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Volodymyr Zelenskyy went from comedian to icon of democracy. This is how he did it

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to Congress at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022, less than a month after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to Congress at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022, less than a month after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

KYIV, Ukraine — Over the past year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has undergone one of the most dramatic political transformations in modern history.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelenskyy was polling around 25%. Today, some compare him to Winston Churchill.

But as Ukraine marks the first anniversary of Russia's invasion this week, some Ukrainians still have doubts about the president's leadership.

Zelenskyy's turnaround began the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, as Russian soldiers headed toward Kyiv, intent on capturing or killing him. The president decided to stay put.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a former adviser to the office of the president, was with Zelenskyy at the beginning of the war. He says he and others urged the president to move somewhere safer.

"We said, 'What about cruise missiles?'" Arestovych recalled. "He said, 'I'll stay here.'" Arestovych says he raised the specter of Russian saboteurs and assassins. He says Zelenskyy again refused.

"Give me a machine gun," he recalled the president saying at last. "I stay here.'"

Arestovych says the military was just trying to do its job and protect the leader of the country, but Zelenskyy was thinking more broadly.

"He understood if we left Kyiv, it would put great stress on the defenders of Ukraine," Arestovych says. "He's thinking like the head of the nation."

On the second day of the war, Zelenskyy stood with his chief of staff as well as Ukraine's prime minister, next to a baroque building in the heart of Kyiv that all Ukrainians would recognize. Recording on his iPhone, Zelenskyy sent a defiant message.

"We are all here," he said. "Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here. We defend our independence."

People had wondered if Zelenskyy would flee. Daria Kaleniuk, who runs the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a public watchdog group, pointed out that Zelenskyy had downplayed the threat of war and seemed unprepared. That he stood his ground in Kyiv, she says, "honestly, it was a surprise for me."

Zelenskyy's career began in the business of entertainment

Zelenskyy became a household name in Ukraine as a comedic actor, TV star, film producer and entertainment mogul. He ran for office in 2019 based on a character he'd created for a TV show called Servant of the People.

It's about an earnest high school history teacher who rails against Ukraine's corruption and corrosive politics. When a student captures the rant on video and posts it on social media, Zelenskyy's character becomes a sensation and is swept into office.

As a real-life candidate, Zelenskyy was also a sensation, winning in a landslide with 73% of the vote. He named his political party Servant of the People.

During the campaign, Zelenskyy pledged to end the war with Russia in the east of the country, boost the economy and attack corruption. He did not govern as many had hoped.

As president, he placed friends from his entertainment career into key government posts for which they had no experience.

Critics say he embraced oligarchs and undermined government oversight. People became disillusioned.

Before he became Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a comedian and is seen here performing during the 95th quarter comedy show, in Brovary, Ukraine.
/ Pavlo Conchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Pavlo Conchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Before he became Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a comedian and is seen here performing during the 95th Quarter comedy show, in Brovary, Ukraine.

"Zelenskyy has a controversial reputation," says Kaleniuk. "He is a good visionary, but not a very good manager. He surrounds himself with 'yes men.'"

But his decision to stay in Kyiv in the early days of the war quickly turned public opinion around. By August, about 90% of Ukrainians said they approved of his job performance. The character actor understood what the Ukrainian people needed in a time of crisis.

As if taking on a new role, Zelenskyy dressed the part. He began wearing military olive green.

"There was a transformation," says Volodymyr Yermolenko, a philosopher and journalist who runs the website Ukraine World. "Zelenskyy is a person who has this capacity of empathy. He creates this image that I'm one of you. The war only enhanced this feeling."

Yermolenko also remarks on the president's physical changes.

"He became much more mature. He has a beard right now. He's doing physical exercise. He's really trying to look like a warrior," he says.

Zelenskyy rallied international support. Six days into the invasion, he addressed the European parliament by video and brought the English interpreter to tears.

Zelenskyy's team tailored each address to its audience.

Speaking to the U.S. Congress in December, this time in English, he quoted another wartime leader, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, drawing huge rounds of applause.

The relentless, carefully crafted messages paid off. NATO allies have sent more than $40 billion in weapons to Ukraine.

Zelenskyy's start as a wartime president was faltering

To appreciate how much Zelenskyy's image and stature have changed in the past year, consider his performance leading up to the war.

