Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy? The past, present and future of the Ukrainian president
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with President Joe Biden in December 2022 in the U.S., marking his first trip outside of Ukraine since Russia began its invasion of the country in February.
Biden invited Zelenskyy to address Congress to reinforce the U.S. “stands with Ukraine for as long as it takes.” Zelenskyy has entered the international eye largely since the war began and is TIME Magazine's Person of the Year 2022.
Here’s what you need to know about the Ukrainian leader:
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Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
Zelenskyy is the sixth President of Ukraine, elected in April 2019. The 44-year-old unseated incumbent Petro Poroshenko with 73% of the vote. Poroshenko had been in office since 2014.
Since Russia invaded in February 2022, Zelenskyy has been the face of Ukrainian resistance, notably for his visibility online and his pleas to other countries for support. When Russian state media began spreading misinformation that Zelenskyy had fled Kyiv, Zelenskyy filmed himself in the streets of the capital saying that he would not leave Ukraine. He also declined the U.S. invitation to help him evacuate the city, saying “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Zelenskyy was born in southern Ukraine in 1978 and is fluent in Russian, Ukrainian and English. He relocated to Mongolia with his family as a child before returning to Ukraine and entering school.
Zelenskyy graduated with a law degree from Kyiv National Economic University, but became active in theater as a student and would later pursue that rather than law.
Zelenskyy's grandfather, Semyon Ivanovich Zelenskyy, fought for the Soviet Union during World War II. Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, had family members who were killed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
Shortly before his inauguration in 2019, Zelenskyy visited the grave of his grandfather in his hometown of Kryvy Rih on May 9 in what he called his family's "Thanksgiving," also known as Victory Day: the anniversary of the day Nazi Germany surrendered.
"Thanksgiving for the fact that the inhuman ideology of Nazism is a thing of the past, thanksgiving to those who fought against Nazism – and won, thanksgiving everyone for the opportunity to be born and live," he wrote in a Facebook post. "No one has the right to privatize this victory, to say that it could have happened without Ukrainians. We remember those who had lost their lives. And we honor those who are still alive, there are very few of them left."
Before he was President, Zelenskyy was an actor and comedian
Zelenskyy’s career in entertainment includes comedy, acting, screenwriting, producing and directing roles. In 2003, he founded production company Studio Kvartal 95 with school friends. Kvartal 95 produces films, cartoons and comedy shows, including “Servant of the People,” perhaps Zelenskyy’s most well-known role other than the highest seat in Ukraine.
In “Servant of the People,” which ran from 2015-2019, Zelenskyy plays a Ukrainian high school teacher whose tirade against government corruption goes viral and lands him as president of Ukraine.
It was this show that served as Zelenskyy’s path forward into the presidency — the show was a hit and Kvartal 95 registered Servant of the People as a political party in Ukraine in 2018 to promote Zelenskyy’s campaign. Servant of the People follows a “Ukrainian centrism” approach when it comes to ideology, rather than nationalism, communism or neoliberalism, Kyiv Post reports.
Zelenskyy and the United States
It was a conversation between former President Donald trump and Zelenskyy that led to the House filing an impeachment inquiry against Trump in 2019.
In August 2019, an unnamed official in the intelligence community filed a complaint saying Trump had a phone call with Zelenskyy. In the call, Trump urged the Ukrainian president to investigate Burisma Group, a Ukrainian energy company for which President Joe Biden's son Hunter had served on the board of directors, as his administration was holding up millions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine approved by Congress.
After Trump was acquitted, Zelenskyy pushed back on Trump's claims that Ukraine was a corrupt country.
Most of the Biden administration's relations with Ukraine have been concerning the Russian invasion. In 2021, Zelenskyy appealed to Biden to let Ukraine join NATO. Despite a long standing intention to join, Ukraine is still not a NATO member but is a NATO partner country.
Zelenskyy's visit to the U.S. marks the 300th day since Russian invasion. The U.S. has provided about $68 billion in military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and lawmakers are about to vote on an additional $45 billion in emergency assistance.
Biden and Zelenskyy are scheduled to hold a joint press conference Wednesday, and the U.S. president is expected to commit $2 billion in additional U.S. security assistance to Ukraine amid Russian missile and drone bombing.
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Who is Zelenskyy’s wife?
Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska is a longtime comedy writer. She was born to an engineer and professor and was in junior high school when Ukraine gained independence in 1991. She and Zelenskyy — last names are gendered in Ukrainian — met in high school and started dating in university, she told Vogue.
Zelenska graduated with a degree in architecture but, like her husband, wanted to pursue satirical comedy. Zelenska helped found Kvartal 95.
Zelenska traveled to the U.S. to appeal to Congress in July, asking for the U.S. to stand with Ukraine and provide more weapons to protect the country. She also thanked the U.S. for the billions of dollars already committed to aiding Ukraine.
"You help us and your help is very strong," Zelenska said. "While Russia kills, America saves, and you should know about it. We thank you for that."
In an interview with NBC News, Zelenska noted the toll the Russian invasion has taken on children.
“Before the war, my son used to go to the folk dance ensemble. He played piano. He learned English. He of course attended sports club,” Zelenska said through a translator. “And now, I cannot bring him back to doing arts and humanities. The only thing he wants to do is martial arts and how to use a rifle.”
The pair share two children, Kyryrlo, 9, and Oleksandra, 18.
Contributing: Jordan Mendoza
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy? Ukraine president's childhood, career