National heroes sometimes have humble political origins.
Abraham Lincoln was arguably the country’s least-qualified president — a former one-term member of Congress — at the time that he took office. Winston Churchill looked like a washed-up politician when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. And Volodymyr Zelensky did not seem like an international symbol of courage when Russia began threatening to invade Ukraine in recent months.
In today’s newsletter, I want to give you a brief profile of Zelensky, one that goes beyond the one or two sentences many people have heard about him in recent weeks. I’ll also link to some of the best profiles of him and podcasts about him, for anybody who wants more.
Below, you’ll also find the latest news from the war.
Benny Hill humor
By now, the basics of Zelensky’s background are well known: Before becoming Ukraine’s president, he had been a comedic actor whose best-known role was as a teacher who rose to Ukraine’s presidency thanks to a viral video.
That show, “Servant of the People,” was a cross between “The West Wing” and Monty Python. Zelensky himself has credited Benny Hill, the crude British comedian, as an influence. (You can watch a short excerpt from the show, with English voice overs.)
“As a film actor and sitcom star, Zelensky thrived in the role of the Everyman, often playing the average guy who wins over the beautiful woman seemingly beyond his reach,” Franklin Foer has written in The Atlantic.
Zelensky grew up in a fading and polluted industrial city, the son of an engineer and computer-science professor. He is Jewish, in a country with a brutal history of antisemitism, and his first language was Russian, as is the case for many Ukrainians.
He ran for president in 2019, with a charmingly populist campaign that evoked his character on “Servant of the People.” It helped that the billionaire owner of the network that broadcast the show promoted Zelensky’s candidacy, including with a documentary that aired on the eve of the election, comparing him to Ronald Reagan.
Elsewhere in Europe, many officials initially viewed Zelensky as unserious, as The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa has reported. “The impression was terrible,” one European diplomat said, referring to one early meeting.
The impression today is very different, of course. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelensky has become a Churchillian figure, the personal embodiment of his country’s refusal to yield to a murderous authoritarian.
Seeing through Putin
That image does have a lot in common with the optimistic and patriotic vision of Ukraine that Zelensky has presented since he began running for office.
His two central campaign promises were to crack down on corruption and to end the military conflict with Russia in the country’s eastern provinces. After taking office, he stripped members of Parliament of their legal immunity. He shrunk his own motorcade to two cars, without sirens. He told government officials to remove presidential portraits from their offices and replace them with pictures of their children, to remind them of the stakes of their work.
He also earnestly took to the job of president, acknowledging how little he knew. “He’s a very intent listener,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Foer.
One early question that many Ukrainians had was what approach Zelensky would take to Russia. Some even worried that he might be too accommodating to Vladimir Putin, Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, has noted. Zelensky not only grew up speaking Russian, but had become a star in Russia, thanks to his television shows.
“Zelensky came in as a candidate who promised to make a deal with Russia to end the war,” Anton said. Over time, though, Zelensky came to believe that Putin was not negotiating in good faith and wanted to dominate Ukraine. That belief pushed Zelensky closer to the West, angering Putin.
“In retrospect, now that we see what Putin really wants, total control over Ukraine, it is hard to see what Zelensky could’ve done,” Anton said.
Since Russia invaded, Zelensky has remained in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, rallying the country through videotaped speeches. (Yesterday, Zelensky’s government posted photos of him visiting wounded soldiers at a hospital and awarding them medals.) He has done so even though Russian troops and spies are likely trying to kill him.
Anne Applebaum, a journalist and Ukraine expert, recently said on NPR that she thought Zelensky might never flee the country. “He’s an actor, and he understands that he has a role to play, and he will play the role,” Applebaum said. He knows that he represents his country, she added, and even if he wishes he had never run for president, he understands that he now symbolizes something larger than himself.
“Once you enter the role, you play it to the end,” she said. “You have a larger responsibility to the citizens and to your country’s image in the world.”
Related: Maureen Dowd writes that Zelensky has become “the world’s greatest actor” in a real-life struggle between good and evil.
State of the War
Russian forces hit Kyiv with heavy artillery strikes this morning after days of fighting in the suburbs. One projectile struck an apartment building.
Russia continued its assault on civilians, firing on a train evacuating people fleeing the Donetsk region. Russian forces also continued to attack residential buildings in Mariupol, where a humanitarian crisis is deepening.
“The entire sky was in flames”: A Russian attack 11 miles from the border with Poland hit a base where foreigners who had come to help Ukraine were believed to be training.
Russia asked China for military equipment and for financial assistance to protect its economy, U.S. officials say. A Chinese spokesman dismissed the claim.
Russian forces fatally shot Brent Renaud, an American journalist who was reporting outside Kyiv, Ukrainian officials said.
Russian and Ukrainian officials are holding virtual peace talks today.
More on Ukraine
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