Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ended a video conference with European leaders Thursday night saying: “This may be the last time you will see me alive.”
Zelensky’s rise to the presidency of Ukraine came as a surprise to many. A comedian, he’s considered to be the “Jon Stewart” of Ukraine, and was best known for satirically playing a president on television before being elected as a real one in a landslide victory in 2019.
Now the 44-year-old comedian turned embattled president is fighting for his life, facing a Russian invasion determined to oust him from power in a false “denazification” operation.
In an address to the nation after the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down on his “denazification” explanation for his troops in Ukraine, saying that neo-Nazis are in control of the country.
Is Zelensky a Nazi?
Let’s be clear about this: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and has zero ties to any neo-Nazi movement. In fact members of his family were murdered during the Holocaust and others fought in the Red Army against Nazis.
“How can I be a Nazi?,” Zelensky said in a speech after the invasion. “Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.”
In the same election that put Zelensky into power, far-Right groups only managed to obtain around 2% of the overall vote and did not secure a single seat in parliament.
Zelensky is not a Nazi, nor does he have any Nazis in his government.
Early Life as a comedian
Zelensky was born to two Jewish parents on January, 25, 1978, in the Ukrainian town of Kryvyi Rih. His father is a computer science professor and his mother is an engineer.
From a young age Zelensky was interested in comedy, joining a group when he was 17. He went to college and received a degree in law but he never practiced deciding instead to pursue more comedy gigs. His career grew and in the early 2000s he landed starring roles in multiple Russian language feature films and TV shows.
One of his films, the romantic comedy “Love in the Big City 2,” was banned in Ukraine due to a law that prohibited Russian artists and other Russian works of media and art from being seen in the country.
In September of 2003, Zelensky married his childhood classmate Olena Kiyashko (the two were not friends growing up but are from the same village). Kiyashko studied architecture in college but ended up becoming a writer for Zelensky’s production company. The couple have two children: Alexandra was born in 2004, and Cyril was born in 2013. Alexandra actually appeared in her father’s movie “8 New Dating,” playing the child of the movie’s main character.
In 2015 Zelensky landed one of his most high-profile gigs, producing and staring in a TV show called “Servant of the People.” In the show Zelensky played a high school teacher who won the Ukrainian presidency after posting a viral video exposing government corruption.
Rise into politics
The success of “Servant of the People” morphed into the grassroots creation of a centrist political party of the same name in 2017.
Two years later Zelensky launched his bid for the Ukrainian presidency in a virtual campaign. His campaign focused on rebuilding trust in politics, telling the German magazine Der Spiegel in March of 2019 that he “would really like to change the mood and timbre of the political establishment, as much as possible.”
Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine on April 21, 2019, beating incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with nearly 73% of the vote to Poroshenko’s 25%.
Zelensky the president
As president Zelensky has positioned himself as a reformer, working to bring Ukraine closer to the West, rooting out corruption and seeking to rebuild the country’s relationship with Russia.
Zelensky is in favor of Ukraine becoming a member of the European Union and NATO but he said the decision was ultimately up to Ukrainian voters in the form of referendums. Since becoming president he made rebuilding the military one of his top priorities.
He faced protests early in his presidency after unsuccessfully trying to reign in the breakaway eastern provinces. Also early in 2019 he faced pressure from then President Donald Trump to investigate Hunter Biden. The U.S. relationship improved under President Biden and Zelensky visited the United States in 2021 meeting with political and business leaders.
His presidency has had its ups and downs. Opinion polls in September of 2020 showed his approval rating was 32%.
A very Jewish president
In a speech Wednesday Zelensky called upon the Jewish people of the world to stand up for his country.
“Last night we were all bombed in Kyiv. And we all died again in Babyn Yar – from a missile attack … I am now addressing all the Jews of the world – can’t you see what is happening? Therefore, it is very important that now millions of Jews around the world won’t be silent. Nazism is born in silence. Therefore, shout about the killings of civilians. Shout about the killings of Ukrainians,” Zelensky said in the video address.
Zelensky has been outspoken about his Judaism and his Jewish roots were widely known on the campaign trail.
The Ukrainian president said he grew up in an “ordinary Soviet Jewish family,” not a very religious one since “religion didn’t exist in the Soviet state as such.”
IHRA defines antisemitism, in part, as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” by “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
This definition has been adopted by 35 countries, at least a dozen American states, the European Union Parliament and more than 1,000 organizations and universities worldwide. It was formally endorsed by the government of Israel in 2017.
In an interview with the Times of Israel Zelensky also commented on the Jewish state:
“I respect Israel as hugely special, especially given all the sensitivities around it — the unity of Israel, the unity of the nation,” he marveled. “The Jews managed to build a country, to elevate it, without anything except people and brains. The Jewish people in Israel are a unique people, a unique population. It has economic strength. There are many countries in the world that can protect themselves, but Israel, such a small country, can not only protect itself, but facing external threats, can respond.”
Originally Published Feb 25, 2022 12:56PM EST