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Contingent political hero

An insider’s take on Volodymyr Zelensky
by
March 2023, no. 451

Zelensky: A biography by Serhii Rudenko

Polity Press, $25 hb, 222 pp

Book 2 Cover Small (400 x 600)

A Message from Ukraine by Volodymyr Zelensky

Hutchinson Heinemann, $24.99 hb, 138 pp

Contingent political hero

An insider’s take on Volodymyr Zelensky
by
March 2023, no. 451
Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden at the White House, December 2022 (Oliver Contreras/Pool via CNP/MediaPunch/Alamy)

It has been a long time since the West had a hero like Volodymyr Zelensky, who is frequently ranked alongside Winston Churchill as a wartime leader and orator, Mikhail Gorbachev as a reformer, and Emmanuel Macron as a political disruptor. However deserved these comparisons may be, they deflect attention from the murky post-Soviet environment which shaped his career. The collapse of the region’s communist economy has left a legacy of corruption which, together with the deep intertwining of Ukrainian and Russian society, means that Zelensky’s case is not as clear-cut as it may seem to outsiders.

Journalist Serhii Rudenko is an insider. He finished writing Zelensky two months after the Russian assault of February 2022, and he praises the Ukrainian president (elected in 2019) as a courageous and inspirational wartime leader. But the bulk of his book is about Zelensky before he became a hero – and before he became a vehement critic of Vladimir Putin. Zelensky now thunders against the Kremlin, but before he became a politician he avidly pursued a career in Russia’s television industry, long a mouthpiece for Putin’s regime. Zelensky has recently ruled out any ‘compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country’, yet he came to power calling for a negotiated solution with Moscow – a solution which, his opponents said, would have involved just such a compromise.

Zelensky, like many Ukrainians a native Russian speaker, got his start in a comedy team called Kvartal 95, named after a suburb in his home town, the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih. Kvartal 95 served its apprenticeship in KVN (to use its Russian acronym), a comedy and entertainment game show which originated in the Soviet Union, then went international. In 2003, Zelensky founded a production studio, also named Kvartal 95, which became the platform for his successful film and television career, culminating in his starring role in the series Servant of the People, in which an obscure history teacher becomes president of Ukraine.

Zelensky: A biography

Zelensky: A biography

by Serhii Rudenko

Polity Press, $25 hb, 222 pp

A Message from Ukraine

A Message from Ukraine

by Volodymyr Zelensky

Hutchinson Heinemann, $24.99 hb, 138 pp

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