When, on New Year’s Eve 2018, Volodymyr Zelensky “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 (pictured), in which he played a “history teacher who unexpectedly becomes head of state”. He was in fact deadly serious. Zelensky 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, Zelensky 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”.
Given Zelensky’s current status as a “Ukrainian Churchill”, it’s no surprise that a British publisher has rushed out an Englishlanguage 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 Zelensky’s well-buffed halo”. Rudenko records how, despite pledging to end cronyism, Zelensky packed his government with pals from the TV world: one, Ivan Bakanov, “went from producing sitcoms to heading Ukraine’s SBU security service”. And Zelensky 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. Zelensky 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 Zelensky’s remarkable transformation, from someone who seemed like some kind of “postmodern joke” into a “modern David standing up to the brutal Russian Goliath”.