening to British rock music and played guitar before going on to complete a law degree.

Aged 17 he joined a local comedy troupe who appeared on a Russian TV talent show performing sketches and improvisation.

He and his friends would later form their own troupe, going on to start a TV production company called Kvartal 95.

Zelenskyy, a Monty Python fan, carved out a successful career in live shows, TV variety performances and movies.

He was inaugurated on May 20, 2019, after winning the presidency on an astonishing 73 per cent landslide.

However, his star soon started to wane over failures to tackle corruption and fears that Putin considered him a soft touch.

His links with billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, who owns a 70 per cent stake in the TV channel 1+1 which aired Servant Of The People, were also scrutinised.

Just two months into his presidency, he faced allegations of corruption when he became embroiled in the scandal that would put former US President Donald Trump on trial for impeachment.

Separately, the Pandora Papers revealed he and two of his closest advisers had a network of offshore companies across the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus and Belize.

Zelenskyy won Ukraine's Dancing With The Stars back in 2006
Zelenskyy won Ukraine's Dancing With The Stars back in 2006

Despite criticism over failing to combat corruption, plenty have given him the benefit of the doubt in the face of Putin’s war machine.

As Zelenskyy’s former minister of finance and defence Oleksandr Danyliuk told Sky News: “There was a lot of criticism of him, but currently there is less and less, because there is no point now.

“We need to get united and defend the country. I think many people stop listening to the political messages and are more concerned about defending the places they live in.”

Certainly Zelenskyy’s show of courage is a stark contrast to Putin’s rambling addresses, bunkered away and surrounded by henchmen.

Whatever your view of Zelenskyy, he has undoubtedly become an icon of dignity against the odds.


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