Who would have thought that a former comedian would be a stronger leader than a sitting U.S. president? But that is the situation that the world is finding itself in as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stood firm amid a devastating war waged by Russia against his homeland.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has not been at the forefront of assisting or helping Ukraine in its moment of crisis. Instead, he has outsourced the responsibility to Europe. This vacuum of American leadership has allowed Zelensky and the common Ukrainian’s plight to seize the spotlight.
Zelensky, age 44, was born in 1978 in southern Ukraine. According to his official biography, he graduated from Kyiv National Economic University with a law degree and has extensive experience as a comedian and a media producer in Ukraine since 1997. Before being elected as president in 2019, Zelensky produced “10 feature length movies and won more than 30 “Teletriumph” awards–the National Television Award of Ukraine. He has two children with his wife Olena Zelenska.
Encyclopedia Britannica provides more detail of his life and upbringing, which is a stark contrast to the life of his opponent, Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Putin worked as an intelligence officer in the Soviet Union, Zelensky’s childhood involved growing up as a native Russian speaker who later became fluent in Ukrainian and English. He even lived in Mongolia for four years as a child.
What brought him to national fame was his comedy career. Zelensky began, while a college student, participating in comedy groups and he launched his career from there. He became a regular on an improvisational comedy competition translated as “Club of the Funny and Inventive People” after his student comedy group made the finals of that competition. He cofounded a successful entertainment production studio called Studio Kvartal 95 and later moved to Ukrainian television channel Inter TV as an executive producer for a year. After his stint at Inter TV, his studio Kvartal 95 entered an agreement with another Ukrainian network backed by one of the wealthiest people in Ukraine.
On that network, 1+1, his show, Servant of the People, became very popular. In 2015, when the show debuted, Ukrainian politics were in turmoil after Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine while its president Petro Poroshenko struggled to do much of anything. Zelensky portrayed a history teacher who “becomes a viral Internet phenomenon after a student films him delivering an impassioned and profanity-laden address against official corruption.” The teacher eventually becomes president of Ukraine in the show, which ironically provided Zelensky a roadmap to presidential ambitions.
Zelensky’s studio registered Servant of the People as an official political party in Ukraine in 2018 before Zelensky declared his candidacy.
During the campaign, Zelensky distanced himself from 1+1’s backer over corruption issues when the financier was accused of siphoning Ukrainian government funds through a bank he owned. He also won the first round of the presidential election with 30%, compared to Poroshenko’s 16%, which led to a runoff between the two. Zelensky focused on comedy routines and short speeches posted to social media platforms YouTube and Instagram, while avoiding typical press conferences. Then, he and Poroshenko debated at the country’s Olympic Stadium in Kyiv in front of thousands of people and multiple television broadcasts.
He won the election, beating Poroshenko with 73% of the vote.
Since being in office, Zelensky had to order a snap election to win seats in the country’s parliament because his party, Servants of the People, had none. His party won 254 of the 450 seats in the election, which Britannica said it was the “first time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history that a single party could command absolute control over the legislative agenda.”
Zelensky also challenged Putin, who in 2019 offered Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Russian-separatist-held eastern Ukrainian territories. Zelensky mocked Putin’s move on Facebook.
There is also the U.S. media-contrived controversy about Zelensky’s phone call with former President Donald Trump. The media accused Trump of withholding military aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky investigated Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, over sketchy business deals made by Biden’s son Hunter. The controversy hamstrung Ukraine in some aspects because it made Zelensky spend political capital to cater to the media’s reports, while Russia’s shadow loomed over Ukraine.
Since Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Zelensky has been filming and posting videos of encouragement and courage on social media. Zelensky stood strong in the face of Russia and said he will not concede defeat to Russia, and many of his messages to the world and to Ukrainians is to fight on. In one video, he declared, “We are here,” to goad Russia’s military to try to take or eliminate him while he is holed up in Kyiv.
He even posted a video of him and his staff in Kyiv early in the war to encourage soldiers and citizens to stand and fight Russia’s military, which galvanized Ukrainians across the world. Many expatriate Ukrainians returned home to volunteer to fight Russia, in addition to foreign fighters.
It is far cry from the approach of Biden’s handlers, who typically avoid press conferences and public appearances and have to fend off questions about his health, mental acuity, and overall fitness to serve as president. Zelensky has become a celebrated hero within Ukraine, Europe, and the U.S. because he chose not to flee Ukraine for safety to remain with his people.
Zelensky reported said, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” when European countries offered to airlift him out of Ukraine when the war began. On the flip side, Zelensky is not afraid to show a human side. Before Russia invaded, he pleaded for Russia’s military to stand down when he said, “Listen to the voice of reason, the Ukrainian people want peace.”
It is impressive that Zelensky is unabashedly standing up to Russia, a country whose military far overshadows Ukraine’s and is not afraid to speak his mind in public statements and speeches. Compared to Putin, Zelensky shows a profile of courage worth replicating.