Who Is Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

Born in 1978 in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, then part of the Soviet Union, Volodymyr Zelenskyy co-founded a successful comedy troupe in the late 1990s. After launching the production company Kvartal 95 in 2003, he starred on a long-running sketch comedy program and sitcom about a teacher who unexpectedly gets elected president. Zelenskyy then embarked on a surprise presidential campaign in 2019 that resulted in a landslide victory. His domestic gains were eclipsed by COVID-19 pandemic challenges and an inability to end longstanding conflict in eastern Ukraine. In early 2022, Zelenskyy found himself thrust into the role of wartime president following Russia’s invasion of his country.

Early Years

Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy was born on January 25, 1978, in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in central Ukraine that was then part of the Soviet Union. Raised in a Jewish family, he spent four years in Mongolia with his father Alexander, a computer science professor, and mother Rimma, an engineer, before they returned to Kryvyi Rih.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine in August 1991 unleashed an era of instability in the region. Zelenskyy steered clear of gang violence that plagued the city and developed an interest in music and theater, especially the improv and sketch-comedy competitions made popular by the Russian TV show KVN. In 1997, he co-founded the comedy troupe Kvartal 95, named after his childhood neighborhood.

Zelenskyy earned a law degree from Kryvyi Rih National University in 2000, but by then his interests were driving him toward a career as a performer.

Studio Kvartal 95: Movies and TV Shows

After regularly appearing on KVN, Zelenskyy and his colleagues founded the production company Studio Kvartal 95 in 2003. They went on to score a massive hit with Evening Kvartal, a Saturday Night Live-type sketch comedy program that showcased Zelenskyy’s “vulgar” humor but also fearlessly mocked political leaders.

Following his win on the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006, Zelenskyy became a fixture on the big screen in romantic comedies like No Love in the City and 8 First Dates. He also voiced the titular bear in the Ukrainian-language version of Paddington and made his feature film directing debut in 2018 with Me. You. He. She.

Beginning in 2015, Studio Kvartal 95 enjoyed another hit show with Servant of the People, featuring Zelenskyy as a high school teacher who successfully runs for president and installs his friends in key government positions.

Presidential Campaign

Zelenskyy’s immersion in political material sparked a desire to effect substantial change through his Servant of the People party, named after the popular satirical TV series where Zelenskyy played a high school teacher who becomes president. On the 2018-19 Evening Kvartal New Year’s Eve show, the popular funnyman announced his intention to run for president.

Zelenskyy promptly embarked on an unorthodox campaign in which he eschewed traditional events in favor of uploading personal videos and touring with his comedy troupe. Striking a chord with his anti-corruption platform, he topped a crowded field of 39 candidates in the first round of voting in March 2019.

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On April 21, 2019, the political novice claimed a whopping 73 percent of the vote to handily defeat the incumbent Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko.

President of Ukraine

After calling for a snap parliamentary election during his May 2019 swearing-in ceremony, Zelenskyy saw his political good fortune continue with his party’s strong showing at the ballot boxes two months later.

However, there was trouble brewing with an important international ally: During a July 2019 phone call, U.S. President Donald Trump asked Zelenskyy to investigate the Ukraine-related interests of Joe Biden, a political rival, and Biden’s son Hunter. When a whistleblower revealed that the U.S. was withholding promised military funding until the investigation was announced, it sparked impeachment proceedings against the American president in late September.

Focusing on domestic issues, Zelenskyy launched the first phase of his “Great Construction” national infrastructure project in March 2020. The following year, he fulfilled a pair of promises with the passage of one law that allowed for the private sale of farmland and another designed to limit the political influence of oligarchs, the country’s wealthy and powerful businessmen.

By then, Zelenskyy had drawn heavy criticism for his uneven response to the Covid-19 pandemic; an inability to end the seven-year conflict fueled by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine; and his Servant of the People-like habit of placing trusted friends in government roles. In November 2021, a major poll found that just 28 percent of Ukrainians approved of their president’s performance.

Russian Invasion

Beyond the poll numbers, Zelenskyy faced a potential catastrophe by the end of 2021 with the buildup of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian border. He then sought help from member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

On February 21, 2022, President Vladimir Putin decried Ukraine’s relations with NATO in a televised speech and formally recognized the Eastern separatist regions of the former Soviet territory. Three days later, he declared war with the announcement of a “special military operation” against Ukraine.

Once criticized for his lack of political acumen, Zelenskyy quickly garnered admiration for his wartime leadership. He delivered an impassioned speech to leaders of the European Union on February 24, an effort that reportedly convinced its hesitant members to agree to level tough sanctions on Putin. Zelenskyy also proved an inspirational figure to his people by refusing to vacate Kyiv, his defiant videos rallying fellow citizens to fight back against the invading forces.

Wife and Children

Zelenskyy met the future Ukrainian first lady, Olena Zelenska, while they were students at Kryvyi Rih University. Although she studied architecture, Zelenska followed Zelenskyy into the entertainment field and became a writer for Kvartal 95. After they married in 2003, the couple became parents to daughter Oleksandra in July 2004 and son Kyrylo in January 2013. 

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