KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine — When he entered politics in 2019 as a wartime president, with the conflict against Russian separatists still simmering in eastern Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy offered his people a heartfelt pledge.
“Throughout my entire life, I’ve tried to do everything so Ukrainians smiled,” Zelenskiy, a former comedian and actor, said in his inauguration speech. “In the next five years, I will do everything so that you, Ukrainians, don’t cry.”
Right now, Ukrainians are crying for help, and some are crying in terror — with Russian forces bombing Kyiv, the capital, and cities around the country in a military campaign that is obviously intended to topple Zelenskiy and his government, and destroy Ukraine as an independent state.
With his life clearly in danger, the 44-year-old president has appeared on television in recent days wearing an army green T-shirt and matching fleece jacket, looking utterly exhausted, exhorting Russia and the Russian people in their native language, which is also his own, to stop the killing.
“Get out, get out onto the squares and call for an end to the war,” he told them on Friday.
In Ukrainian, he has slammed Western capitals for their unwillingness to do anything more than impose economic sanctions, and even then not adopting the toughest measures.
“We are defending our state alone — like yesterday, the world’s most powerful forces are watching from afar,” he said. At another point, he warned: “This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European unity, against basic human rights in Europe, against all rules of coexistence on the Continent.” He added: “When missiles kill our people this is the death of all Europeans.”
Addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has refused to meet him face to face in recent years, Zelenskiy said: “Let us sit at the negotiating table, to stop the death of people.” On Friday night, Zelenskiy released a video showing him outside the presidential office in Kyiv to refute Russian disinformation that he had fled the capital.
In unleashing a murderous war, Putin also issued several ultimatums to Zelenskiy in recent days, demanding the acceptance of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as well as the surrender of the entirety of Donbass, the eastern Ukrainian region that was partly occupied by pro-Russian separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
Even if Zelenskiy caved to Putin’s demands, it’s not clear he would be able to save his country. If he doesn’t, it’s not clear he can save his own life.
He is an excruciating, impossible position — one that even the most experienced political leader could hardly imagine, let alone navigate.
In Zelenskiy’s case, experience is short to say the least. His only qualification for president was having played one on a television sitcom called “Servant of the People” which became the name of his political party.
But while Putin has delivered angry tirades that question Ukraine’s legitimacy as a state and, by extension, Zelenskiy’s legitimacy as a president, the actor-turned-politician’s election in many ways highlighted a major leap forward for Ukraine’s still-maturing democracy: He won precisely because he was famous, amassing 73 percent of the vote against the incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
Where Poroshenko, a billionaire who made his fortune in chocolate, had served in government for more than 15 years before becoming president, including stints as economics minister and foreign minister, Zelenskiy had no ties to Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt political system before he decided to run in 2019.
And while Poroshenko had been a leader of the Maidan Revolution of 2013-2014 that Putin has derided as a coup d’etat, Zelenskiy was still in the entertainment business, often working in Moscow at the time. Some of Zelenskiy’s strongest support came from the Russian-speaking east and southeastern regions of Ukraine, including Donbass.
Zelenskiy’s poll ratings had plummeted in the months leading up to the Russian invasion, as Ukraine suffered from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Donbass dragged on without resolution.
But even Ukrainians who dislike the president have rallied around him in response to the Russian attack, and even those who criticize him rather harshly, nonetheless regard him as a the genuine democratic choice of the voters, who specifically rejected Poroshenko and other career politicians like former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Nowhere is this support and acceptance more palpable than in Kryvyi Rih, the city in the heart of Ukraine’s iron-ore mining region, where Zelenskiy was born.
“He’s a legitimate president — absolutely,” said Dmytro Anisimov, a 20-year-old worker at a steel factory. Anisimov is hardly a satisfied constituent. Because of the weak economy and low wages, he said, he would like to leave Ukraine for a job somewhere in the EU. And he said that Zelenskiy and the government should do more to support public sports and recreation programs, which suffer from a lack of financing, facilities, and equipment.
The war has also created an urgent sense of solidarity. “He has some shortcomings,” a woman who would give only her first name, Ekaterina, said of Zelenskiy. “But given where our country is right now, in such fear,” she said. “We must unite. I support him very much at this moment. Because he is the nation’s leader. In difficult times, we must support our country.”
Ekaterina was walking across the street from the enormous apartment complex where Zelenskiy lived for most of his childhood. The building, which has some 800 apartments, is nicknamed “The Anthill.”
Located 400 kilometers south of Kyiv, roughly 200 kilometers northeast of the Black Sea port city of Mykolayiv and some 150 kilometers west of the Dnieper, Kryvyi Rih has not yet felt the brunt of the war. A military base that houses a tank unit was hit by two Russian Kalibr cruise missiles in the initial barrage on Thursday morning, but the rockets missed an ammunition depot and caused only minimal damage, according to soldiers stationed there.
The city is, nonetheless, gripped by fear, with long queues forming at gas stations and bank machines and many residents buying emergency provisions or even cars in preparation of fleeing Ukraine.
A visit to Kryvyi Rih also reveals Zelenskiy’s humble roots, from which he was catapulted into the ranks of world leaders by the magic combination of television stardom and democracy.
His father, Oleksandr, has been a computer science professor, specializing in informatics, at the Kryvyi Rih Economic Institute since 1992, and in recent years has served as chairman of the Department of Informatics and Applied Software.
He has a reputation among students as a stern, no-nonsense instructor, and could often be found having lunch in a canteen around the corner from his university, where today a bowl of borscht costs less than 30 cents, and a full lunch for two costs €3. His mother worked as an engineer. The family is Jewish and some of his ancestors were Holocaust victims.
A visit to Kryvyi Rih also illustrates how, despite taking office with war raging in Donbass, Zelenskiy has sought to deliver concrete improvements for his citizens — literally in bricks and asphalt with an expansive nation-wide infrastructure program that is often the first thing people mention when asked their opinion of him.
A short walk from “the Anthill,” Metalurg Stadium, the historic home of the local Kryvbas football team, is all boarded up, surrounded by construction barriers plastered with large signs proclaiming, “The Great Construction — Program of the President of Ukraine.”
Similar fencing surrounds Gymnasium No. 95, which is also undergoing a total renovation and which Zelenskiy attended as a boy.
As a teenager he started participating in team comedy competitions as part of something roughly called the Club of the Hilarious and Improvisational. Zelenskiy and his local band of comics named their team 95 Kvartal, after a neighborhood district in Kryvyi Rih, now distinguished mainly by a large traffic circle and a McDonald’s restaurant.
Zelenskiy went on to star in movies and television sitcoms, including “Servant of the People, in which he played a history teacher elected as president on an anti-corruption platform. The series ran from 2015 to 2018. And the next year, in a case of life imitating art, Zelenskiy decided to run for president and defeated Poroshenko.
Zelenskiy over the years has been accused of being too close to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy who owns the “1+1” television channel, which carried “Servant of the People.” He has also faced charges of concealing wealth and property, and overseas bank accounts, revealed by the Panama Papers investigation.
To his dismay, he also became deeply entangled in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment scandal, after the American leader withheld military aid to Ukraine in an effort pressure the government to open an investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
But none of that is of much consequence now, as Zelenskiy’s legacy is being rewritten by the war — with his life perhaps even hanging in the balance.
Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena, have two children, and the president has insisted that he will remain in Kyiv leading the defense against Russia.
“I remain in the capital,” the man who calls himself Servant of the People said on Friday. “I remain with my people.”