How Ukraine's President Zelenskyy Transformed from Popular Comedian to Wartime Leader

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also an actor and producer, won his country's Dancing With the Stars and voiced Paddington bear — now in his most important role, he is the face of a nation under attack

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
President Zelensky. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty

The YouTube video shows scenes of Paddington bear interspersed with clips of the voice behind the Ukrainian version of the character, a smiling and baby-faced actor and comedian named Volodymyr Zelenskyy wearing headphones and talking into a microphone.

Since this news emerged about Ukraine's president, another little-known role of his surfaced: in 2006 he won Ukraine's Dancing with the Stars and the clips have gone viral.

"So apparently Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006 and the tape is even better than whatever you're imagining," tweeted one user.

They are comforting images juxtaposed with the horrors of Russia's attack on Ukraine, and show a life that seems so far removed from Zelenskyy, 44, who has became an overnight wartime hero to many.

* For more on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including stories from those on the ground, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

President Zelenskyy
President Zelensky voicing Paddington Bear.

Zelenskyy's selfie videos from the capital, vowing to continue the fight, have gone viral. And the married Jewish father of two, a prime target of Russian killers along with his family, rebuffed a U.S. offer to evacuate him, with swagger: "I need ammunition, not a ride."

His bravery "is emboldening his people to oppose Russian troops," John E. Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and senior director of the the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

It's certainly stirred Oleksandra Zubal, an IT professional from Ukraine who didn't vote for Zelenskyy but now says he's "turned into a leader."

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
President Zelensky. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty

Zelenskyy has inspired not only Ukrainians but the rest of the world.

"He's been broadcasting himself, doing selfie takes from the middle of a war zone, reassuring his countrymen that he's there with them, that he's sharing their danger, that he's sharing their pain," says Paul Kolbe, a former CIA officer now the director of the Intelligence Project at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center. "And he's channeling their courage and helping to magnify it."

"This leadership in the face of grave personal anger," he adds, "is nothing short of stunning."

Zelenskyy's past as an actor and comedian has helped him in his life's most important role, says Herbst. "He is a world class entertainer. So he understands the mood of people," he says. "To be an effective comedian, you have to be able to read an audience. And the public dimension of his work right now is really, really important."

President Zelenskyy
President Zelensky. Brendan Hoffman/Getty

It's not so unusual for a TV or film star to make it as a politician, says Herbst, citing Presidents Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former California governor. "This is not so strange," he says.

Before taking office in May 2019, Zelenskyy, whose first language was Russian, was known for doing comedy sketches. He was also a producer and starred in movies, including 2012's Corporal vs. Napoleon, where the Russians try to outsmart Napoleon, played by Zelenskyy.

"He was popular in Russia as well as in Ukraine," says Herbst, noting that when Putin made "ridiculous claims" that there are Nazis at the top of Ukrainian leadership, "it's hard for that to jive with the Russian people, because they know him as a comedian, not as some dangerous figure and also because he's Jewish." (Many in Zelenskyy's family died in the Holocaust, and his grandfather fought the Nazis.)

For Zelenskyy's last fictional role in the television sitcom Servant of the People, he played a high school teacher improbably elected president of Ukraine.

The show, which ran from 2015 to 2019, made made him a well-known household name — and led into a real-life plot twist, when he won the presidency in a 2019 landslide.

At the time, says Herbst, who met Zelenskyy about four months before the election, "he didn't know much about foreign policy," he says.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Sean Gallup/Getty

Many Americans first got to know Zelenskyy when Trump was impeached following a July 2019 phone call with Zelenskyy. Trump, then the U.S. president, tried to make $400 million in much-needed military aid conditional — if Zelenskyy would conduct sham investigations into Trump's political rival Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter.

"I think he was flabbergasted, shocked and dismayed that overt blackmail would come from a sitting president," says Kolbe.

Now Zelenskyy is deftly dealing with Putin, who "considered and considers Zelenskyy to be an amateur," says Herbst. "I can tell you, he has not been an amateur in dealing with Putin."

Ukrainians like Zubal, 36, have been inspired. "We see his decisions as correct and strong," she says. "He is handling the crisis well, we all respect and support him."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

Related Articles