When, on New Year’s Eve 2018, Volodymyr Zelenskyy “interrupted his own show” to announce on national television that he was running for President of Ukraine, “many wondered if it was a joke”, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. After all, the comedian and actor was the star of a hit TV series, servant of the peoplein which he plays a “history teacher who unexpectedly becomes a head of state”.
He was actually deadly serious. Zelenskyy had formed a political party, Servant of the People, and in April 2019 he came to power with a 73% majority in the Ukrainian presidential elections (six percentage points more than his fictional counterpart).
Today, of course, Zelenskyy is known as the “brave wartime president” who “captured the imagination of the world” with his defiant speeches on camera. This biography, by Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko, paints an “offbeat and fascinating” portrait of a man who is perhaps the closest thing in modern politics to “a mythical hero”.
Given Zelenskyy’s current status as “Ukrainian Churchill,” it’s no surprise that a British publisher rushed to publish an English version of Rudenko’s book, Colin Freeman told The Daily Telegraph. “Expect to see it prominently on the shelves of Tory MPs during TV interviews.” But whether they will read it is another matter, as it is indeed an “insider’s tale”, aimed at a Ukrainian audience – and which makes “no effort to polish the well-polished halo of Zelenskyi”.
Rudenko recounts how, despite his promise to end the cronyism, Zelenskyy filled his government with friends from the world of television: one of them, Ivan Bakanov, “went from producing sitcoms to directing the service Ukrainian Security Service SBU”. And Zelenskyy quickly gained a reputation for intolerance: “those who challenged him” were quickly sacked.
He proved incompetent in other ways, Lyse Doucet said in The New Statesman. In his early dealings with other world leaders, he was, Rudenko notes, “visibly nervous.” And his economy minister was recorded telling reporters his boss had a “fog in his head” over the numbers, Andrew Anthony told The Observer. But none of that matters anymore. Zelenskyy is exactly what “Ukraine needs right now”: a brilliant rhetorician who can “motivate and mobilize a people under savage onslaught.”
Rudenko’s book is “hastily written and translated” – but it does at least capture Zelenskyy’s remarkable transformation from someone who looked like some sort of “postmodern joke” into a “modern David standing up to the brutal Russian Goliath “.
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