The Truth About Volodymyr Zelenskyy

After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 on the orders of Vladimir Putin, nobody knew what to expect from the former Soviet country and its current leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The wartime president wasn't the most conventional political success story — in fact, before he was elected in 2019, he had never attempted to run for any office at all. In his homeland, Zelenskyy had previously been a comedian and actor who produced his own films and TV shows, winning him a place in the Ukrainian public's hearts and making him a beloved celebrity.

According to the World Economic Forum, it wasn't the first time he had made a big career change. Zelenskyy originally studied law at Kyiv National Economic University, but his time in the competitive stand-up team Quarter-95 introduced him to the world of comedy. Once he graduated, the young man clearly decided to follow his heart and try to make it in show business. And Zelenskyy's time spent on camera might have helped him during Russia's attacks, as he has been praised by the international community for communicating Ukraine's desperate situation to the outside world.

Keep reading to find out more about President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and how his unusual rise to the top made him the face of Ukrainian resistance.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is proud of his Jewish heritage

Volodymyr Zelenskyy was raised in "an ordinary Soviet Jewish family," as he told The Times of Israel in 2020. "On my father's side, my grandfather and his three brothers were all on the front in World War II and only he returned," the politician revealed, describing his family background and the sacrifices they made for the Red Army. "My grandmother was living in Kryvi Rih, in a part of south Ukraine which was occupied by the fascists. They killed all the Jews who remained." Despite the danger, his grandmother managed to escape to the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, where several Jewish evacuees had gathered.

His family wasn't particularly Orthodox. "Most Jewish families in the Soviet Union were not religious," Zelenskyy noted. "You know religion didn't exist in the Soviet state as such." But the politician has admitted that he has his own relationship with religion, although he tends to keep it private. "Of course, I believe in God. But I speak with him only in those moments which are personal for me," the leader stated.

Zelenskyy's own family history became particularly relevant after Vladimir Putin promised that Russia would "denazify" Ukraine through its occupation in February 2022, as The Washington Post reported, referring to fringe paramilitary groups. The Russian leader's justification for war was shot down by Zelenskyy, who tweeted that Russia was actually echoing Nazi Germany by "embark[ing] on a path of evil," per the outlet. He also later drew attention to the Russian bombing of a Holocaust memorial in a Facebook post written in Hebrew.

His wife didn't want a life in politics

If Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed like an unlikely candidate when he launched his presidential campaign, his wife, Olena Zelenska, was an equally improbable choice for first lady. "I am a non-public person," she told Vogue Ukraine, explaining that she preferred to stay out of the spotlight and wasn't happy about her husband's political ambitions. "I am not the life of the party, I do not like to tell jokes. It's not in my character." But when Volodymyr was elected, she had to adjust to the "new realities" of her life. "I found reasons for myself in favor of publicity," Olena admitted. "One of them is the opportunity to attract people's attention to important social issues."

Although they came from the same city, Olena was first introduced to her future husband during college. As The Washington Post reported, she left her architecture degree behind to work on a new production company with Volodymyr, which is called Kvartal 95 Studio. She is still a professional screenwriter and has given birth to their two children, Sasha and Cyril. Although her husband being "target No. 1" for Russia has left her and their children in danger, Olena has used her Instagram to support Zelenskyy's message. "Today I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident," she wrote alongside a Ukrainian flag on Instagram, as translated by the outlet. "My children are looking at me, I will be next to them and next to my husband and with you. I love you! I love Ukraine!"

Volodymyr Zelenskyy was the voice of Paddington Bear

Before his career in politics, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a beloved comedian and actor in his home country. And in light of his more recent wartime statesmanship, the world has been rediscovering his show business past.

The internet was particularly won over by the news that Zelenskyy had played the most polite bear in children's literature. As StudioCanal confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter, the comedian lent his voice to the Ukrainian versions of both "Paddington" and "Paddington 2" when the hit films premiered in 2014 and 2017. "Until today I had no idea who provided the voice of @paddingtonbear in Ukraine," Hugh Bonneville, one of the film's stars, tweeted in February 2022. "Speaking for myself, thank you, President Zelenskiy."

Zelenskyy's new online fans were also blown away by resurfaced footage of the politician tackling ballroom and Latin choreography, with one Twitter user promising that the video was "even better than whatever you're imagining." He had appeared on Ukraine's "Dancing With the Stars" in 2006 and actually won the whole season with his unexpectedly nimble moves, per Deadline.

He played the president of Ukraine on TV

Although he was already a household name in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy's signature role came in 2015 when he began starring in "Servant of the People." The comedy series followed a history teacher, whose explosive rant about corrupt politicians went viral online and led to him becoming an accidental national hero. In a plot twist that mirrors Zelenskyy's own real-life journey, the character is then elected president of Ukraine.

The series became a smash hit and ran until 2019, although it was taken off the air after only a few episodes in Russia due to a joke about Vladimir Putin. Zelenskyy even named his political party "Servant of the People" when he registered it in 2018, per the European Forum. And in the wake of Russia's invasion four years later, the series received a significant "boost in popularity" across the world, according to Fox News, as various networks have managed to grab the rights to the comedy series.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the 2019 election in a 'landslide'

In a shocking case of life imitating art, Volodymyr Zelenskyy ran for president in 2019 and won in what BBC News called an absolute "landslide," scoring 73% of the vote. Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire who had held the presidency since 2014, conceded the loss but warned that Zelenskyy didn't have enough political knowledge to protect the country from Russia.

