The Unlikely Way Ukraine’s President Came to Lead His Country in War

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may be well-known on the political stage, but he has only recently become familiar to most Americans.

So, who is he?

Zelenskyy was a comedian and working actor who often played comedic parts. He is now a wartime leader. His homeland is being continuously pummeled by Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin.

For most of the world, the first time they heard the name Zelenskyy was when his country was attacked. It was assumed that Ukraine did not stand a chance against a powerful Russian military.

More than a month later, Zelenskyy and his compatriots are still putting up a fierce defense, despite constant, brutal bombardment from Russian missiles that target civilians, including apartment complexes, hospitals, and shelters.

Forty-four-year-old Zelenskyy hails from the “not very developed” city of Kryvyi Rih in Ukraine in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Born to Jewish parents, several of his relatives perished in the Holocaust.

Zelenskyy met and then married his high school sweetheart, a screenwriter named Olena Zelenska. They have two children.

Zelenskyy enrolled in law school but sensed it wasn’t his life’s work. In 2003 his career as a comedian and actor took flight. Based in Moscow, he toured post-Soviet countries with his comedy troupe.

In 2006, Zelenskyy’s popularity grew after when he won Ukraine’s version of “Dancing with the Stars,” making him a household name in his home country and across Eastern Europe and Russia itself.

In 2012, Zelenskyy took on his biggest stage role yet — starring in the TV comedy “Servant of the People,” where he portrayed a fictional teacher who tires of corruption and begins an unlikely political campaign, one which leads him to unexpectedly become president of Ukraine.

Life imitates art

Then it actually happened. The actor ran for the office he won on TV and won it for real, becoming the real-life president of his now war-torn country

Thanks to his on-camera charisma and native ability to present himself — often through rough cellular phone shoots taken on darkened streets in the city’s capital — Zelenskyy has made the world take notice. He has shown leadership and courage through a devastating and deadly time in his country, rallying his own people to fight long odds against an overwhelming military force.

Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Since then, there have been many deaths, both military and civilian, and massive destruction spread across the country, with no end on the horizon.

Ukrainians have fought bravely and frustrated Putin’s initial aim of taking over the country. Military analysts, both inside and outside of Russia, generally believed that Putin’s forces would achieve a swift victory.

Fierce condemnation

Early in the invasion, the United States offered to evacuate Zelenskyy and his family to safety. However, the Ukrainian president rejected the offer and insisted on staying and fighting alongside his fellow Ukrainians, famously saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

“Strong doesn’t mean big,” Zelenzkyy says. “Strong is brave and ready to fight for the lives of his citizens and citizens of the world.”

Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has drawn fierce condemnation from world leaders as Zelenskyy tries to rally support and assistance from the international community.

Thousands of military and civilians have been killed while armored vehicles, Russian troops, missiles, and bombs continue swarm Ukraine. Sanctions on Russia and military weaponry have been the primary assistance the U.S. has offered.

Zelenskyy says he needs more, soon, and warning darkly that a “new Iron Curtain” is descending on Europe.