KIEV, UKRAINE FEBRUARY 3, 2022: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan following their talks at the Mariinsky Palace. Zelensky and Erdogan have signed an agreement on a free trade zone. Irina Yakovleva/TASS (Photo by Irina YakovlevaTASS via Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Volodymyr Zelensky

A Jewish comedian who became Ukraine's sixth president in 2019.

Volodymyr Zelensky is a Jewish comedian who was elected the sixth president of Ukraine in April, 2019. 

Zelensky was born in 1978 into a Russian-speaking family in the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. Both his parents are Jewish: His father is a computer scientist and his mother an engineer. His paternal great-grandfather was murdered during the Holocaust as were several of his grandfather’s brothers. Zelensky invoked that history in a speech during his 2020 presidential trip to Israel. 

Little is known about Zelensky’s personal relationship with Judaism. He has described his childhood as an “ordinary Soviet Jewish upbringing,” which has been taken to mean that the family was not religiously observant, as was common under the repressive Communist regime. “I never speak about religion and I never speak about God because I have my own personal opinion about it,” he has said. “Of course, I believe in God. But I speak with him only in those moments which are personal for me.” He has described himself as a Ukrainian “with Jewish blood.” According to press reports, the two children he has with his non-Jewish wife — Olena Zelenska, a former schoolmate — have been baptized. 

As a teenager, Zelensky scored so high on an English test that he was offered a chance to study in Israel, but his father refused to allow him to go and he eventually earned a law degree in Ukraine instead. Zelensky never wound up practicing law. At 17, he joined a comedy troupe that competed on a Russian television show called KVN, a competition of improv comedy teams. He later formed a troupe of his own named after the neighborhood in Kryvyi Rih where he grew up — Kvartal 95. 

Zelensky would go on to become a household name in Ukraine. His best-known show was Servant of the People, a television series in which he plays a high school history teacher unexpectedly elected president after a video of him ranting against government corruption goes viral. The third season of the show was released in 2019, the same year Zelensky was elected. 

Zelensky employed a vaudevillian slapstick style of humor in the style of Monty Python and Benny Hill. In a parody of a popular American song, he gyrates bare-chested in heels and skin-tight pants. In another, he plays the Jewish classic Hava Nagila on the piano with his hands in the air, leaving little doubt about which part of his anatomy is hitting the keys. He has also played with anti-Jewish stereotypes in his sketches, donning a yarmulke to haggle over paying his bills.

Despite having no political experience, Zelensky ran for president in 2019 on a campaign focused on addressing his country’s notorious reputation for corruption and resolving the conflict with Russia in the country’s east, where pro-Russian separatists had been waging war for years. He won the presidency in a landslide, with 73 percent of the vote. He was inaugurated on May 20, 2019. For a few months, Ukraine was the only country in the world outside Israel where both the president and prime minister were Jewish. (Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s prime minister from 2016 to 2019, is also Jewish.)

Months later, Zelensky found himself at the center of an American political scandal after it was revealed the President Donald Trump, in a phone call with Zelensky, had asked him to do a “favor” and initiate an investigation of Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, who was challenging Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Trump also held up hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally appropriated military aid for Ukraine, which critics charged was intended as leverage over Zelensky to pressure him to launch the investigation. Both matters became the subjects of a congressional inquiry that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment in late 2019. He was later acquitted by the Senate. 

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Zelensky became an international icon — and to many Jews, a modern-day Jewish hero — as he led his country’s resistance against the powerful Russian military. In a series of Facebook videos, he repeatedly showed himself ensconced in Kyiv, urging his countrymen to stay and fight. After the United States offered to evacuate him from the country, Zelensky quipped: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Want to learn more about the Jews of Ukraine, past and present? Sign up for My Jewish Learning and JTA News’ email series to learn more about the complicated Jewish history of Ukraine and how the past sheds light on the battles unfolding today.

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