Zelenskyy Opens Up About Family, the War, and Secretly Venturing Out of His Compound Amid the Fighting

Speaking to Time, the Ukrainian president shared how he has secretly ventured out of his compound to meet with those on the ground, and take in the atrocities firsthand

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes a speech on evaluation the 22nd day of the Russia-Ukraine war during virtually addressing in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 17, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Photo: Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Despite the horrors and bloodshed of war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says his sense of humor remains intact. More than that, "It's a means of survival," he tells Time in a sprawling new profile, conducted from the compound where he's been in hiding.

Zelenskyy knows humor well. At age 44, he became an overnight wartime hero to many, as Russia invaded Ukraine.

His selfie videos from the capital, vowing to continue the fight, quickly went viral. As did his rebuff of a U.S. offer to evacuate him from danger, when he declared, "I need ammunition, not a ride."

But before taking office in May 2019, Zelenskyy was known for doing comedy sketches, serving as a producer and starring in movies, including 2012's Corporal vs. Napoleon, where the Russians try to outsmart Napoleon, played by Zelenskyy.

Speaking to Time, Zelenskyy — who has two children, 17-year-old Oleksandra and 9-year-old Kyrylo, with Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska — acknowledged that he has become a "symbol," adding that the attention is why he has been so steadfast about remaining in the country.

"You understand that they're watching," he tells the outlet. "You're a symbol. You need to act the way the head of state must act."

But many of his actions amid the war have been more than merely symbolic, such as when he secretly ventured out of his compound in early March, when the Russians were still shelling Kyiv and trying to encircle the capital.

"We made the decision to go on the fly," says Yermak, his chief of staff tells Time of the impromptu trip, which Zelenskyy made in secret with two friends and a group of bodyguards (who Zelenskyy notes were "losing their minds").

Days after that, the group took another trip, this time to a checkpoint near the edge of the ctity to meet a man who made borscht for the troops each day. Time reports that, "within range of enemy snipers and artillery," Zelenskyy and his group had soup and bread with the man, recounting the history of the Soviet Union and what Russia had since become.

Still, the Ukrainian leader worries that those outside the country will eventually tire of the war.

"People see this war on Instagram, on social media," he tells Time. "When they get sick of it, they will scroll away."

For Zelenskyy, it is never-ending. In early April, he made headlines when he traveled to the besieged city of Bucha, where Russians were recently accused of killing some 300 civilians (and, in some cases, torturing civilians) during their occupation.

Speaking to Time about the travesty in Bucha, Zelenskyy recalled one particular image taken there that haunted him, of a woman who had been beheaded in an explosion. "She was wearing these bright, memorable clothes," Zelenskyy says.

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched their large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but in addition to the civilian deaths, which are difficult to determine amid the fighting, more than 4 million have fled the country as refugees — and half are children, according to the United Nations. Millions more have been displaced inside Ukraine.

The invasion, ordered by Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces amassed in the region, various countries are offering aid or military support to the resistance. Zelenskyy has called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Russian President Vladimir Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

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.

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