When Russia’s Vladimir Putin began a military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it was widely assumed that Ukraine would surrender quickly. Instead, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky—an actor-turned-politician famous for playing an actor-turned-politician in Servant of the People —refused to budge, withstood multiple assassination attempts and rallied his people to fight. He pleaded with the international community to implement sanctions on the Russians and to provide weapons and ammunition for the Ukrainians. How did Zelensky accomplish this transformation? Where did he first take Putin’s measure? Read about it in this exclusive advance look from Ukrainian journalist and political commentator Serheii Rudenko’s upcoming Zelensky: A Biography (Polity Books, July 18), in which he explores Zelensky’s life and governing style, from his childhood through the beginnings of the war.
In the beginning was the word. Or rather, several words. And, more precisely, the name of the TV series: Servant of the People.
For most of its supporters, the Servant of the People Party was political entertainment: a convention with Coca-Cola, pizza, and shawarma (a gyro sandwich), a selfie with a popular actor, memes such as “Let It Be the Stadium Then” and “Let’s Beat Them All Together,” Volodymyr Zelensky ‘s phenomenal victory, a cinematic inauguration. A young, handsome and quick-witted leader. However, the phenomenon of the Servant of the People Party was precisely the fact that it was perceived as a project of the protagonist of the film version, Vasyl Holoborodko, rather than that of the real president, Zelensky.
‘I Will Never Let You All Down’
On April 21, 2019, at 8 p.m, Zelensky and members of his team appeared before journalists to the sounds of the song “I Love My Country” from the soundtrack to the film (and TV series) Servant of the People. At that moment, it seemed that this simple song was being sung not only by the victorious candidate himself, but also by the 73 percent of the electorate who had voted for him.
Zelensky was still in the character of Vasyl—the high-school teacher, who, in the TV series, became head of state—and tried to joke, to toss barbs at the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), which, according to him, kept him on his toes at all times, and to show optimism.
In 2019, Ukraine’s sixth president announced: “I promise I will never let you all down.” Since then, we have seen Zelensky in various situations. He and his team have been criticized for being unprofessional. They have been accused of corruption, arrogance and even treason.
However, starting from February 24, 2022, the beginning of Russia’s large-scale aggression against the Ukrainian state, we have discovered a completely different Zelensky. A man who was not afraid to accept Vladimir Putin ‘s challenge and become the leader of popular resistance to Russian aggression. A president who managed to unite in this fight his supporters and opponents, corrupt officials and fighters against corruption, adults and children, people of different nationalities and faiths. A head of state who is greeted with applause in European parliaments and the U.S. Congress .
It has to be said that Ukrainians are accustomed to believing in myths: in the gold of Hetman Polubotko, which is allegedly kept somewhere in Britain (supposedly deposited in the Bank of England in the 1700s by a Ukrainian national, to be repaid with a high interest rate upon Ukraine’s independence), in the messianism of former president Viktor Yushchenko, in the fact that all their problems would be solved by Zelensky and his party. Just like in the movies.
But people have completely forgotten that the Servant of the People Party is not a TV series about Holoborodko and his bicycle. It represents themselves and the future of their children. They trusted Zelensky and his team. Whether or not this decision was correct will become clear in the aftermath of the Russian-Ukrainian war, because it has been up to Zelensky and the Servant of the People not only to fulfill their election promises, but literally to fight for Ukrainian independence.
To Look Into the Eyes of Putin
During the first few months of his presidency, Zelensky sought a meeting with Putin. The new leader of Ukraine was anxious to fulfill his campaign promise—to end the war in the Donbas. He understood that his campaign rhetoric, which had been reduced to the formula “just stop shooting,” had proved unviable. It was necessary to sit down at the negotiating table with Putin.
Zelensky said he wanted to look the master of the Kremlin in the eye and understand him as a person. For this reason, he was ready for anything—for another truce in the Donbas, even if it did not bring peace; for the dispersal of forces on the front line; for another settlement with Moscow. Zelensky sincerely believed that, if he looked into the eyes of the Russian president, he would at least see some sign of sadness about the 14,000 dead in the Donbas.
The Ukrainian president seemed convinced that his actor’s charisma and unique charm would work wonders in Paris, where the Normandy Four summit was scheduled for December 9, 2019, and he would return home with guarantees of an end to the war in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, Zelensky completely forgot that Putin was no worse an actor than he was. Seriously, Putin had played the role of peacemaking president for 20 years, pretending that “they’re not there.” In Georgia, the Transnistria region and Syria. The same in Ukraine.
The guard of honor lined up in the courtyard of the Élysée Palace. French President Emmanuel Macron greeted guests on the porch, with journalists standing in front of the guard of honor. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first to arrive. A Mercedes-Benz drove Ms. Merkel almost up to the doorstep of the palace, where, dressed in a blue jacket, she was met and kissed by an elegant and smiling Macron. A Renault Espace, with Zelensky, was the second car to drive into the courtyard and stop at the gate. The president of Ukraine walked briskly toward the president of France and cheerfully greeted Macron. Against this background, one of the Russian journalists shouted: “Mr. Zelensky, what would be a success for you? Mr. Zelensky! Mr. Zelensky, please answer the question! Mr. Zelensky!” However, Macron and Zelensky ignored the man shouting from the crowd and, like two good friends, marched to the entrance of the palace.
