THE people of Ukraine voted for a comedian, and then saw him transmuted into a leader who has become viewed around the world as an icon of the dignity and courage of a beleaguered nation in a time of war. It was an unlikely transformation.
Volodymyr Zelensky was a popular entertainer. He was the voice of Paddington Bear. He won Ukraine’s homegrown version of Strictly. In a sitcom, Servant of the People, he played a schoolteacher who was filmed by a pupil in a classroom ranting against the corruption of the nation’s politicians — and was then propelled to the Presidency by a crowdfunding campaign.
Life imitated art, and Mr Zelensky found himself standing against Ukraine’s incumbent President, the billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko. His campaign, the entertainer announced, sought to restore trust in politics by bringing “decent people to power”, changing “the mood and timbre of the political Establishment”.
He never expected to be elected. In his campaign videos, he donned a red nose, saying: “They called me a clown. I am a clown, and I am very proud of it.” But his message was serious in its plain honesty. He won the 2019 election with almost three-quarters of the vote.
The Russian-speaking Jewish comedian came to office with little more than an aspiration to break the power of Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchs, build bridges between the country’s Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking peoples, and make peace with the warring Moscow-backed separatists in Donbas.
But he had also expressed hopes that Ukrainians would now vote to join the EU and NATO. Then, in his victory speech, he declared: “To all the countries of the former Soviet Union: look at us, everything is possible.” Small wonder that Vladimir Putin made him Russia’s current Enemy No. 1.
In contrast to President Putin — with his hour-long, rambling, dark, blood-and-soil fantasies about medieval Rus and the Jewish Ukrainian politician’s being a drug-dealing Nazi — President Zelensky speaks in social-media soundbites that ring with authenticity.
To the people of Russia, he says: “The people of Ukraine want peace,” but adds that they should “stop those who lie to you, who lie to us, who lie to the whole world”. To Moscow’s soldiers, he warns: “When you attack, you will see our faces, not our backs.” To the Americans who offered to fly him out of Kyiv to safety, he retorts: “The fight is here; I need anti-tank ammo, not a ride.”
To his people, he proclaims: “Our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.” He spoke in similar vein this week to the European Parliament, by remote video link, and was given an emotionally charged standing ovation.
As I write this, missiles have landed on civilian targets in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv. An armoured Russian column that is, breathtakingly, 40 miles long, is travelling towards Kyiv. Given President Putin’s record of battlefield brutality, the outlook remains grim.
Yet, as one Ukrainian journalist put it, “Zelensky is fighting like a lion, and the whole of Ukraine with him.” Whatever happens in the theatre of war, Volodymyr Zelensky has ensured that, in the court of history, Vladimir Putin has been defeated already.