Sunday World

War may be toughest role yet for Zelensky

Ukrain leader’s roots in comedy and film

- • Marc Berenson is a senior lecturer at King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London. This article first appeared on The Conversati­on. By Marc Berenson

Heading into battle in Ukraine, Russian forces mark their equipment with a single letter signifying their objective.

There have been different interpreta­tions of the letter “Z” being used on Russian vehicles – one is that it represents the first letter of “Za pobedy”, which means “For victory” in Russian. But for others, who saw Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky describe himself as Russia’s “target number one”, the giant “Z” would seem to confirm that toppling Zelensky is first and foremost on Vladimir Putin’s otherwise unreadable mind.

Outside Ukraine, Zelensky has become the global figurehead and focus of Ukrainian resistance. Zelensky’s path to power could not be more different than that of the man pursuing him. Putin rose through the ranks of the KGB to build his power base under the chaotic leadership of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

Meanwhile, the 44-year-old Ukrainian president, now embraced by the world and at home as a heroic war leader, was first an immensely successful comedian, film actor and sitcom star, who had perfected the role of the everyman.

Zelensky had no political experience when he ran for president in 2019. Born in 1978 in Russian-speaking Kryvyi Rih, a major and heavily polluted) iron-mining town in southeast Ukraine, he is the son of a computer science professor and an engineer. His grandfathe­r and three great-uncles fought in the Soviet army against the Nazis, with only his grandfathe­r surviving. His great-grandfathe­r and other relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.

At high school, Zelensky and friends entered Klub Vesyólykh i Nakhódchiv­ykh (KVN). This is a young people’s comedy competitio­n and TV show, loosely translated as the “Club of Funny and Inventive People”, that has remained popular since its initial launch in the 1960s.

While earning a law degree, Zelensky formed the “Kvartal 95” comedy troupe with his friends that toured in the KVN “major leagues”. By 2003, Kvartal 95 began to produce shows for Ukrainian television and, by 2005, Zelensky was starring in films. In 2006, he won Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars, cementing his ability to gain the audience’s favour by reaching out through the camera. His most notable role was in the 2015-2019 television sitcom Servant of the People – after which he would name his political party.

In the sitcom, Zelensky played a high school history teacher whose profanity-filled rant about corruption is recorded, unbeknown to him, and becomes a viral video that catapults the character to the presidency.

In Ukraine’s presidenti­al election of April 2019, Zelensky managed to unseat incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. He won 73% of the vote – a remarkable and unpreceden­ted feat in Ukrainian politics. After his party won a parliament­ary landslide a few months later, Zelensky held more political power than any politician in Ukraine’s 30-year history.

As president, Zelensky brought several “Kvartal 95” members into his administra­tion, promoted online government service for all and perfected communicat­ing directly to the public through social media. On the Donbas war, he initially believed that he just needed to negotiate directly with Putin.

But a preliminar­y deal announced by Zelensky in October 2019 – later withdrawn – met significan­t criticism. It would have entailed calling for Russia to withdraw its troops, and elections in the separatist-occupied areas populated with few pro-ukrainian voters that would have been viewed as heavily influenced by Russia

In 2020, Zelensky’s popularity ratings fell to the low 30s, though he remained the country’s most popular politician.

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