Putin was the last to arrive. He tried not to show any emotion. The master of the Kremlin emerged slowly from the Aurus-41231SB Senat L700 car and just as ponderously plodded around the courtyard, approached Macron, shook his hand, and disappeared inside. This episode was very expressive. The state leader, who was trying to instill fear in Europe and the world, looked old, lame, and was no match for Macron and Zelensky. It was a different era, a different age, a different mentality, a different thirst for life.
There were nine hours of talks ahead as well as Zelensky’s debut press conference as a member of the Normandy Four. The very fact that the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia were meeting after a three-year break was already a victory. Behind closed doors, Zelensky met one-on-one with Putin, then with Macron, and later with Merkel. He did not say publicly what he had seen in his Russian counterpart’s eyes. Apparently, Putin used his traditional negotiation techniques—blackmail, intimidation and the carrot-and-stick method. During the protocol photoshoot before the talks, Zelensky was noticeably nervous. At first, he wanted to take Putin’s place, then he turned to talk to journalists and inadvertently showed them some papers. These were topics for negotiations.
“Once everyone has left,” the Russian president told Zelensky, pointing to the person in charge of the photoshoot, “we will start negotiations.” The Ukrainian president took a sip of water. His anxiety was obvious.
Then there were negotiations. Zelensky did not seem impressed by his tête-à-tête with Putin. By the end of the summit, the presidents of Russia and Ukraine had not arrived at a common position on the future of the Donbas.
Putin was relentless—this was only to be as prescribed in the Minsk agreements, i.e., on the day after the elections in the ORDLO (the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine). Zelensky was against this and complained about the Minsk agreements, which had been approved by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko. However, in the press release all parties expressed their intention to agree on the legal aspects of the special status of local self-government in the ORDLO and to elaborate on the Steinmeier formula (which called for local elections under the auspices of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in the separatist-controlled region in the east, followed by a special self-governing status). Only a few people know for sure what was really going on behind the scenes at the Paris summit. Interior minister Arsen Avakov praised the Ukrainian president and told reporters that the latter had allegedly asked (Russian diplomat) Sergei Lavrov not to nod his head. “Volodymyr Zelensky, in conversation, mostly in Russian, finally exploded and said: ‘Mr. Lavrov, stop nodding, there is no need to nod! Yes, I know your last name, because, unlike you, I walked around all these places along the border on my own legs.”
The next meeting of the Normandy Four, scheduled for March 2020, did not take place, as by then the world was engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic. All Zelensky’s attempts to negotiate with Putin over the course of two years had failed.
In spring 2021, when the Ukrainian president suggested that the master of the Kremlin meet him in the Donbas. Putin replied: “We are interested in the Russian language, the church, the citizens of the Russian Federation in Ukraine. The Donbas is an internal issue of the Ukrainian state.” Five months later, Russian deputy security secretary Dmitry Medvedev wrote in the Russian Kommersant business newspaper that any contact with Ukraine’s current leadership was meaningless and Moscow would wait for a change of government in Kyiv. And four months after that, on February 24, 2022, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite all this, Zelensky is still ready to meet with the Russian president. However, this would no longer be in order to look him in the eye, but to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The President of War
Zelensky sought to become the president of peace in 2019. He promised to end the war in the Donbas and to put an end to the thorny relations with the Russian Federation. For this, as he said, he was ready even to negotiate with the devil. However, the devil in the Kremlin was prepared to negotiate with Zelensky on just one thing—the capitulation of Ukraine to Russia. That is something to which Zelensky could not agree.
Thus, Putin left Zelensky no choice. He was forced to become the president of war rather than the president of peace. He had a complicated mission—to lead his country into battle against the Russian occupiers. This is a difficult ordeal for someone who has never served in the army and who had no experience in politics until 2019.
Prior to the war, almost every one of Zelensky’s public addresses was reminiscent of his acting past. Pauses, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures. There was too much theatricality and artificiality in all this.
Beginning on February 24, 2022, the first day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, all this would disappear from Zelensky’s arsenal. We would see a completely different person. With a weary and unshaven face. In khaki green clothing, without a tie, no makeup, or TV spotlights. A president who speaks painfully about Ukrainians in all walks of life who had fallen into the vortex of the Russian–Ukrainian war. A person with real emotions. A leader of the Ukrainian nation who will call out to the world about the war in his land.
The sixth president of Ukraine has come a long way— from an actor to the leader of the Ukrainian nation. From a man who was met with interest and irony by leaders of the world’s nations, to a politician who is now met with applause in the West, and by world leaders who consider it an honor to call him their friend.
Excerpt adapted from Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko. Copyright © 2022 Polity Press.
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