I saw him in the Kherson region less than two weeks before the invasion. He was there to observe drills to defend against Russian sabotage. Afterward, Zelenskyy gave an impromptu news conference in which he was defensive and confusing. U.S. officials had warned Russia would launch a massive invasion, but Zelenskyy downplayed it.

"I believe that today in the information space there is too much information about a full-scale war," said the president, standing in the middle of a street before a table stacked with microphones.

Then, he told the assembled foreign reporters that if they knew something he didn't, they should provide him with intelligence.

"Please give us this information," he said.

In a later interview with the Washington Post, Zelenskyy acknowledged he had known an invasion was coming. He said he didn't tell the Ukrainian people to prevent panic and damage to the country's economy.

Many in Ukraine seem to accept his explanation, but they also say Zelenskyy's government failed to prepare the country to defend itself. That has made a lot of people angry, including Tetiana Chornovol.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives for a press conference on April 23, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
/ John Moore/Getty Images
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John Moore/Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives for a press conference on April 23, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Chornovol served in Ukraine's parliament from 2014 to 2019. Later, she joined the military. I met her in the Kherson region last fall, where her job was to fire small missiles at Russian armor.

Chornovol says that – before the war – the Ukrainian army left the route north of Kyiv open to invasion, even failing to mine bridges to stop a Russian advance.

"What was done was simply criminal," said Chornovol, who proudly showed me her missile launcher which was camouflaged with Astroturf. "There was no preparation for the invasion. Kyiv was not fortified in any way."

Collaborators helped Russia in the early days of the war

The situation was even worse in the south, where the Russians rolled into Kherson almost unimpeded.

Jack Watling, senior researcher in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says a brigade and a half of troops were supposed to be deployed to the area, but weren't. Ukrainian officers warned higher-ups the south was vulnerable to a Russian attack.

"Certainly in the south, the level of collaboration with the Russians was higher than in other areas," says Watling.

Former leaders in the region also say an area near the border with Crimea was de-mined before the Russians invaded.

Because Ukraine remains at war, parliamentarians are careful not to launch domestic political attacks. But Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a Ukrainian lawmaker with the opposition European Solidarity party, says she and others will be asking tough questions about what happened in the south as soon as — she says — Ukraine defeats Russia.

People here blame the swift loss of the region on the SBU, Ukraine's intelligence service. In July, Zelenskyy fired the head of the SBU, Ivan Bakanov, a longtime friend who had no security experience.

Kaleniuk says the episode illustrates Zelenskyy's limitations.

"He's a good president during war," she says. "He's not a very good president during a non-war period. His largest weakness is that he trusts people who are his friends and he is not tolerating different opinions."

As a young adult, Zelenskyy focused on show business, not politics

Zelenskyy grew up in the southern industrial city of Kryvyi Rih.

Alina Fialko-Smal was an actor there at the time. She says Zelenskyy used to watch her troupe perform and sought advice on becoming a dramatic actor. She discouraged Zelenskyy, who is under 5-foot-6.

"You are small, you have a hoarse voice, you are useless," she recalls telling him. "Go in some other direction."

She says she suggested comedy.

Zelenskyy studied law at Kryvyi Rih Economic Institute, where his father is a renowned educator. Natalya Voloshanyuk, a finance professor, recalls Volodymyr as clever, funny and self-confident.

One day, she says, another professor confronted him in a hallway over behavior she didn't like.

"She said, 'You should be proud that you study at this university,' " Voloshanyuk recalls, "to which he replied, 'One day you will be proud that you taught me.' "

Zelenskyy's career path has been audacious and inventive, moving from entertainment to his improbable role as global symbol of democracy. Yermolenko, the philosopher, thinks Zelenskyy's shape-shifting nature is a way to understand him and to understand Ukraine since it became an independent country some three decades ago.

"The Soviet Union collapsed and out of this anarchy, you can create something new," Yermolenko says. "I think Zelenskyy's one of one of those people. The good thing is that these people think that impossible is nothing and you can create anything."

The bad thing, he says, is that amateurs can end up in crucial positions. Yermolenko didn't vote for Zelenskyy.

He's not sure he will vote for him in the next election, whenever that is.

But he says this of Ukraine's president:

"People really recognize themselves in him, identify themselves with him, or he identifies himself with the people. And I think this is the most important thing."

Kateryna Malofieieva, Ross Pelekh and NPR London producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.