The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zelensky’s path from floundering president to wartime leader

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv last month. Russia's invasion has put a spotlight on his leadership skills. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ukrainian political analyst Serhii Rudenko has written the first major biography of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to appear in English. In announcing the publication of “Zelensky,” Polity, which is putting out the work, translated by Michael M. Naydan and Alla Perminova, noted that Rudenko, who has written other works on Ukrainian politicians, is based in Ukraine and was “responding to emails from a bomb shelter.” Any review of this book must begin with the acknowledgment that its very existence — much like the transformation of a man from TV star to stumbling president to nearly universally admired wartime hero — is no small feat. There is, after all, a war going on in Ukraine, as there has been since late February.

This is more a biography of a presidency than of the president. Though the book spends some time on other moments in his life — the year of his birth, the launch of his acting career and his wife all have chapters — the vast majority takes place between 2018 and 2022, between Zelensky’s decision to run for president and his presidency thus far.

The book is not organized chronologically, making it somewhat hard to keep track of what happened when, and who was in and out of favor with Zelensky at various points. Nor is it organized thematically. Or rather, each chapter has a theme — Zelensky’s relationship to a given person, or a particular world event — but there does not appear to be much rhyme or reason as to why any given chapter follows another.

It should also be said that the book is somewhat awkwardly translated and that sometimes the author directly contradicts himself. “Those who took the actor’s performance to be a famous comedian’s joke had no idea that Zelensky had already decided to run for president a long time before,” he writes of Zelensky’s Dec. 31, 2018, televised campaign announcement. On the next page, he writes, “Zelensky himself, according to the former Head of the Office of the President Andriy Bohdan, didn’t make the final decision to participate in the presidential campaign until December 31, 2018.”

More concerningly, the chapter on Zelensky’s dealings with President Donald Trump contains a glaring factual error. “The American press urged Trump to put pressure on his Ukrainian counterpart to speed up the investigation into Biden’s son,” Rudenko writes. This is not what happened. Many believed that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son with the goal of hurting a domestic political opponent (namely, Biden); the American press then reported on it. Rudenko goes on to say that had Zelensky investigated the son, Biden, as U.S. president, might not have provided such staunch support to Ukraine. This seems to slightly miss the point, which is that Ukraine, a sovereign state, was being used for domestic political purposes. For American readers less familiar with the ins and outs of Ukrainian politics than Trump’s impeachment saga, such as myself, the Trump chapter casts doubt on the rest of Rudenko’s analysis.

Perhaps most frustratingly, although Rudenko often draws comparisons between the various crises of Zelensky’s presidency and the strength and resolve he’s displayed since Russia began its all-out assault on Ukraine, he spends considerably less time analyzing how the same person was capable of being all these things: TV star, clown, reported oligarchic ally, disappointing president and heroic wartime leader.

Toward the end of the book, Rudenko writes, “Everyone in Ukraine today, without exception, has just one enemy, the victory over which the existence of the Ukrainian state depends.” There is no doubt that the actions and choices of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have fortified and unified the Ukrainian people. “Zelensky is no longer playing the role of the president. He is the leader of a nation that, with weapons in its hands, is defending its freedom and independence.” But what was it that allowed him to transform from one to the other?

Despite all of that, there are some high points in the book. The chapters about Zelensky and members of his presidential team at various points of his administration are especially strong and read as crackling little political dramas. The chapter on Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch to whom the president is reportedly tied (though at some points more than others, as the book makes clear), is especially biting. It’s hard to think of a better opening to any chapter of any recent book than: “Legends abound about this person. One of them is that, at a business party, he cut off part of the tie of one of his top managers with a cake knife.”

Even with all the jumping back and forth across time and theme, certain truths emerge about Ukrainian politics and Zelensky: Ukraine has long been plagued by corruption and nepotism. Politicians have promised to do better and then have gone back to the status quo. And Russia, in threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty, has managed to unite Ukrainians and turn a floundering president into a leader.

But the war isn’t over yet, and neither is Ukraine’s history. Neither, for that matter, is Zelensky’s story. This book, for all its flaws, is a first picture of this person in this place at this time. One hopes that, in the not-too-distant future, the war will be over, the story will continue and there will be other books to join it.

Emily Tamkin is senior U.S. editor at the New Statesman. She is the author of “The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society” and the forthcoming “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities.”

Zelensky

A Biography

By Serhii Rudenko

Translated by Michael M. Naydan and Alla Perminova

Polity. 208 pp. $25

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