.
B

orrowing Harold Macmillan’s response to what the greatest challenge is for a statesman, it’s “events, dear boy, events” on which the world turns—and that is certainly true in Volodymyr Zelensky’s case. Indeed, it is wholly possible that without the war, Zelensky would have remained unknown to most, aside from his small part in the events of President Donald Trump’s first impeachment or perhaps his entertaining popular roles. Instead, he went from an actor and comedian, to an unexpected president, and on to become a Winston Churchill-esque figure rallying both his country and the West in the face of Russia’s aggression.

Zelensky: A Biography | Serhii Rudenko | Polity

Serhii Rudenko’s biography of Zelensky (kindly provided by the publisher for review) offers a touch more insight into the man and president, but does not offer a fully formed figure in the end. Its unconventional structure presents a series of episodes rather than a linear narrative biography. Not unlike Zelenky’s “Servant of the People” television program, each “episode” is self-contained, providing a glimpse into parts of Zelensky, his background, and those that exist in his orbit along with some contemporary Ukrainian history.

It is a novel approach, but given that it was originally written in Ukrainian for a Ukrainian audience (and swiftly, though superbly, translated), it assumes quite a bit from a Western reader and leaves a lot about Zelensky himself, unknown—something other reviewers have also noted. Rudenko writes with literary winks and nods to people and events that one imagines a Ukrainian would recognize, but while a Western reader can read and appreciate these at a superficial level, much is lost to those who are not in on the joke.  

Zelensky seems to have been the right person at the right place at the right time—on more than one occasion. Zelensky’s 2019 election was less about him being the best candidate for the job and more a function of the country’s absolute exhaustion with corruption and cronyism. After Russia’s invasion, he was again in the right place at the right time. He became a figure the country could and did rally around—and to whom the West could provide, as of yet, unending support. Had the war not happened, it is curious to think of how Zelensky would be assessed and what his legacy would have been.

The Zelensky that emerges from Rudenko’s biography is certainly more complex and nuanced than that which has appeared virtually before Congress, the Houses of Parliament in London, the Cannes Film Festival, and nearly everything in between since the invasion. It is not hagiography and Rudenko’s writing may strike readers with its candid commentary on Zelensky. At times he comes across as politically naïve, occasionally unserious, and certainly not the composed figure the West would recognize today. Rudenko’s Zelensky lives within a political system that suffers from significant corruption (his connections to Ihor Kolomoisky—a Ukrainian oligarch suspected of significant corruption—is evidence of his own existence within the system) and political sclerosis, but has not an insignificant amount of hope and aspiration for the future despite struggling to overcome the systemic shortcomings.

In Zelensky’s defense, he seems to have had lofty expectations foisted upon him—he was so outside of the mainstream and so different—that perhaps he alone could force the system to change. There is a touch of similarity with President Barack Obama in that way. The junior senator from Illinois came to be all things to all people and faced expectations that were unrealistic from the start. While Zelensky campaigned on a position of “no to nepotism and no to friends in power”—promising a meritocratic and technocratic future—he quickly brought in a cadre of allies from his entertainment days. According to Rudenko, “a year after his election, the Poroshenko [the previous president who Zelensky succeeded] family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by Kvartal 95 Studio.” Rudenko closes that chapter writing, “Zelensky’s path resembled that of his predecessors. With all the associated risks and consequences.”

In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky and his team’s management of the information war has been superb. Zelensky is someone who knows the importance of performance. He, and those around him, quickly understood his role in this geopolitical powerplay—masterfully selling Ukraine and its defense to the West. Filming before historically important sites in Kyiv, instantly familiar to all Ukrainians, or his perhaps apocryphal quote that he didn’t need a ride out of the country, but needed ammo—Zelensky is a master showman.

Zelensky is a carefully packaged and sold aspirational figure. He appears to embody that which many in the West wish to have in their own countries. A leader of single-minded determination, he embodies the Ukrainian’s people’s will to survive and against a villain that Hollywood could not have better crafted. He is the hero of this story. At a time when the West found itself listless and lacking direction, divided over COVID, and ostensibly pivoting toward a far more complicated challenge in China, here comes Zelensky and Ukraine. Here was something the West could tackle, together.

