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Author interview'I had no idea world leaders would call him their friend'

The unlikely rise – and remarkable endurance – of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky

A new biography of the resilient president by journalist Serhii Rudenko chronicles his start as a law student and TV actor, through the war that revealed his true colors

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen on a screen as he addresses the audience from Kyiv during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, May 23, 2022. (AP/Markus Schreiber, File)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen on a screen as he addresses the audience from Kyiv during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, May 23, 2022. (AP/Markus Schreiber, File)

On day one of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an objective for the campaign, promising “the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine” in an address on February 24. A day later, he doubled down, calling Ukraine’s leadership “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” This sounded ridiculous to Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko — given that his country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a Jew.

“Can you imagine a state led by a Jew being neo-Nazi?” Rudenko asked in an email interview. “This could only be born in the sick head of [Putin] and his accomplices.”

Rudenko is the author of a new book about Ukraine’s head of state, “Zelensky: A Biography.” Released on August 8, it explores its subject’s colorful trajectory, from TV stardom portraying a fictional Ukrainian president to a successful election bid for the real job in 2019. Although his term as Ukraine’s sixth president began with an infamous phone call with then-US president Donald Trump that led to the latter’s impeachment, Zelensky is now receiving worldwide admiration for his wartime leadership.

The book notes that Zelensky has accused Russia of genocide while enduring further neo-Nazi barbs.

“Moscow continues to call Ukraine’s sixth president, who was born to a Jewish family, a Nazi,” Rudenko writes in a chapter of the book dedicated to the Bucha massacre. “This gives serious grounds for doubting the mental stability of the master of the Kremlin and his team.” He continues, “They, by the way, subjected Babyn Yar in Kyiv to rocket attacks, the site where Nazis executed Jews during World War II.”

The book also mentions that the legislative bodies Zelensky has addressed during the conflict include the Knesset, where he spoke by Zoom in March. His speech resulted in a backlash among several Israeli MKs for its language comparing Putin’s Russia to Hitler’s Germany. He accused both the Nazis of WWII and contemporary Russia of using the term “the final solution.”

In this image released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office on May 1, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, awards the Order of Princess Olga, the third grade, to US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 30, 2022 (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

In the speech, Zelensky also cited “a few words in Ukrainian you are very familiar with. The words of Golda Meir … ‘We want to live, but our neighbors want to see us dead.’”

When The Times of Israel asked Rudenko about Zelensky’s Jewishness and its impact on his wartime leadership, he said, “I will not be mistaken if I say that Zelensky is perceived firstly as a Ukrainian in Ukraine. Yes, he has Jewish blood, but we don’t focus on that. For us, the most important thing is his willingness to defend Ukraine, to fight for our independence.”

Rudenko describes himself as a firsthand witness to the invasion. He was based in Kyiv during the outbreak, and recalled the first Russian ballistic missiles falling behind his house that morning. His TV station, Espresso, was repurposed into a bomb shelter. Two days after the conflict began, Espresso relocated to Lviv and started broadcasting from there. That’s where Rudenko lives and works today.

“Imagine the picture,” he said. “I am sitting in a bomb shelter, finishing the book’s final part, and then I go outside — there is a column of smoke from the impact of a Russian missile. And you understand that any horror movie or book cannot be compared to reality.”

Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko, author of ‘Zelensky: A Biography.’ (Courtesy)

On August 31, Zelensky invoked the term “horror film” in describing the war in an address to the Venice Film Festival. He has become a public face of the resistance, whether by opening the festival through a virtual speech or hosting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an in-person summit in Lviv.

Rudenko noted, “frankly speaking, in 2020, when I was writing the book, I had no feeling that Zelensky would become a person whom world leaders would call their friend.”

‘Zelensky: A Biography,’ by Serhii Rudenko. (Courtesy)

The book chronicles the unlikely rise of its subject. He was born in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, in 1978 to Oleksandr and Rimma Zelensky. His parents were both engineers, and it was in this capacity that his father relocated the family to Mongolia for a few years. Later, when Volodymyr was 16 years old, he got a chance to attend school in Israel through a free grant, but his father turned down the opportunity.

Zelensky studied law in college, but after graduation, he pursued a career in acting, first on an improv comedy show and then on his series, “Servant of the People.” The head of the 1+1 TV channel that broadcast “Servant of the People” was Igor Kolomoisky, whom the book describes as a Ukrainian oligarch with homes in Tel Aviv and Geneva. From 2017 to 2019, Kolomoisky voluntarily exiled himself in both locations, returning to Ukraine after Zelensky campaigned as a reformer and won the election by an overwhelming margin.

During the campaign, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko accused both Moscow and Kolomoisky of aiding the opposition. The book describes Kolomoisky as feeling triumphant following Zelensky’s victory. However, the Ukrainian government eventually turned against Kolomoisky, including through a general anti-oligarch campaign launched by Zelensky last year.

Rudenko questioned the president’s leadership over his first three years, including the campaign vow to combat corruption. One of the author’s interviewees was Geo Leros, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and the first to level corruption charges against Zelensky’s entourage. Rudenko also spoke with Ruslan Riaboshapka, Zelensky’s first prosecutor general, who served in that role at the time of the July 25, 2019, phone call between Zelensky and Trump.

According to Rudenko, Trump pressed Zelensky to influence a Ukrainian investigation of Hunter Biden, the son of then-former US vice president Joe Biden. Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, included the younger Biden on its board of directors. The company had faced tax debts and a corruption accusation against its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky.

“The American president makes it clear to Zelensky: financial assistance to Ukraine will depend on this,” Rudenko said. “Then the content of the conversation between Trump and Zelensky becomes known to the whole world.”

Outcry over the call prompted the first impeachment of Trump, which failed in the Senate in 2020. As for Zelensky, he did not accede to Trump’s request — a development with potentially far-reaching consequences.

US President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 1, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Rudenko writes, “if Zelensky had accepted Trump’s proposal in summer 2019 and reopened the case against the younger Biden, who knows how the relationship between the senior Biden and Zelensky would have turned out. It is hard to say whether Ukraine would have received US assistance in its confrontation with Russia.”

The conflict has since passed its seventh month.

“The war became the best reagent for Zelensky,” Rudenko said. “In peacetime, we would never have seen the qualities possessed by the sixth president of Ukraine. They are courage and bravery. In the absence of willpower, both opponents and journalists (including me) accused him before the war. With the war, we saw another Zelensky. And this other one, I hope, is the real Zelensky. He no longer plays the role of the president. He is the president of a country defending itself against military aggression.”

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