Throughout the election, Zelenskyy had sold himself as "something new," emphasizing his status as a political insider who could connect with the Ukrainian public. "They want to get a person with a human face," he told BBC News, contrasting himself against corrupt government officials. His motto was, "No promises, no disappointment." In his inauguration speech, as translated by The Recount, Zelenskyy talked about how his then-six-year-old son had asked if he was president, too, declaring that his child had been right and that every Ukrainian had a role to play in his election victory. "Every one of us bears responsibility for Ukraine," he promised. "... This is our shared dream. But we have shared pains."

The Ukrainian president went viral for playing the piano

Not all of Volodymyr Zelenskyy's comedic achievements were exactly presidential. One clip that made the rounds online during the 2019 election showed Zelenskyy and a comedy partner standing behind a piano with their trousers down and arms in the air, playing musical pieces without using their hands. As The Guardian reported, one sketch on the Russian TV channel RT showed Zelenskyy quipping: "You want to go into politics? Drop your trousers."

The footage went viral again in light of the more recent conflict in Ukraine, as many pointed out the juxtaposition between Zelenskyy's comedic past and his more recent life-or-death political dilemma following Russia's February 2022 invasion. "Who among us has not played 'Hava Nagila' on a piano with their genitals on stage and then gone on to lead their country against a foreign invasion?" journalist Amy Spiro wrote on Twitter, sharing the clip to a delighted online audience. The video has now been viewed over a million times.

He was involved in Donald Trump's first impeachment

Volodymyr Zelenskyy was at the center of Donald Trump's first impeachment trial in 2019 after allegations that the American president had tried to pressure him into investigating his political rival, Joe Biden. As The New York Times reported, republicans were very interested in finding out about Hunter Biden's involvement with Burisma Holdings — "an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch," per the outlet — and whether it had any connections to his politician father's foreign policy. So Trump gave Zelenskyy a phone call and, according to the impeachment resolution, tried to force him into targeting the Bidens by threatening to withhold $391 million of aid intended to help Ukraine ward off Russian expansion (via The Wall Street Journal).

Zelenskyy denied that he had been pushed into anything during their phone call, asserting that he didn't have anything to do with American politics. "I think you read everything. I think you read text," the Ukrainian president told the press, according to Time. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved to democratic, open elections of U.S.A. No, you heard that we had good phone call. It was normal, we spoke about many things. I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed me." 

He also assured reporters that he didn't have the power to tell Ukrainian law officials who to investigate. "We have an independent country and independent general security. I can't push anyone," Zelenskyy stated.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned down the chance to escape

As the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one of the most important and high-profile figures in the ongoing Russian invasion. Despite being his country's No. 1 target, however, Zelenskyy reportedly chose to turn down a chance to escape Ukraine safely. As an anonymous source told AP News, the U.S. government was willing to safely escort Zelenskyy out of the capital city of Kyiv, and American intelligence officials actually "urged" the president to come with them on February 26, 2022. But Zelenskyy rejected their escape plan, reportedly telling the Americans that "he needed anti-tank ammunition," as the outlet put it, with the source adding, "not a ride." According to this insider, the leader insisted on staying behind with defense forces, reportedly declaring that "the fight is here."

In a show of defiance, Zelenskyy kept posting his messages to the public on social media, wearing a simple t-shirt rather than any bulletproof armor. Although other European leaders feared that he had gone missing from Kyiv after one particularly brutal stretch of bombings, according to The New York Times, he reassured citizens that he was "here" in a video outside the presidential building. "Our army is here, our civil society is here, we are all here," Zelenskyy insisted, as translated by the newspaper. "We are defending our independence, our state, and we will continue to do so."

"The president will stay until the very end," one representative of Zelenskyy's political party told the Ukrainian parliament, per The New York Times.

His social media posts won him international support

Anyone paying attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have seen Volodymyr Zelenskyy's face across their newsfeed, often in the form of short videos shot by the politician on his own phone. On his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, the Ukrainian president has been giving updates to the public since the fighting began, and his accessible style has won him support, especially in contrast to Vladimir Putin's infamously stiff, formal announcements.

In one Instagram post shared on March 3, 2022, Zelenskyy promised once again that his country would fight until they were liberated. "They wanted to destroy us so many times. They failed," he insisted. "We've been through so much! And if someone thinks that, having overcome all this, Ukrainians will be frightened, broken or surrender, he knows nothing about Ukraine. And he has nothing to do in Ukraine. Go home."

The international response has made him into a kind of hero, with some internet users suggesting that Marvel actor Jeremy Renner could play him in a movie. But Zelenskyy himself has rejected that kind of adulation, telling CNN: "It's very serious, it's not a movie. ... I'm not iconic, I think Ukraine is iconic."

The European Parliament gave Volodymyr Zelenskyy a standing ovation

Leaders across the world have been praising Volodymyr Zelenskyy for staying in the middle of the fighting in Ukraine and rallying the public behind him. Although many European Union members were initially hesitant to punish Russia with harsh financial sanctions after the February 2022 invasion, the Ukrainian president reportedly convinced them within five minutes during a powerful teleconference call. "It was extremely, extremely emotional," one official told The Washington Post. "He was essentially saying, 'Look, we are here dying for European ideals.'" Zelenskyy reportedly signed off by saying that this could be "the last time they saw him alive," per the outlet. The leaders then quickly decided to cut off Russian banks from trading internationally through the SWIFT system.

And when he addressed the European parliament on March 1, 2022, Zelenskyy was greeted with a standing ovation. As translated by NBC News, Ukraine's leader spoke about the nation's children and argued that Ukraine had proven itself, both as a country of fighters and as a member of Europe. "Life will win over death and light will win over darkness. Glory be to Ukraine," Zelenskyy concluded.