10 Things You Didn’t Know About Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (commonly transliterated as Zelensky) has made headlines around the world leading Ukraine as it continues to face an invasion from Russia. At the end of February Zelenskyy was christened a war hero when he vowed to stay in his country’s capital of Kyiv and help fend off Russian president Vladimir Putin’s troops. “I am here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state, because our weapons are our truth,” said Zelenskyy, in a video that he filmed himself on the streets of Kyiv. Since that moment the world has been watching (and obsessing) over the 44-year-old leader.

Before becoming Ukraine’s president, Zelenskyy played the president on TV, competed on Dancing With the Stars, and headlined a string of Ukrainian romantic comedies. His life and career have been anything but typical compared to other high-profile international leaders, and he has faced a seemingly unending series of crises since taking office.

Want to know more about the man behind the headlines? Here are 10 things that you probably didn’t know about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

1. Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy (Ukrainian: Володимир Олександрович Зеленський) was born on January 25, 1978 in Kryvyi Rih, then part of the Soviet Union. Raised in a Jewish family, he spent four years in Mongolia with his father Alexander, a computer science professor, and mother Rimma, an engineer, before they returned to Kryvyi Rih. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine in August 1991 unleashed an era of instability in the region.

2. Zelenskyy graduated from the Kyiv National Economic University in 2000 with a law degree, but he decided to pursue a different career. While in University he developed an interest in music and theater, especially the improv and sketch-comedy competitions made popular by the Russian TV show KVN. So, in 1997, while he was still in University he co-founded the comedy troupe Kvartal 95, named after his childhood neighbourhood. When he graduated he began to pursue a career as a performer.

3. After regularly appearing on KVN, Zelenskyy and his colleagues founded the production company Studio Kvartal 95 in 2003. They went on to score a massive hit with Evening Kvartal, a Saturday Night Live-type sketch comedy program that showcased Zelenskyy’s sense of humour and fearlessly mocked political leaders. He was kind of a Jon Stewart–type figure at this point in his career.

4. Zelensky met his wife, Olena Zelenska in college, where she switched from studying architecture to writing. She later became a screenwriter for his production company Studio Kvartal 95. They share two children, the couple’s first daughter, Oleksandra, was born in July 2004. Their son, Kyrylo, was born in January 2013.

5. In 2005, Zelenskyy made his film and screenwriting debut in a musical-comedy version of The Three Musketeers (2004), in which he played D’Artagnan. He went on to write and star in No Love in the City (2009), No Love in the City 2 (2010) and Love in Vegas (2012), which many considered a rip-off of Sex and the City, repackaged for men. Other films Zelenskyy starred in include Corporal vs. Napoleon (2012), 8 First Dates (2012), and Me. You. He. She. (2018).

6. In 2015, Zelenskyy began starring in the role that would set him on the path to the presidency. In the show Servant of the People, he played Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a school teacher who wakes up to find that a rant he made against corrupt politicians went viral and catapulted him to the presidency. In the show Holoborodko was often portrayed as being in over his head, but willing to fight corruption. The show was so popular that it led to Kvartal 95 creating a political party in its name. (The series ended the same year Zelenskyy became the actual president.)

7. In 2006 Zelenskyy not only competed in Ukraine’s version of Dancing With the Stars… he won the competition. Along with his dance partner Olena Shoptenko, Zelenskyy hit the ballroom floor weekly dancing in a variety of styles and wearing an array of costumes including hot pink fringed bell-bottoms, and at another point, dancing wearing a blindfold.

8. Zelenskyy voiced Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian versions of the animated children’s films: Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017).

9. In 2018, Zelenskyy abruptly moved into real politics and announced his candidacy for president under the Servant of the People party. During his campaign, he continued touring with his troupe and mocked his opponents in stand-up routines while frequently hitting social media to promote his campaign and platform. His attitude was similar to his TV character on Servant of the People as he vowed to crack down on corruption and promote a more centrist administration. He went on to win the election in a landslide, taking over 73% of the vote. He was inaugurated in May 2019.

10. Two months after his inaugration, Zelenskyy would become entangled in a major U.S. scandal involving then-President Donald Trump. News emerged that Trump had called Zelenskyy and pressured him to work with Rudy Giuliani and then-Attorney General William Barr to investigate Joe Biden, who was then running against Trump in the presidential election, and his son Hunter. Trump withheld $400 million in congressional aid to Ukraine when Ukrainian officials didn’t comply. Trump denied any wrongdoing, repeatedly saying it was a “perfect call,” but a congressional investigation led to Trump’s impeachment later that year. He was acquitted in the Senate in February 2020.

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