Zelensky: Life Imitates Art

By Shlomo Maital

    Even if you tried, you could not make up a story as improbable.  This is the story of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

    What is his background?

    Zelensky is Jewish.  He was born on Jan. 25 1978, and is 44 years old.  His father is a Professor of Computer Science and his mother is an engineer.  His grandfather Semyon attained the rank of Colonel in the Red Army infanatry and fought in WWII.  Semyon’s father and three brothers were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. 

      He grew up as a native Russian speaker in central Ukraine, and studied law, earning his degree from Kyiv National Economic University.  But he did not practice, founded a TV production company Kvartal 95 and starred in the 2015-2019 hit sitcom Servant of the People, in which Zelensky played the role of the President of Ukraine.  The program was aired in Russian and was highly popular in Russia.

    Why was his TV sitcom Servant of the People so popular, especially in Russia?

     Zelensky played the role of a high school history teacher in his 30s, who makes a viral video in which he rants against government corruption in Ukraine.  He rides this popularity to the presidency.  With oligarchs raking in wealth in Ukraine and especially in Russia, this touched a chord with middle-class Russians and Ukrainians.

    How did he get elected as President of Ukraine?

     In March 2018 members of Zelensky’s production company registered a political party named Servant of the People, the same name as the TV sitcom.  I can only speculate it was primarily a marketing move. Zelensky says it was done to keep other politicians from appropriating the name.  By October 2018 Zelensky already led the opinion polls.  And finally, on December 31, 2018, he announced his candidacy for President – in the popular New Year’s Eve show on a leading TV channel.  His announcement upstaged the speech, at the same time, of then-President Poroshenko.

     Zelensky’s campaign was totally ‘virtual’.  He had no policy platform.  He avoided the press and campaigned solely through social media and YouTube.  He even conducted standup comedy routines across Ukraine, running as anti-establishment, anti-corruption.  The Ukrainian press heavily criticized Zelensky for avoiding them. 

    Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine on April 21 2019, in a super-landslide. He won 73% of the vote, to Poroshenko’s 25%.

    One of Zelensky’s first acts was to shape a law creating a public registry of Ukraine’s oligarchs, banning them from participating in privatization of state-owned companies. (Note: This was how Putin’s oligarchs got wealthy, first under Yeltsin and then heavily under Putin – appropriating the shares of privatized State companies, in nickel, aluminum, steel, banking, and oil). 

     The bill became law in September 2021.

   Why has he proved so effective as a wartime leader and communicator for his people?

    Because he is playing a role he practiced for years.  Because acting is communicating. Because as a wartime leader, the most crucial skill is communicating (e.g. Churchill, 1941).  And because he understands the crucial role he is playing.  And because he has guts.