Volodymyr Zelensky is Ukraine’s 6th president, elected in the country’s 2019 presidential election. He was deemed a novice in politics as he spent most of his career being part of the entertainment realm as a comedian, actor, director, writer, and producer. Despite such a background, he won the presidency via a surprise upset against the then-incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko. Zelenksy banked on his strong online presence, anti-corruption platform, and promise to defend Ukraine’s national interest for the overwhelming and decisive victory. In this article, let’s know more about Volodymyr Zelensky and his incredible journey from “comedy” to the presidency.
Born on January 25, 1978, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky hails from Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in southern Ukraine. Both of his parents are of Jewish descent. Rimma Zelenska, his mother, was a former engineer, while Oleksandr Zelensky, his father, was a computer engineer and a professor.
Young Zelensky lived in Erdenet, Mongolia after his family relocated to the said country for four years due to his father’s work. Zelensky only took up primary education in Mongolia, as the family returned to Ukraine in time before starting his elementary education. He passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) at age 16 and earned an education grant to continue his education in Israel – an opportunity his father declined.
In 1995, Zelensky entered the Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics, Kyiv National Economic University’s local campus in his hometown. In 2000, he earned a degree and a license to practice law but never pursued his professional career in the legal field. Instead, Zelensky went to the showman’s path.
Zelensky joining the entertainment industry wasn’t a surprise as he engaged in theater as a student. As early as the age of 17, he already started entering local KVN (Klub vesyólykh nakhódchivykh) competitions, an improvised comedy and writing contest broadcasted during the post-Soviet era. In 1997, he and his performance group, Kvartal 95, participated and won the KVN finals, earning them a regular spot in the show until 2003 and catapulted Zelensky’s popularity which then began playing major roles.
In the same year, a conflict halted Kvartal 95’s and the KVN’s creative department, prompting Zelensky to leave KVN. He then co-established Studio Kvartal 95 and transformed it into a production company. They sought affiliations with different Ukrainian television networks and soon became one of the country’s leading and most successful production studios.
Zelensky produced various successful TV projects centering on social and political satire. In 2011, he was appointed as the general producer for Inter TV. Studio Kvartal 95 exclusively produced shows for the television channel, giving Zelensky a massive opportunity to showcase his creative prowess. Yet, everything was cut short after they left Inter TV in 2012, citing political disagreements with the network. At that time, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky was the owner of the television channel and a political ally of President Viktor Yanukovych, who was then ousted from his position in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution.
It wasn’t long enough for Studio Kvartal 95 to find a new home as they signed a production deal in October with 1+1, a television network owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, yet another prominent individual. Kolomoisky is one of the country’s wealthiest people, who gained massive prominence after supporting the 2014 Maidan revolution.
While doing television shows, Zelensky proved to be as successful on the silver screen, appearing in different flicks, such as “Love in the Big City” (2009) and its two sequels in 2011 and 2013, “Office Romance. Present Day” in 2011 which he co-wrote, “Rzhevsky against Napoleon” (2012) that he co-produced, “8 First Dates” (2012), and its sequel “8 New Dates” (2015).
“Servant of the People”
Zelensky and his team continued to make waves on television. In October 2015, they released the show “Servant of the People,” which became a massive success, enticing millions of viewers from households and on Youtube. Zelensky acted as Vasyl Holoborodko, a Ukrainian high school History teacher who became famous for a viral video his students recorded, showing him heavily criticizing the corruption in the government. In the show, Holoborodko unexpectedly wins the Ukraine presidential election, seemingly like a preview of Zelensky’s own path. Yet, while Holoborodko’s victory may seem unplanned, Zelensky’s journey may not be completely aleatory.
As early as 2014, Zelensky’s career began to intertwine with various historical events that dazed Ukrainian politics. After the Maidan revolution removed former President Yanukovych from office after being deemed unable to fulfill his duties, Petro Poroshenko took on the position. However, he was also unable to implement even simple reforms amidst the rising Russian-supported rebellion in eastern Ukraine and the widespread corruption that eroded public trust in the government.
“Servant of the People” released in 2015, appeared to be timely, as it was done with the said backdrop. In 2018, Kvartal 95 registered the political party in the Ministry of Justice under the name of the hit TV show shortly after its second season started. Before the end of the second season, news about the party emerged, deeming it was a publicity stunt for its third installment. Eight months later, the initial structural foundation of the “Servant of the People” has already been established.
It’s good to note that Kvartal 95 was never a nonpartisan production company. In fact, they threw support in the 2014 Maidan Revolution and donated money in the war efforts, all while satirizing politicians and the conditions in Ukraine in many of their shows.
It was immensely seen in the “Servant of the People.” The show’s message was clear that oligarchs’ reign was finished after Vasyl Holobroko, Zelensky’s characters, broke the norms. It showed that an everyman, whose experience in government and politics was zilch, can turn things a hundredfold landscape by just using sheer common sense in determining the significant changes needed. Soon, the public knew that it’s the same person whom they need to rule Ukraine.
