Who Is Ukraine President (and Former Actor-Comedian) Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

Ukraine's sixth president found himself in the spotlight and at the center of tensions between the West and Russia when war broke out in February 2022

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: Ukrainian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

One year after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the world spotlight is firmly on Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine's wartime president who launched his career as a comedic actor.

Here's more about the 45-year-old leader.

He's played the president of Ukraine on TV

After earning a law degree from the Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics, Zelenskyy entered the entertainment industry, joining a competitive comedy team and going on to work as an actor.

Eventually, that led to roles in major feature films and work as an entertainment executive and, in 2015, a starring role as the president of Ukraine on the popular television series Servant of the People.

The show, as outlined by IMDB, followed a Ukrainian school teacher who, after going viral for criticizing the government, is elected as the country's president.

In some ways, Zelenskyy himself went on to do the same.

Olena Zelenska
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, first lady Olena Zelenska and their two children. olenazelenska_official/Instagram

He was elected after running a largely virtual campaign

Observers say much of Zelenskyy's political success can be attributed to the unrest and revolution of 2014, when popular protest brought down Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovich.

By 2019, the disenchantment with the country's political elite had become even further ingrained, helping propel a political outsider to the highest office.

Zelenskyy — who ran with no party affiliation and no clear team of expert advisers until days before the election — attended no in-person campaign events and held no rallies, instead turning to social media to make a name for himself.

After appearing in a slew of YouTube and Instagram posts and making television appearances, he handily won a first-round election and later, a runoff, becoming Ukraine's sixth president.

Zelenskyy is married to Ukrainian architect and screenwriter Olena Volodymyrivna Zelenska and the couple have two children: Oleksandra and Kyrylo.

He played a passive role in Donald Trump's first impeachment

In 2019, Zelenskyy made headlines when it was reported that U.S. President Donald Trump had pressured him to investigate alleged wrongdoings by political rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. That scandal ultimately led to Trump's first impeachment by the House of Representatives.

(Trump was acquitted by the Republican Senate; no evidence has emerged that the Bidens committed crimes.)

He became an international hero after finding himself in the cross-hairs

Zelenskyy campaigned on easing tensions with Russia, but it was not enough to dissuade Putin from amassing troops on the border last February as he began to claim parts of Ukraine belonged to Russia.

In a televised address delivered as it became clear that the Russian invasion would soon begin, Zelenskyy said Ukraine "will not give anything to anyone."

He continued: "This is our choice. We are on our land. We're not afraid of anyone and everyone."

While some analysts worried early on that he was too politically inexperienced to stand up to the Russian autocrat, Zelenskyy has become something of an international hero and a symbol for strength.

Even as Russian troops began to enter Ukraine, and Russian bombs and missiles exploded within its borders, Zelenskyy refused to leave, often taking to social media in his now-trademark military outfit, a symbol of patriotism with his countrymen who have taken up arms amid the war.

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."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty

He's been honored by Time and received the JFK Profile in Courage Award

In May 2022, Zelenskyy was awarded the JFK Profile in Courage award, with Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of late President John F. Kennedy, saying the leader had "inspired the world." Zelenskyy accepted the award remotely as the invasion dragged on.

"In a few exceptional cases when their political courage has inspired the world, we have given the Profile in Courage Award to an international elected official — and tonight is one of those," Kennedy, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2013 until 2017 and was recently confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Australia, said at the Sunday evening ceremony. "President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine is doing the impossible every day."

She continued: "His courage and his defense of democracy is reminding us all of what is most precious and fundamental to our way of life. His bravery and courage are only exceeded by that of the people of Ukraine—and they are unifying the world, including Americans, to fight for freedom and the rule of law."

In December of last year, Zelenskyy was again recognized for his courageous wartime leadership when Time magazine named him — along with "the spirit of Ukraine" — its 2022 Person of the Year.

"Zelenskyy's success as a wartime leader has relied on the fact that courage is contagious," Time reporter Simon Shuster wrote about Zelenskyy's actions in the early moments of the invasion, when he famously refused to leave Kyiv, inspiring his people to fight and earning the status of a wartime hero around the world.

"It spread through Ukraine's political leadership in the first days of the invasion, as everyone realized the President had stuck around," added Shuster.

In the piece, Shuster also noted that just two months after the first invasion, Zelenskyy told him that he had aged and changed as a result of the war, describing it as "all this wisdom that I never wanted."

Explaining that Russia had been looking to capture Ukraine for the past century, Zelenskyy added that he intended to make the current invasion their final ever attempt — though he acknowledged it would take more time and sadly require lots more sacrifice.

"Later we will be judged," he told Time. "I have not finished this great, important action for our country. Not yet."

US President Joe Biden and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy walk to the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday December 21, 2022.
Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty

He visited the U.S. in December to meet with President Biden

In December 2022, he made his first trip outside his home country since the Russian invasion began flying to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Biden.

In a statement issued at the time, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that the visit comes 300 days after "Russia launched a brutal assault against Ukraine."

"The visit will underscore the United States' steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, including through the provision of economic, humanitarian, and military assistance," Jean-Pierre added.

Biden and Zelenskyy exchanged gifts and held a joint press conference before the Ukrainian leader spoke before the U.S. Congress, making the case for continuing to fund Ukraine's defenses before receiving standing ovations from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

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