Volodymyr Zelensky: The Rise of a Comedian turned President

By Riya Jhaveri SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai University:

Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky is Ukraine’s sixth president since May 20, 2019. In the country’s presidential election in April 2019, a former comedian and actor with no political experience won by a landslide against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Prior to campaigning for president, Zelensky held no roles in elective office. Despite his lack of political experience, Zelensky’s anti-corruption campaign garnered popular support, and his sizable internet following translated into a formidable electoral base. During the Russian invasion in February 2022, the world hailed Zelensky’s bravery and commitment to serve his war-torn homeland. The international community praised his bravery in not abandoning the country during the political upheaval, and he was recognized as a wartime leader.[1]

Early Life and Education

Volodymyr Zelensky was born on January 25, 1978, to Jewish parents in Kryvyi Rih, a Russian-speaking industrial district of south-eastern Ukraine. When Zelensky was very young, his family moved to Erdenet, Mongolia, for four years before returning to Kryvyi Rih, where he began school. He was a native Russian speaker during his youth but progressively became fluent in both English and Ukrainian. He enrolled at Kryvyi Rih Economic Institute, the local branch of Kyiv National Economic University, in 1995, and graduated with a law degree in 2000.

Career as an Entertainer

His career was already taking a new path. He had been involved in theatre while still a student, and this became his principal priority. His performance group, Kvartal 95, competed in the televised finals of KVN, a prominent improvisational comedy competition aired throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States, in 1997. Zelensky and Kvartal 95 became KVN regulars, appearing on the show until 2003. That same year, Zelensky cofounded Studio Kvartal 95, which went on to become one of Ukraine’s most successful and productive entertainment studios. Zelensky was the artistic director of Studio Kvartal 95 from its inception until 2011, when he was designated general producer of Ukrainian television channel Inter TV.

Zelensky has worked in a number of films including – Love in the Big City, Office Romance, Our Time, 8 First Dates, I, You, He, She, Svanty and Paddington. In 2012, Zelensky quit Inter TV, and in October of same year, he and Kvartal 95 signed a joint production deal with the Ukrainian network 1+1. At this time he revealed his ambition to enter politics.[2]

Path to the Presidency

In 2015, he appeared in the television series ‘Servant of the People,’ in which he played an anti-corruption politician who later became President of Ukraine. Zelensky was cast in the role of Vasiliy Goloborodko, an ordinary history teacher who becomes a viral Internet sensation after a viral video him delivering a passionate and profanity-laced speech against widespread corruption. The program was a huge success, and Goloborodko’s improbable rise to Ukraine’s presidency served as a model for Zelensky. In consideration of this move, Kvartal 95 formally registered Servant of the People as a political party in Ukraine in 2018.

Zelensky had a very unconventional campaign style which captured the attention of the people. He avoided lengthy policy declarations and news conferences in favor of brief remarks or comedic performances broadcast on YouTube and Instagram. On March 31, 2019, Zelensky received more than 30% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, while Poroshenko came in second with 16%.[3]

Presidency of Ukraine

Zelensky was sworn in as president on May 20, 2019 with 73 per cent votes. In his inauguration address, the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada in a combination of Russian and Ukrainian (Supreme Council) was announced. This was an essential political step because his presidential victory did not give a legislative mandate because Servant of the People did not have any parliamentary seats. On July 21, snap elections were held, and Zelensky himself described the battle as “maybe more crucial than the presidential election.” Servant of the People achieved a landslide victory, taking 254 of 450 seats. As a result, for the first time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, a single party wielded complete power over the legislative agenda.

Within days, the newly elected president faced his first foreign policy problem when Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed his intention to issue Russian passports to Ukrainian residents living in separatist-controlled parts of war-torn eastern Ukraine. The Russian-backed hybrid war which was in its fifth year, and the fighting had displaced hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians. Zelensky mocked the offer in a Facebook post, extending Ukrainian citizenship to Russians and anyone “who suffer from dictatorial or corrupt governments.”[4]

Leadership during the Russia-Ukraine War

Russia launched a huge buildup of troops and equipment at the border with Ukraine in late 2021. Western intelligence services said the steps were an obvious prelude to an invasion, but Putin denied any such intention. Western officials continued to negotiate with both Putin and Zelensky in an attempt to avert the looming bloodbath, but Russia’s military preparations persisted. Putin declared on February 21, 2022, that he would recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and would send “peacekeepers” to both territories. However, Putin declared the start of a “special military action” about 6:00 a.m. Moscow time, and Russian cruise missiles began to rain down on Ukrainian targets.

The unjustified attack garnered outrage from world leaders, and Zelensky attempted to mobilize worldwide support. As world leaders imposed more severe sanctions on Russia, Zelensky attempted to garner international support by warning that a “new Iron Curtain” was coming on Europe. Zelensky became the face of Ukrainian defiance, and his experience in entertainment and media supplied Ukraine with a weapon that Putin could not match. Despite NATO’s reluctance to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, Western countries supplied the country with antitank weaponry and surface-to-air missile systems. Furthermore, the sanctions system imposed on Russia was among the harshest in history, and the Russian economy suffered as a result. [5]


  1. Standard, B., 2022. Who is Volodymyr Zelensky – News, Facts, Life, Education, Family, Political Career. [online] Business Standard. Available at: <https://www.business-standard.com/about/who-is-volodymyr-zelensky#collapse&gt; [Accessed 18 August 2022].
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2022. Volodymyr Zelensky | Biography, Facts, Presidency, & Russian Invasion of Ukraine. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Volodymyr-Zelensky&gt; [Accessed 16 August 2022].
  3. 2022. An Interview with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. [online] Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/08/16/zelensky-interview-transcript/&gt; [Accessed 15 August 2022].
  4. 2022. Volodymyr Zelensky. [online] Available at: <https://www.president.gov.ua/en/president/biografiya&gt; [Accessed 17 August 2022].

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