By Bryan Pietsch and Sammy Westfall
Just a few years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian and actor playing Ukraine’s president on television. Now, he’s a real-life wartime leader directing his country in its fight against a Russian invasion.
Though Zelensky says he has become the Kremlin’s “target No. 1,” he has earned the respect of much of the Ukrainian public by refusing to flee the capital. Instead, he has walked the streets of Kyiv and urged Ukrainians to resist, while crafting a successful communications strategy that has won the hearts and minds of European leaders and voters.
While acknowledging that Moscow has vastly superior forces that it has not yet deployed, Western officials say Zelensky’s leadership has firmed up Ukrainian resolve. Here’s what you need to know about the president.
Who is Volodymyr Zelensky?
Zelensky, 44, is a former comedian, television personality and actor — and now Ukraine’s head of state. He was born in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine and raised in an “ordinary Soviet Jewish family,” he has said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to justify his invasion of Ukraine as a “denazification” operation, but Zelensky is Jewish and many of his relatives were killed by Nazis during the Holocaust. His grandfather was the only one of four brothers to survive the German occupation of Ukraine.
Zelensky graduated from Kyiv National Economic University in 2000 with a law degree. But soon after he began participating in comedy competitions and appearing on television. He co-founded a production company and rose to fame in his role as Ukraine’s president on “Servant of the People,” a hit satirical television series that premiered in 2015.
Then Zelensky, a political novice who branded himself as an anti-establishment figure, won the presidency in Ukraine in 2019.
How long has Zelensky been president of Ukraine?
Zelensky was elected president on April 21, 2019, and sworn in about a month later. He first gained broad attention in the United States after President Donald Trump, in a phone call, urged him to launch a corruption investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Following Zelensky’s inauguration, Trump administration officials had dangled the possibility of an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Zelensky on the condition that Ukraine investigates Biden.
In a phone call on July 25, 2019, Trump told Zelensky: “I would like you to do us a favor.” The request became a memorable quote in Trump’s impeachment trial.
Days before the call, Trump had ordered nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine to be withheld. The funds were released almost two months later.
Which TV shows and movies did Zelensky appear in?
Before running for president, Zelensky was a popular face in Ukrainian entertainment. Now that the world is focused on Ukraine, videos of Zelensky performing, acting and dancing have gone viral on social media.
He hosted a comedy show, “Liga Smeha” (“League of Laughter”), and won Ukraine’s “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006. He also voiced the titular cartoon bear in the Ukrainian version of “Paddington.”
Zelensky also helped create the multimillion-dollar production company Studio Kvartal 95.
But his most consequential role was on “Servant of the People” as Vasyl Holoborodko, a history teacher whose impassioned speech about corruption in Ukrainian politics goes viral, catapulting him to the presidency. The series was a hit.
Then TV became reality: With corruption emerging as a key issue, and the incumbent leader’s popularity falling, Zelensky decided to make a real-life run for Ukraine’s top office.
Zelensky broke from a crowded pool of candidates and won in a landslide victory in a runoff vote against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky’s win — much like Holoborodko’s — was seen as a rebuke against the status quo.
“I really want you not to hang my image in your offices,” Zelensky said to parliament members during his inauguration speech. “Hang photos of your children there, and before every decision, look them in the eye.”
“People want to see a president like [Vasyl Holoborodko], with the same moral values,” Zelensky said before the election. “They’re fed up with the establishment. People want something new.”
His work as an entertainer may have helped prepare him to manage the crisis in Ukraine, analysts say.
“Politics, particularly politics today, is a game of performance,” Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s school of journalism, told The Washington Post. “It’s a game of knowing what to say and when and how, and Zelensky seems to be hitting the nail on the head here.”
What are Zelensky’s political views, including on Putin and Russia?
Zelensky has overseen the name changes of Soviet-era monuments and street names to honor Ukrainian heroes.
While he has become a hero of sorts to the Ukrainian public in the days since the Russian invasion began, his popularity as president had appeared to be waning. He was criticized for failing to push through anti-corruption reforms and some Ukrainians viewed him as too weak when it came to standing up to Putin.
Before he was elected, he said in an interview with Vice News that he wanted to end the conflict in the eastern Donbas region, “because we don’t want our people to perish anymore.”
The conflict in Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling with the Ukrainian government, played a key role in the Russian invasion. Days before the war started, Putin formally recognized the independence of two separatist republics in the Donbas, where he has baselessly claimed that a “genocide” against Russian speakers was taking place. (Zelensky also speaks Russian.)
In the days since the invasion, Zelensky has appealed to both the European Union and NATO to grant Ukraine membership. Russia opposes NATO’s expansion eastward and has said Ukrainian membership is a “red line” for Moscow.
“We have proven our strength,” Zelensky said to the European Parliament in an address Monday. “So do prove that you are with us. Prove that you will not let us go. Prove that you indeed are Europeans.”
Where are Zelensky and his family?
Zelensky says Moscow has plans to assassinate him, to “destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”
But he has stayed in Ukraine, openly filming himself on the streets of the capital and urging Ukrainians to resist the invasion. His calls appear to be working, with the United States and Britain reporting that Moscow appears to be facing stronger resistance than it had anticipated.
According to Zelensky, however, his family is Russia’s “target No. 2.” In a meeting with CIA Director William J. Burns in January, Zelensky asked whether he or his family were in danger amid growing concerns of Russian aggression. He was initially skeptical that the Russians would try to kill him.
For security reasons, he has not disclosed the location of his wife and two children. “My children are looking at me, I will be next to them and next to my husband and with you,” first lady Olena Zelenska wrote on Instagram last week.
*Bryan Pietsch is a reporter covering breaking news for The Washington Post from its hub in Seoul. He previously covered breaking news for the New York Times in Colorado.
*Sammy Westfall is an assistant editor on The Washington Post’s Foreign desk.
*This article first appeared on the Washington Post website