How President Zelensky Became a National Hero in Ukraine
National heroes sometimes have humble political origins.
Abraham Lincoln was arguably the least-qualified president of the country—a former member of Congress—when he took office. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Winston Churchill looked like a deceitful politician. And Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t seem like an international icon of courage when Russia began threatening to invade Ukraine in recent months.
In today’s newsletter, I want to give you a brief profile of Zelensky, which goes beyond a sentence or two from what many people have heard about him in recent weeks. I’ll also link to some of her best profiles and podcasts about her in case anyone else wants to.
Below, you’ll also find the latest war news.
Benny Hill Comedy
By now, the basics of Zelensky’s background are well known: Before becoming president of Ukraine, he was a comedian, whose most famous role was as a teacher who rose to the presidency of Ukraine thanks to a viral video.
That show, “Servant of the People”, was a cross between “The West Wing” and Monty Python. Zelensky himself credits Benny Hill, the crude British comedian, as an influence. (You can do this Watch a short excerpt from the show with English voice over,
Franklin Foyer wrote in The Atlantic, “As a film actor and sitcom star, Zelensky has succeeded in playing the Everyman, often playing the average man who wins over the beautiful woman, who beyond his reach.”
Zelensky grew up in a fading and polluted industrial city, the son of an engineer and computer-science professor. He is Jewish, in a country with a brutal history of anti-Semitism, and his first language was Russian, as is the case with many Ukrainians.
He ran for president in 2019 with a lucrative populist campaign that evoked his character on “servant of the people.” It helped that the billionaire owner of the network that aired the show promoted Zelensky’s candidacy, including a documentary aired on the eve of the election comparing him to Ronald Reagan.
Elsewhere in Europe, many officials initially viewed Zelensky as insensitive, as The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa has reported. “The effect was terrifying,” a European diplomat said, referring to an early meeting.
Today’s impact is completely different. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelensky has become a Churchillian figure, the personal embodiment of his country’s refusal to bow down to a murderous authoritarian.
see through putin
That image has a lot to do with the optimistic and patriotic vision of Ukraine that Zelensky has presented since he began running for office.
His two central campaign promises were to crack down on corruption and end military conflict with Russia in the country’s eastern provinces. After assuming office, he took away their legal immunity from the Members of Parliament. He shrank his motorcycle into two cars without the siren. He asked government officials to remove the president’s portraits from their offices and replace them with pictures of his children, to remind them of the stakes of his work.
He also acknowledged how little he knew, he honestly held the position of president. John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Foer, “He’s going to listen with a lot of intent.”
An initial question that many Ukrainians had was what approach Zelensky would take for Russia. Some even worried that he might be too friendly with Vladimir Putin, noted The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, Anton Troyanovsky. Zelensky not only grew up speaking Russian, but became a star in Russia thanks to his television shows.
“Zelensky came in as a candidate who promised to make an agreement with Russia to end the war,” Anton said. Over time, however, Zelensky became convinced that Putin was not negotiating in good faith and wanted to dominate Ukraine. That belief pushed Zelensky closer to the West, angering Putin.
“Now that we see what Putin really wants, total control over Ukraine, it’s hard to see what Zelensky could have done,” Anton said.
Since Russia invaded, Zelensky has remained in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, rallying the country via videotaped speeches. (Yesterday, Zelensky’s government posted photos of him meeting wounded soldiers in a hospital and presenting them with medals.) He has done so, even as the Russian military and spies are trying to kill him.
Anne Appelbaum, a journalist and Ukraine expert, recently said on NPR that she thought Zelensky might never flee the country. “He’s an actor, and he understands that he has a role to play, and he will play the role,” Applebaum said. He knows he represents his country, he said, and even if he wishes he had never run for president, he understands that he now embodies something bigger than himself. .
“Once you enter the role, you play it till the end,” she said. “You have a great responsibility for the citizens and the image of your country in the world.”
Connected: Maureen Dowd writes that Zelensky has become “the world’s greatest actor” in the real-life struggle between good and evil.
state of war
The Russian army attacked Kyiv with heavy artillery attacks this morning after several days of fighting in the suburbs. A projectile hit an apartment building.
Russia continued its assault on civilians, firing on a train evacuating people fleeing the Donetsk region. Russian forces also continued to attack residential buildings in Mariupol, where a humanitarian crisis is deepening.
“The whole sky was in flames”: a Russian attack 11 miles from the border with Poland strikes a base where foreigners who had come to help Ukraine are believed to be training .
US officials say Russia asked China for military equipment and financial assistance to protect its economy. A Chinese spokesperson rejected the claim.
Ukrainian officials said the Russian military fatally shot Brent Renaud, an American journalist reporting outside Kyiv.
Russian and Ukrainian officials are holding virtual peace talks today.
more on Ukraine
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