The success of this campaign is palpable. How many people in the United States are displaying St. Javelin stickers or flying Ukraine’s flag? It is one of the few issues in Congress that enjoys near unanimous bipartisan support. It certainly helps that Russia neatly fits existing stereotypes and prejudices, while Ukraine is the plucky underdog standing up against the historical bully.

Former President George W. Bush compared Zelensky to Winston Churchill—evidence further of the lofty expectations of Ukraine’s president. Much like Churchill, one wonders how Ukraine will judge him after the war. Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure are devastated. It will take billions of dollars and years of investment to rehabilitate the country to its pre-war levels, let alone to the standards of Western Europe. Will the Ukrainian people support Zelensky after the guns have fallen silent and reconstruction begins? How long will Ukrainians tolerate lower living standards, poor infrastructure, a depressed economy, and a likely unresolved eastern border? Churchill saw Great Britain through the Blitz and onto victory only to be voted out of power when the war ended. Will Ukraine too show Zelensky the door?

Rudenko’s biography is generally positive, but it is a far more critical portrait than most in the West have encountered. However, the biography’s critical elements do not detract from Zelensky’s skill or leadership. Far from it. It is doubtful any of his predecessors could have led the country as skillfully or as successfully, let alone rally the world to his support. Undoubtedly even Vladimir Putin underestimated Zelensky. He has neem the right person in the right place at the right time in history—and sometimes that’s all it takes.  

In the end, “Zelensky: A Biography” isn’t a true biography. It is certainly not the definitive book on the president and will not be the last. Nonetheless, it presents a more nuanced and human portrait of Ukraine’s president and in so doing makes his leadership in the present war that much more impressive.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Zelensky: Servant of the Ukrainian People

Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by Kyrylo Kholopkin via Unsplash.

July 2, 2022

In his review of Serhii Rudenko’s Zelensky, Joshua Huminski examines how the Ukrainian president was the right person at the right, albeit tragic, time, and finds a more complex and nuanced person, which makes Zelensky’s wartime leadership all the more impressive.

B

orrowing Harold Macmillan’s response to what the greatest challenge is for a statesman, it’s “events, dear boy, events” on which the world turns—and that is certainly true in Volodymyr Zelensky’s case. Indeed, it is wholly possible that without the war, Zelensky would have remained unknown to most, aside from his small part in the events of President Donald Trump’s first impeachment or perhaps his entertaining popular roles. Instead, he went from an actor and comedian, to an unexpected president, and on to become a Winston Churchill-esque figure rallying both his country and the West in the face of Russia’s aggression.

Zelensky: A Biography | Serhii Rudenko | Polity

Serhii Rudenko’s biography of Zelensky (kindly provided by the publisher for review) offers a touch more insight into the man and president, but does not offer a fully formed figure in the end. Its unconventional structure presents a series of episodes rather than a linear narrative biography. Not unlike Zelenky’s “Servant of the People” television program, each “episode” is self-contained, providing a glimpse into parts of Zelensky, his background, and those that exist in his orbit along with some contemporary Ukrainian history.

It is a novel approach, but given that it was originally written in Ukrainian for a Ukrainian audience (and swiftly, though superbly, translated), it assumes quite a bit from a Western reader and leaves a lot about Zelensky himself, unknown—something other reviewers have also noted. Rudenko writes with literary winks and nods to people and events that one imagines a Ukrainian would recognize, but while a Western reader can read and appreciate these at a superficial level, much is lost to those who are not in on the joke.  

Zelensky seems to have been the right person at the right place at the right time—on more than one occasion. Zelensky’s 2019 election was less about him being the best candidate for the job and more a function of the country’s absolute exhaustion with corruption and cronyism. After Russia’s invasion, he was again in the right place at the right time. He became a figure the country could and did rally around—and to whom the West could provide, as of yet, unending support. Had the war not happened, it is curious to think of how Zelensky would be assessed and what his legacy would have been.

