From Comedian, to Actor, to Wartime President: The Story of Volodymyr Zelenskyy


Misha Ankudovych

From Comedian to Actor to President of Ukraine. A profile of Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Misha Ankudovych, Editor-In-Chief

The Ukrainian President has become known across the world for his brave leadership and fierce resistance to Russian president Vladimir Putin during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, however, his lengthy story and rise to power begins much earlier than this. From being born in a Russian-speaking family and playing piano without his hands, to playing the Ukrainian president on TV, there is a lot to unpack with Zelenskyy. 

The Russian-speaking Ukrainian President

A son of a professor and engineer, Zelenskyy was born on January 25th 1978 in Kryvyi Rih. His father was the sole survivor of his bloodline, as his 3 brothers and father were murdered in the Holocaust. At the time of his birth, Ukraine was still a portion of the Soviet Union, and was officially called The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Contrary to popular belief, countries maintained their own languages while in the Soviet Union, however, Zelenskyy grew up in a Russian speaking province, and he continued to speak Russian through his life, essentially up until his campaign for president of Ukraine. 

After graduating from secondary school, Zelenskyy attended the Kryvyi Rih Institute and received a degree in law. It was also here that he started dating his now wife, Olena Kiyashko, an architect and screenplay writer. The pair went on to have a daughter born in 2004 and a son born in 2013. 

While Zelenskyy never went on to study law, it has proved useful in his current position nevertheless. 

The Greatest Showman

PHOTO: Zelenskyy (left) performing his famous comedy routine 

At 17, Zelenskyy began competing in comedy competitions throughout Ukraine. In 1997, his team won the KVN Major League comedy competition. In the same year, he created the Kvartal 95 comedy team which eventually became a comedy group outside of just the aforementioned competitions. He and his team constantly toured Russia and post-Soviet countries, which contributed to critics citing he had too much Russian influence to be a true Ukrainian leader. 

In 2003, Kvartal 95 began to produce TV shows for Ukrainian audiences, however, Zelenskyy had bigger ambitions (Not president, yet). 

In 2008, Zelenskyy’s career on the silver screen began when he starred in “Love in the Big City,” which had a charming story about Ukrainian men in New York City who lost their ability to have sex. He eventually starred in both sequels as well. Another comedy show Zelenskyy appeared in, “Svaty,” was banned in Ukraine in 2017, and then un-banned in 2019. Zelenskyy held other leading positions in Ukrainian movies, most notably voicing the title bear in the Ukrainian dubs of “Paddington” (films one and two) released in 2014 and 2017 respectively. 

In 2015, Zelenskyy created and starred in a show titled “Servant of the People,” in which he played the president of Ukraine. The show follows a 30 year old history teacher who creates a viral video criticizing the Ukrainian government, who then is selected to become the President of Ukraine (It is notable to mention that during his campaign for President, Zelenskyy utilized a strategy where he campaigned almost exclusively through social media, avoiding media outlets, drawing parallels to the situation in his TV show). Zelenskyy starred in this show up until 2019 when he ran for the actual presidency of Ukraine under a newly created political party named servant of the people, after the TV show. 

Servant of the People

PHOTO: This is Volodymyr Zelenskyy playing the President of Ukraine in the show “Servant of the People,” not Volodymr Zelenskyy being president of Ukraine under the Servant of the People party. (To avoid confusion). 

On the last day of 2018, Zelenskyy announced his candidacy for presidency on the 1+1 (Ukrainian TV Channel) New Year’s Show, supposedly unintentionally upstaging the current president Poroshenko’s address. 

During his campaign, he continued to tour with his comedy group, and similar to what occurred in his show “Servant of the People,” he campaigned mainly using social media. This strategy garnered criticism by the oligarch controlled mainstream media, who accused him of avoiding traditional news outlets. He repeated multiple times during his campaign that he would only run for one term, however, more recently he seems to be open to a second term. 

Zelenskyy eventually went on to beat the incumbent, garnering over 70% of the vote, which was no surprise, as he was a front runner in polls months before even announcing his candidacy

On May 20th, 2019 Zelenskyy was inaugurated and Ukraine became the second country in the world to have both a Jewish prime minister and president. 

Zelenskyy ensured a number of controversies in the beginning of his term. He went on a campaign against corruption which ended in the dismissal of the heads of 15 out of 24 Ukrainian Provinces. He also canceled the Kiev independence parade citing cost concerns. 

One of his most criticized decisions was his resolution of the Donbas conflict. Donbas is a region of Ukraine currently occupied by Russian separatists and patrolled by the Russian military. In a 2019 move highly criticized by the Ukrainian public, Zelenskyy vowed to honor the elections in the region in return for a removal of Russian unmarked troops. 

Regardless of the controversy, on July 21st, 2019, Zelenskyy’s political party became the first party to reach a majority in the Ukrainian parliament. 

Warrior of the People

How Volodymyr Zelensky Galvanized Ukraine and the World | Time


PHOTO: Despite threats against his life, Zelenskyy has refused to leave the country.

Zelenksyy’s greatest test came when in late February of 2022, Russian forces began an unprecedented, rapidly updating invasion into Ukraine. Once a former entertainer, Zelenskyy has now been tasked with leading his country through a conflict with a global superpower. The entire world is now watching to see the leadership of Zelenskyy, and so far, he appears to be passing the test. 

President Zelenskyy has made great use of his phone, some even calling it his greatest weapon. Through calls with other leaders he has garnered support almost unequivocally from the west. The European Union authorized the first purchase of weapons for a country in conflict, through Ukraine, followed soon after by the signing of the official application for Ukrainian membership in the EU. Typically neutral countries such as Switzerland have come out in opposition to Russia’s actions. Countries such as Germany who are reliant on Russia for oil have also condemned their unprovoked invasion. The international community has shown its support for Ukraine in the forms of humanitarian and military aid, as well as crippling economic actions against the Russian people, and it is largely thanks to Zelenskyy’s ability to garner support. 

The only thing more impressive than Zelesnkyy’s ability to garner support from the international community, is his ability to rally the people of Ukraine in what seems like an unwinnable battle. The Ukrainian defense has held much longer than Russia and the international community could have ever predicted, and it is largely thanks to Ukrainian citizens and their dedication to deterring this attack on their sovereignty, and these actions stem directly from their leader. Zelenskyy has been seen walking the streets of Kiev and encouraging others to fight against the Russians. He has also successfully convinced forces from other countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom to enlist in an international legion of fighters, and even convincing his political rival and former president Poroshenko to fight alongside him.When offered an evacuation from the US government, Zelenskyy responded with a video stating that he “‘the fight is here,” and he needed “ammunition, not a ride”. This video came as Zelenskyy was informed he was an assassination target for Russian forces. 

It is safe to say that there is much more in store for the Russo-Ukraine conflict, and that it is impossible to determine the breadth of destruction at this time. But one thing is certain, Putin failed in his mission to devalue President Zelenskyy. While living, Zelenskyy is a hero, and if he is killed by Russian forces, he will become a martyr. Ukraine may face material destruction, but Zelenskyy has solidified himself in the minds and hearts of Ukrainians and the world, and with that, Ukraine will never truly fall.