Volodymyr Zelenskyy: the Actor-turned-acolyte of Truth and Decency
While celebrity has outshined heroism in social scripts, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is changing the dialogue. Beloved by Ukrainians and allies alike, his unmatched communication skills are his superpower, as he is able to address intricate issues in a way that inspires harmony and resilience. In a world riddled with misinformation, hyperbole, greed, and cowardice, Zelenskyy has shown to be
the outlier the world needs to hear.
“Our weapon is truth.”
Zelenskyy was born in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine on January 25, 1978, to Jewish parents. Initially speaking Russian as a child, he also learned to speak Ukrainian and English. His multilingualism has allowed him to have a broader reach with Ukrainians and people across the globe.
He earned a law degree from Kyiv National Economic University; however, his panache and quick wit led him to the entertainment world as an actor, writer, and producer.
His comedy group, Kvartal 95 (named after the neighborhood in which he grew up) rose to fame by way of a popular comedy competition broadcasted throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. By 2003, he was a regular on the show and even started his own entertainment studio. He appeared in
a string of romcoms and later became the general producer for a major television channel in Ukraine.
Zelensky’s fame took off with Servant of the People, a comedic television series in which a teacher becomes president after his diatribe against government corruption goes viral. Zelenskyy later appeared in the Ukrainian versions of Paddington (voicing Padding Bear) and Dancing With the
Stars (spoiler circa 2006: he won).
Even as a performer and entertainment leader, Zelenskyy was politically vocal and active. He opposed the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture's decision to ban Russian artists in Ukraine and worked mostly in Russian language productions, his choice to do so being a not-so-low-key rejection of Russian efforts to sow discord via the language divide.
While some initially deemed his candidacy a joke, the aptly-named “Servant of the People party” ran on a platform of anti-corruption and peace. Zelenskyy campaigned in both languages, showing unity as a priority and disarming his opponent’s attempts to elicit division between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. In a case of life imitating art, Volodymyr Zelenskyy won 73% of
the vote and was sworn in as the first Jewish President of Ukraine on May 20th, 2019.
“The wars of the past have prompted our predecessors to create institutions that should protect us from war, but they, unfortunately, don’t work. We see it, you see it, so we need new ones, new institutions, new alliances and we offer them.”
Zelenskyy doesn’t play political people-pleasing, he speaks to citizens as an empathic, informed confidant and isn’t afraid to call out other world leaders, allies or not.
Despite Putin’s temper tantrums, he pushed for Ukraine to become part of the EU and NATO; however, he was transparent about the process (or lack thereof, regarding NATO), stating, “For years we've heard the opposite, open doors, however, it is not…. we are beginning to count on our own strength.”
After Putin gave a rambling, ominous speech that left many Ukrainians—and communities across the globe—quivering with anxiety, Zelenskyy showed his rhetorical dominance with a speech that not only disarmed Putin’s gaslighting and projections (among other manipulative devices) but also called on other leaders to stop stoking panic, further crippling Ukraine’s economy.
Anyone holding the top spot on Putin’s hit list is bound to be on edge. Yet, when world leaders offered to evacuate him from Kyiv, he stood firm, declaring, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
When Russian propaganda tried to paint him as a coward who fled the capital, he filmed himself—selfie-style, like anyone—boldly standing on the streets of Kyiv.
"When you attack us you will see our faces —not our backs, but our faces."
Unlike many world learners, past and present, his priorities are sincere and his focus has and will remain on the people of Ukraine. A day after the Russian invasion, he reached out to Putin, stating (in Russian), “Let’s sit down at the negotiation table to stop the people’s deaths.” While the dictator tries to push his own delusions, Zelenskyy’s simple invite puts the focus where it should be:
on the people.
When Russian convoys snaked through cities, leaving bedlam and decay in their wake, Zelenskyy posted a video of himself (donning military fatigues as a strong nod to Ukrainian armed forces) in central Kyiv. In similar circumstances, many world leaders would have fled—in fact, most have—but Zelenskyy wants his people to know that he’s not going to lead from a ritzy pressroom;
he stands with his people, not over them.
“In today's world, where we live, there is no longer someone else’s war. None of you can feel safe when there is a war in Ukraine, when there is a war in Europe. You can't think of the global and close your eyes to the details.”
Instead of stuffy press conferences and verbose spiels, he communicates via brief videos and blurbs on social media. His emotional appeals have allowed people all over the world to better understand the situation in Ukraine, forcing them to care—as they should—about their fellow people, no matter where they are or what language they speak.
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