Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko – a ‘quirky and fascinating’ book

Biography is ‘hastily written and translated’, but does capture a remarkable transformation

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy behind a podium
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a joint press conference with Australia’s prime minister following a meeting in Kyiv on 3 July 2022
(Image credit: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

When, on New Year’s Eve 2018, Volodymyr Zelenskyy “interrupted his own show” to announce on national television that he was standing as Ukraine’s president, “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 People, in which he played a “history teacher who unexpectedly becomes head of state”.

He was in fact deadly serious. Zelenskyy had formed a political party, Servant of the People, and in April 2019, he swept to power with a 73% majority in Ukraine’s presidential elections (six percentage points more than his fictional counterpart).

Today, of course, Zelenskyy is known as the “courageous wartime president” who “captured the world’s imagination” with his defiant to-camera speeches. This biography, by the Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko, offers a “quirky and fascinating” portrait of a man who is perhaps the closest thing in modern politics “to a mythical hero”.

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Given Zelenskyy’s current status as a “Ukrainian Churchill”, it’s no surprise that a British publisher has rushed out an English-language version of Rudenko’s book, said Colin Freeman in The Daily Telegraph. “Expect to see it prominently placed on Tory MPs’ bookshelves during TV interviews.” Yet whether they’ll read it is another matter, for this is very much an “insider’s account”, aimed at a Ukrainian audience – and one that makes “no effort to polish Zelenskyy’s well-buffed halo”.

Rudenko records how, despite pledging to end cronyism, Zelenskyy packed his government with pals from the TV world: one, Ivan Bakanov, “went from producing sitcoms to heading Ukraine’s SBU security service”. And Zelenskyy soon gained a reputation for intolerance: “those who challenged him” were promptly sacked.

He proved inept in other ways, said Lyse Doucet in The New Statesman. In his early dealings with other world leaders, he was, Rudenko notes, “visibly nervous”. And his economics minister was recorded telling journalists that his boss had a “fog in his head” when it came to figures, said Andrew Anthony in The Observer. But none of this matters much any more. Zelenskyy is exactly what “Ukraine requires right now”: a brilliant rhetorician who can “motivate and mobilise a people under savage assault”.

Rudenko’s book is “hastily written and translated” – but it does at least capture Zelenskyy’s remarkable transformation, from someone who seemed like some kind of “postmodern joke” into a “modern David standing up to the brutal Russian Goliath”.

Polity 200p £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

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