The Zelensky that emerges from Rudenko’s biography is certainly more complex and nuanced than that which has appeared virtually before Congress, the Houses of Parliament in London, the Cannes Film Festival, and nearly everything in between since the invasion. It is not hagiography and Rudenko’s writing may strike readers with its candid commentary on Zelensky. At times he comes across as politically naïve, occasionally unserious, and certainly not the composed figure the West would recognize today. Rudenko’s Zelensky lives within a political system that suffers from significant corruption (his connections to Ihor Kolomoisky—a Ukrainian oligarch suspected of significant corruption—is evidence of his own existence within the system) and political sclerosis, but has not an insignificant amount of hope and aspiration for the future despite struggling to overcome the systemic shortcomings.

In Zelensky’s defense, he seems to have had lofty expectations foisted upon him—he was so outside of the mainstream and so different—that perhaps he alone could force the system to change. There is a touch of similarity with President Barack Obama in that way. The junior senator from Illinois came to be all things to all people and faced expectations that were unrealistic from the start. While Zelensky campaigned on a position of “no to nepotism and no to friends in power”—promising a meritocratic and technocratic future—he quickly brought in a cadre of allies from his entertainment days. According to Rudenko, “a year after his election, the Poroshenko [the previous president who Zelensky succeeded] family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by Kvartal 95 Studio.” Rudenko closes that chapter writing, “Zelensky’s path resembled that of his predecessors. With all the associated risks and consequences.”

In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky and his team’s management of the information war has been superb. Zelensky is someone who knows the importance of performance. He, and those around him, quickly understood his role in this geopolitical powerplay—masterfully selling Ukraine and its defense to the West. Filming before historically important sites in Kyiv, instantly familiar to all Ukrainians, or his perhaps apocryphal quote that he didn’t need a ride out of the country, but needed ammo—Zelensky is a master showman.

Zelensky is a carefully packaged and sold aspirational figure. He appears to embody that which many in the West wish to have in their own countries. A leader of single-minded determination, he embodies the Ukrainian’s people’s will to survive and against a villain that Hollywood could not have better crafted. He is the hero of this story. At a time when the West found itself listless and lacking direction, divided over COVID, and ostensibly pivoting toward a far more complicated challenge in China, here comes Zelensky and Ukraine. Here was something the West could tackle, together.

The success of this campaign is palpable. How many people in the United States are displaying St. Javelin stickers or flying Ukraine’s flag? It is one of the few issues in Congress that enjoys near unanimous bipartisan support. It certainly helps that Russia neatly fits existing stereotypes and prejudices, while Ukraine is the plucky underdog standing up against the historical bully.

Former President George W. Bush compared Zelensky to Winston Churchill—evidence further of the lofty expectations of Ukraine’s president. Much like Churchill, one wonders how Ukraine will judge him after the war. Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure are devastated. It will take billions of dollars and years of investment to rehabilitate the country to its pre-war levels, let alone to the standards of Western Europe. Will the Ukrainian people support Zelensky after the guns have fallen silent and reconstruction begins? How long will Ukrainians tolerate lower living standards, poor infrastructure, a depressed economy, and a likely unresolved eastern border? Churchill saw Great Britain through the Blitz and onto victory only to be voted out of power when the war ended. Will Ukraine too show Zelensky the door?

Rudenko’s biography is generally positive, but it is a far more critical portrait than most in the West have encountered. However, the biography’s critical elements do not detract from Zelensky’s skill or leadership. Far from it. It is doubtful any of his predecessors could have led the country as skillfully or as successfully, let alone rally the world to his support. Undoubtedly even Vladimir Putin underestimated Zelensky. He has neem the right person in the right place at the right time in history—and sometimes that’s all it takes.  

In the end, “Zelensky: A Biography” isn’t a true biography. It is certainly not the definitive book on the president and will not be the last. Nonetheless, it presents a more nuanced and human portrait of Ukraine’s president and in so doing makes his leadership in the present war that much more impressive.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.