The world “would hardly have heard about [Volodymyr] Zelensky if he had become an engineer, gone into the military, or became a doctor”, writes political commentator Serhii Rudenko in a recent biography of the Ukrainian President (Polity Books). Thanks to the political reality crafted by Servant of the People in which he played the role of a history teacher elected against the odds to lead the country, fiction turned into reality in 2019. And thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to start a war on Ukraine before sunrise on February 24th, the actor turned President has become an icon of resilience in defense of freedom and democracy.
Serhii Rudenko paints the portrait of a leader who was not on sure footing before the war intervened.
After his election, Zelensky broke his promise to distance himself from the nepotism espoused by his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. “[…] A year after his election, the Poroshenko family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by the Kvartal 95 Studio.” In other words, those who accompanied him in his showbusiness career, including in his role as President Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko on television.
A revolving-door policy also seemed to be at play on Bankova Street, the seat of the Presidency in Kyiv. “A few months after the inauguration, Zelensky started dismissing those who had led him to victory.” At one point, prosecutor general Ruslan Ryaboshapka was asked to leave the administration. Five months before the start of the war, former ally Dmytro Razumkov announced he would seek to unseat Zelensky in the next presidential election. On top of that – and this is certainly not insignificant – Volodymyr Zelensky was a “political novice” who showed “poor command of economics” and didn’t seem too keen on immersing himself into the nitty gritty of policy.
You can read between the lines that Serhii Rudenko is not convinced the President might have been reelected in March 2024.
But then came Zelensky’s unlikely savior, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Throughout his life and career, the Ukrainian President has gained at being underestimated. He’s a fighter, a “tough cookie”. Some observers analyse that the Russian President is enveloped in a bubble, that he is hermetically disconnected and relying on a coterie of advisors to inform him. But Vladimir Putin being who he is, I would be dumbfounded if he had not followed the 2019 Ukrainian election, when Volodymyr Zelensky easily disposed of Petro Poroshenko. With hindsight, of course, it is easy to assimilate that a candidate with no coattails who is not only eager to take on a sitting President but successful at the end of the day is made of quite a unique mettle.
Maybe, the Kremlin should have taken good note of Zelensky’s unshakable resilience. In the first hours of the war, I expected CNN to break the news that the statesman had been exfiltrated to a safer place. That was never to come.
Interestingly, Serhii Rudenko observes that “Volodymyr Zelensky’s current popularity in the West can only be compared to that of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.” While Vladimir Putin is said to have been loath of the second, I don’t think his feelings might be that different towards the first. It is therefore ironic that the Ukrainian President seems to be on his way to vanquish the master of the Kremlin on the battlefield, a few months after we said our last goodbye to the man who refused to see the Cold War ending in a bloodbath. Gorbachev avoided war for the same reason Zelensky accepted to fight one: to protect his people.
Through the pages of Serhii Rudenko’s insightful biography, there are two Volodymyr Zelensky. The President whose record was less than glowing. And the warlord who rose to the occasion. While I read this book, I couldn’t stop thinking of a quote from the great Winston Churchill. And every word of it applies to President Zelensky. Here it is:
“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”
No matter his shortcomings or vulnerabilities, Volodymyr Zelensky was prepared to heed the call of history when it knocked at his door.
During the 2019 presidential campaign, Volodymyr Zelensky said to Petro Poroshenko: “I am not your opponent, I am your verdict.” He’s now sending the same message to his Russian nemesis.
This is probably the last thing on Earth Vladimir Putin wants to see happen, but he might just have guaranteed Volodymyr Zelensky’s place among the heroic leaders of history, because he offered him the opportunity to rise above ordinary politics.
Serhii Rudenko, Zelensky: A Biography, Polity Books, Cambridge, 2022, 200 pages.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Louise Knight, Emma Nash and Anne Sullivan of Polity Books for their immeasurable collaboration with this blog. Their generosity is much appreciated.