On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was initiating a “special military operation” in the Donbas region of Ukraine. This was the start of a full-scale brutal war against Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy was forged into a crisis of seismic proportion. He has already proven himself a leader for the ages. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Zelenskyy has continued to motivate and mobilize Ukrainians to fight for their independence, and he has inspired the world to Stand With Ukraine.

So who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy was born on January 25, 1978, in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in central Ukraine that was then part of the Soviet Union. He was raised in a Jewish family and grew up primarily in Kryvyi. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and an independent Ukraine was established, Ukraine went through a period of instability; like many other areas in Ukraine at the time, Kryvyi faced widespread gang violence. Zelenskyy stayed clear of it and instead focused on his developing interests in theater, music, improv, and sketch comedy.

Zelenskyy graduated from Kyiv National Economic University with a law degree in 2000, but he did not pursue a career in law; instead, he continued with his interests in the performing arts. From 1997 to 2003 his work included actor, performer, script writer, and producer of the stand-up comedy contest team “KVARTAL 95.” In the years that followed his work included Executive Producer of “KVARTAL 95”, LLC (2003-2011), Chief Executive of PJSC “Inter TV Station” (2011-2012), and Executive Producer of “KVARTAL 95”, LLC (2013-2019). Zelensky also founded “The League of Laughter” NGO, an improvisational comedy club. During these years Zelenksyy produced 10 feature length movies; he won more than 30 awards of the National Television Award of Ukraine “Teletriumph,” and was a prize-winner of numerous international film festivals and media forums.

The shift into politics

In 2015, Zelenskyy had a hit show with “Servant of the People”, a political satire comedy television series. Zelenskyy created, produced, and starred in the show about a high-school history teacher played by Zelenskyy who is unexpectedly elected President of Ukraine after a video filmed by one of his students showing him making a profane rant against government corruption goes viral. The series made Zelensky a household name in Ukraine; it ran from 2015 to 2019.

In March 2018, members of the production company “KVARTAL 95” registered a new political party named after the show, Servant of the People. Zelenskyy initially denied immediate plans to run for public office even though there was widespread speculation that he would run. He was a frontrunner in opinion polls even before he announced.

On New Year’s Eve in 2018, Zelenskyy formally announced his intention to run for President as part of the “Servant of the People” party. He ran an atypical campaign. He did not release a detailed policy platform and rarely engaged with the public through mainstream media; instead he reached the public through social media channels and YouTube clips. Instead of traditional campaign rallies he conducted stand-up comedy routines across Ukraine with “KVARTAL 95.” He positioned himself as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption candidate who wished to restore trust in politicians, “to bring professional, decent people to power” and to “change the mood and timbre of the political establishment.” His anti-corruption platform quickly connected with the people of Ukraine. There were 39 candidates in the first round of voting in March 2019 and Zelenskyy came out on top.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

In the second round of voting on April 21, 2019, Zelenskyy received over 70% of the vote and was elected the 6th President of Ukraine and first Jewish President of Ukraine.  He was inaugurated on May 20, 2019.

Shown left: President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Use of this image is permitted by The Presidential Office of Ukraine:  www.president.gov.ua 

Fast forward to 2022

When Zelenskyy took office he faced many challenges. It was a difficult start. One of his biggest challenges was the longstanding military conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, also known as the Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists held parts of the region. More than 13,000 people had already been killed since fighting began in April 2014. Long before Zelenskyy ran for office, he and “KVARTAL 95” provided support to the Armed Forces of Ukraine with funds for equipment and they also arranged shows on the front lines and in different military units.  As President, Zelenskyy was determined to end the conflict in the Donbas region; this was one of his main campaign promises. Zelenskyy made a concerted effort, initiating talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. There seemed to be some progress at different times; for example, in July 2020, President Zelensky announced a formal ceasefire with the separatists. There was much to be expected skepticism since this was one of more than twenty such attempts since the war begin in 2014. The ceasefire was often violated although there was some reduction in violations in 2020. But in early 2021, things changed.

Russian Armed Forces began massing thousands of personnel and military equipment near Russia’s border with Ukraine and in Crimea. This represented the largest mobilization of Russian armed forces since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Tensions in the region continued to build over the next year. On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was initiating a “special military operation” in the Donbas, which quickly escalated to a full-scale and unprovoked invasion into Ukraine – and the war continues.

President Zelenskyy - Kyiv

Working trip of the President of Ukraine to the Kyiv region, April 4, 2022. Use of this image is permitted by The Presidential Office of Ukraine:  www.president.gov.ua 

A crisis leader emerges

Since Russia’s brutal attack Ukraine, we’ve watched Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emerge as an extraordinary leader. Nothing could have prepared him – or most anyone – for the crises in front of him and the events that were unfolding. But somehow he amassed the courage, strength, and will of extraordinary leaders of the past.

On the same day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a video address to personally appeal to the Russian people in hopes of changing the trajectory of the war.

Today I initiated a phone call with the president of the Russian federation. The result was silence. Though the silence should be in Donbass. That’s why I want to address today the people of Russia. I am addressing you not as a president, I am addressing you as a citizen of Ukraine. More than 2,000 km of the common border is dividing us. Along this border your troops are stationed, almost 200,000 soldiers, thousands of military vehicles. Your leaders approved them to make a step forward, to the territory of another country. And this step can be the beginning of a big war on the European continent.

We know for sure that we don’t need the war. Not a Cold War, not a hot war. Not a hybrid one. But if we’ll be attacked by the [enemy] troops, if they try to take our country away from us, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. Not attack, but defend ourselves. And when you will be attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs, but our faces.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Video address to the Russian people

Since the first day of the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has exhibited nothing but courage, dignity, and extraordinary leadership – facing the tragedy head on. When the United States offered to evacuate him from Kyiv in the early days of the war, Zelenskyy stayed.  His now famous quote, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” spread like wildfire over the internet and will inevitably stand the test of time as one of the most famous wartime quotes and examples of leadership. World-renowned leader, US Army General Norman Schwarzkoopf, once said, “it doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”  Zelensky is one of those heroes that Shwarzkoopf described. He stayed in Ukraine with his people, mobilizing them to fight for their freedom. Since then, Zelenskyy has inspired the world to unite around his country.  Who could have expected this remarkable resolve and leadership from a former actor and comedian?

Zelensky, an unlikely hero, has reminded us of what real leadership looks like at a time when many of us have forgotten. He has not only mobilized Ukrainians, but is inspiring the world to support Ukraine in this time of crisis. He gives all of us hope for a better tomorrow.

Slava Ukraini!

 

References

Official website of The President of Ukraine. https://www.president.gov.ua/en/president/biografiya. Use of this image is permitted by The Presidential Office of Ukraine:  www.president.gov.ua 

“Prelude to the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 23 Dec. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prelude_to_the_2022_Russian_invasion_of_Ukraine. Licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“Volodymyr Zelenskyy .” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 30 Nov. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volodymyr_Zelenskyy. Licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“Servant of the People (TV Series).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 30 Nov. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_of_the_People_(TV_series). Licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.