Less than four years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was one of Ukraine’s most popular TV comedians, starring in a satirical TV show and performing in a troupe where he played the piano with his penis for five minutes.
Zelensky, now 44, won the presidential election in a landslide in 2019 after much of his campaign was allegedly funded by one of Ukraine’s richest and most corrupt oligarchsIgor Kolomoisky.
In a scenario that even the writers of his old show, “Servant of the People” could not have imagined, Zelensky is now the leader at the center of a new war in Europe and faces assassination as Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country on Thursday night.
In a short video address Released just after midnight on Friday in Ukraine, Zelensky said the Russians “want to destroy Ukraine politically by overthrowing the head of state”.
“I stay in government quarters with others,” Zelensky said. “The enemy has designated me as target number one, and my family as target number two.”
Surprisingly, given his frivolous showbiz past, pundits say Zelensky more than rose to the occasion — even if his impassioned televised speeches to Russians and his own compatriots before and after the assault didn’t do much. -something to stop the military might of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Three hours before Russian troops hit Ukraine, Zelensky delivered his message to the Russian people in a powerful plea to stop and wonder what their country was doing.
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“Why are you fighting?” he asked in the address posted online at 2 a.m., shortly after Putin laid out the reasons for his attack on Ukraine. “And with who?”
Speaking to Ukrainians, on TV and online, Zelensky rallied citizens with exhortations to hold the line against the Russians and fight for their country.
“We have broken diplomatic relations with Russia,” Zelensky tweeted early Thursday from Kyiv. “For everyone who hasn’t passed out in Russia yet, it’s time to come out and protest the war with Ukraine.”
Zelensky called for martial law and remained defiant as Russian and Belarusian forces struck Ukraine in the kind of land, air and sea invasion not seen since World War II, blockading the capital of Kiev as residents were trying to flee.
“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, like Nazi Germany did in the #2WW years,” Zelensky tweeted. “To this day, our countries stand on different sides of world history. 🇷🇺 has gone down the path of evil, but 🇺🇦 defends itself and will not give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.
To the astonishment of many, Zelensky, who grew up in Russian-speaking southeastern Ukraine, was not a bad leader even before Thursday’s invasion.
Originally seen as a puppet of the oligarch Kolomoisky, Zelensky renamed himself crusader against the oligarchsjust as he had evolved from a native Russian speaker raised in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine to a nationalist.
“He kept a unified government and didn’t follow what Russia or the United States wanted,” Russ Bellant, a longtime Ukrainian researcher, told The Post on Thursday. “He knows he’s in the middle of a bigger superpower power play and he seems to know what he’s doing. He’s doing pretty well. He’s his own man. He knows what’s really at stake. , but he knows what happened to Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych, 71, was the fourth Ukrainian president toppled in the Maidan revolution in 2014.
Zelensky played a fictional character in “Servant of the People” named Vasily Goloborodko, a high school teacher in his thirties who wakes up one morning to find he has been elected the country’s president with over 60% of the popular vote. On the show, one of his students uploaded a video of him speaking out against corruption in the country and it went viral.
Zelensky, in his comedy troupe performances, and in the storylines of “Servant of the People”, satirized corruption in Ukraine and also showed what the country could look like if it had a chance to become democratic.
During his presidential campaign, however, he used a Bulletproof Mercedes recorded with an associate of him and his benefactor Kolomoisky. There’s a reason Zelensky watched his back when he was closely associated with Kolomoisky, who co-founded PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest commercial bank before it was nationalized in 2016.
Kolomoisky was so tough he crushed Russian separatists with his own paramilitary units, calling 5ft 7in Putin a “schizophrenic dwarf”. allegedly ordered contract killings and often fed a live shark in a huge aquarium in his office to intimidate guests.
The FBI began investigating Kolomoisky in 2019 for financial crimes involving some of his US interests. US prosecutors said he and a partner embezzled and defrauded PrivatBank of billions and laundered some of the money through their US holdings. He was too officially sanctioned by the United States last year to, among other things, undermine democracy in Ukraine.
But despite Zelensky’s ties to Kolomoisky, he failed to live up to expectations that he would be a jester clown — or a crooked leader for Ukraine’s billionaires.
“Although many commentators refer to Zelensky as the Ukrainian Donald Trump due to his lack of political and entertainment experience, Zelensky is actually an adept political actor,” wrote Nina Jankowicz, a Ukraine expert at the think tank. Wilson Center in Washington, DC. in 2019 after a visit to the country.
Zelensky, married to Olena Zelenska since 2003, has a son, Kiril, and a daughter, Aleksandra.
He showed he had a knack for being at the center of an international scandal. Trump’s first impeachment stems from a now-notorious July 2019 phone call with Zelensky in which Trump relied on him to investigate Biden family corruption in Ukraine. The call also brought to light Joe and Hunter Biden’s suspicious and lucrative business dealings in Ukraine.
Ukrainians and their friends and relatives hoped for the best from Zelensky even as Russian forces advanced towards Kiev on Thursday.
“Zelensky doesn’t have a lot of political experience,” a Ukrainian woman living in Italy told The Post on Thursday as she tried to contact her father, grandmother and sisters stuck in Kyiv.
“But we hope he will get the support of his own government and others. The situation is very bad. No one can escape the country. My friends are hiding in bomb shelters. (Putin) will kill all Ukrainians.
She added: “If you have contacts in the government, please talk to them. We are facing a global catastrophe.