As 2018 closed, Zelensky already cemented his reputation as one of the country’s renowned public figures. On December 31, 2018, while many were tuned in to their TV sets to hear Poroshenko’s annual address for the New Year, 1+1 television channel aired Zelensky, announcing that he would run for the 2019 presidential election.
Zelensky faced many challenges during his presidential campaign. As a political newbie, he was initially criticized for having no personal platform or vision as his team obtained opinions from his social media followers. Yet, his supporters still backed him, claiming that its Zelensky’s way of valuing how the people want to be ruled, rather than imposing his own. This became apparent when Zelensky promised to fully utilize the Internet in getting public referendums to guide the government on its plan and actions.
Another criticism thrown at Zelensky is that he seemed to be aloof with mainstream media, with many news agencies even advising him to cease avoiding reporters. Yet, Zelenksy rebutted, saying he was not “escaping” journalists, but he simply doesn’t want to engage in traditional talk shows spearheaded by people who only do just “PR.”
Meanwhile, his close rival then-incumbent President Petro Poroshenko threw shades to Zelensky, saying that the latter is a beginner in politics that lacks the “courage” to square up Vladimir Putin, Russia’s powerful and influential president. Loyalists of Poroshenko even believed that Zelensky’s win could be very beneficial for Russia. Zelensky responded in their presidential debate that the people voted for two Poroshenko identities: first, a president that appears on video camera, while the second, sends his greetings to Moscow.
Zelensky’s close connection with Kolomoisky, owner of 1+1 television channel, was also never spared by scrutiny. Kolomoisky was alleged to have stolen and misappropriated billions of funds from PrivatBank, the country’s largest bank and lender. Ukraine’s government was forced to shell out over three billion dollars to keep such a big company that the already challenged state can’t afford to lose. Despite meeting Kolomoisky numerous times in recent years, Zelensky said his connection was purely professional. To alleviate any concern, Zelensky said he would step down from companies as an assurance to the public he won’t value any partnership with anyone.
In his campaign, Zelensky centered on two key issues the country was facing at that time. First, he wanted a ceasefire in the Donbas war to approach it with diplomacy and end the conflict, which began in 2014. On the other hand, he promised to battle corruption and businesses to encourage investments in Ukraine while pursuing the country’s entry to NATO and the European Union to further support economic development and security. His campaign remained pretty virtual, taking advantage of social media, blogs, and videos to communicate his platform. It proved to be successful for Zelensky, especially that his messages were conveyed in a way that is more positive, easily understandable, and acceptable to the public.
On March 31, 2019, Zelensky emerged victorious in the presidential election’s first round, earning 30.24% votes compared to Poroshenko’s 15.95%. On April 21, 2019, 73.21% of the voters chose Zelensky, giving him a landslide victory against Poroshenko, who only secured 24.46% of the votes. Zelensky was inaugurated on May 20, 2019, and became Ukraine’s 6th head state and the youngest president ever to govern the country.
While his win was impressive, Zelensky’s first challenge after assuming office was dealing with Verkhovna Rada, the parliament controlled by the opposition. As such, he called for the dissolution of the Rada and a snap election. The political move became fruitful, as his party, Servant of the People, was able to secure 254 of 450 seats in the elections held on July 21, 2019. With the support of the majority from the legislative branch, it gave Zelensky the power to replace officials, regulate the budget, pass necessary laws, and do essential changes he promised in his campaign.
Yet, Zelensky continued to face many controversies. Kolomoisky, who fled in 2017, returned to Ukraine a few days before his inauguration. Zelensky assured the public that his government would provide no special treatment or favor. Meanwhile, Kolomoisky also declared that he wouldn’t impose any policies through Zelensky, although his media network has played a vital part in Zelensky’s campaign.
Zelensky was also hooked in an international scandal. United States President Donald Trump allegedly pressured him to initiate an investigation against the Bidens. The latter held a board seat in Burisma Holdings, a natural gas conglomerate in Ukraine. Despite having no evidence, Trump said that Joe Biden used his influence for Hunter’s, his son, benefit.
Trump was said to have called Zelensky in July 2019, withholding any military aid to Ukraine unless the country pursues the inquiry to Biden’s alleged “misdeeds.” Zelensky denied that Trump pressured him, but Trump’s action prompted an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives.
As for his achievements, Zelensky proved to be successful in various aspects such as bringing various government services online, amending land sales laws and gambling laws, establishing positive relations with the EU and NATO. However, he also faced many organizational issues, and many of his economic, legal and political plans raised in his campaign platform are yet to be fulfilled. Though there has been a decline, polls show that the majority still trust his administration. All that’s left is for President Zelensky to deliver all the changes he promised and continue keeping the support from the public, which his future achievements will ground.
Zelensky’s Personal Life
Zelensky married Olena Kiyashko in 2003. The couple studied at the same school and dated for about seven years before marriage. They have two children: daughter Oleksandra, born in July 2004, and son Kyrylo, born in January 2013. In 2018, Zelensky was said to have total assets worth or more than 1.3 million US Dollars.