What to know about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

The former comedian was elected in 2019.

December 20, 2022, 6:24 PM

Seven years ago, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was most famous for bringing laughs on Ukrainian TV by portraying an overwhelmed but hard-working president trying to fight corruption.

Today, the 44-year-old's actions as the real Ukrainian president standing up against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the face of a deadly and ongoing war have earned him the respect of global leaders.

"They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state," the president said in a televised speech on the first day of the war.

PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gestures while speaking during a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda following their talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 23, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gestures while speaking during a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda following their talks at The Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Zelenskyy's life and path have been anything but typical compared to other international leaders, and he has faced a seemingly unending series of crises since taking office.

Zelenskyy, who is married and has two children, graduated from the Kyiv National Economic University in 2000 with a law degree, but he decided to pursue a different career. He formed the comedy troupe Kvartal 95 with other actors in 1997 and in 2003 the group began producing television programs.

PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena paid tribute to the victims of the 1932-1933 Holodomor (Great Famine in Ukraine of 1932-33) at a monument to the victims in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nov. 23, 2019.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena paid tribute to the victims of the 1932-1933 Holodomor (Great Famine in Ukraine of 1932-33) at a monument to the victims in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nov. 23, 2019. Many regard the famine, in whcih millions of Ukrainians died, as a genocide ordered by then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
NurPhoto via Getty Images, FILE

In 2015, Zelenskyy began starring in the role that would set him on the path to the presidency. In the show "Servant of the People," he played Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a school teacher who wakes up to find that a rant he made against corrupt politicians went viral and catapulted him to the presidency.


Two Men at War

A look at the two leaders at the center of the war in Ukraine and how they both rose to power, the difference in their leadership and what led to this moment in history.

Holoborodko was often portrayed as being in over his head but willing to fight corruption. The show was so popular that it led to Kvartal 95 creating a political party in its name.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy performs on stage in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod on Feb. 9, 2019.
Sergiy Gudak/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

In 2018, Zelenskyy abruptly moved into real politics and announced his candidacy for president under the Servant of the People party. During his campaign, he continued touring with his troupe and mocked his opponents in stand-up routines.

Zelenskyy also took to social media to promote his campaign and platform. His political persona was similar to his TV character as he vowed to crack down on corruption and take on Ukraine's oligarchs.

He went on to win the election in a landslide, taking over 73% of the vote, after running on a platform to end the war with Russia and its separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine.

He was inaugurated in May 2019.

Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21, 2019.
Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Two months later, Zelenskyy would become entangled in a major U.S. political scandal involving then-President Donald Trump.

During a July 2019 phone call between the two leaders, Trump pressured Zelenskyy to work with Rudy Giuliani and then-Attorney General William Barr to investigate Joe Biden, who was running against Trump in the presidential election, and his son Hunter Biden, according to a White House memorandum about the phone call. Trump allegedly withheld $400 million in congressional aid to Ukraine when Ukrainian officials didn't comply.

Trump denied any wrongdoing, repeatedly saying it was a "perfect call," and a subsequent congressional investigation led to Trump's impeachment later that year. The Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him in February 2020.

Zelenskyy has had a more amicable relationship with Biden even before the American president became his crucial backer in the conflict with Russia, visiting the White House in August 2021.

When he came to office, Zelenskyy also promised to find a peaceful way to resolve the eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine with the Russian-controlled separatists there. He initially tried to engage with Putin diplomatically but was treated coldly by the Russian leader, who refused to meet or speak with Zelenskyy for months.

In the year before the war, under pressure politically during the COVID-19 crisis, Zelenskyy had taken a harder line against pro-Russian political factions in Ukraine, including Viktor Medvedchuk, known as Putin's man in Ukraine.

Russia's military buildup against Ukraine began around the same time Zelenskyy moved to sanction Medvedchuk and TV stations linked to him.

He has denied all allegations by Putin and Russian-controlled separatists that he provoked the war and made an impassioned plea in Russian on Feb. 23 for that country's people to reject the aggression.

"We don't need war. Not a cold one, nor a hot one, nor a hybrid one," Zelenskyy said. "I know that Russian TV won't show my speech. But citizens of Russia need to see it. They need to see the truth. The truth is you need to stop before it's too late."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaks during joint press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 15, 2022.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Since Russia's invasion, Zelenskyy has remained in the country, refusing to leave the capital and in the early days of the war rebuffing U.S. offers to help him evacuate.

As Russian troops closed in on Kyiv, Zelenskyy began making video addresses, often from the street in front of the presidential office, becoming an icon of defiance for his people. He has given many video addresses since, providing updates on the fighting as well as rallying cries.

Zelenskyy's profile grew over the course of the war as did his connections with other world leaders.

Zelenskyy has spoken by video-link to the parliaments of almost every Western country, persuading them to provide more military and political support for Ukraine. His message has been consistent, telling European countries not to fear Russia, sometimes chastising those seen as too hesitant in providing aid.

And even as the war has continued on and his country continues to see death and destruction from Russian forces, Zelenskyy's resolve and steadfast opposition to Putin remained visible in his video addresses.

During the summer of 2022, he pledged to liberate all of Ukraine's territory seized by Russia, something that has come to look far more plausible amid successful Ukrainian counteroffensives that have reclaimed swaths of territory in Ukraine's northeast.

In an interview with ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir in August, Zelenskyy called on Ukrainians to step up and help reclaim their territory.

ABC News' David Muir speaks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
ABC News

"This task is difficult and it doesn't only depend on us, but I'm sure that is what will happen," he told Muir from the presidential office in Kyiv. "It's only a matter of time."

Zelenskyy has toured the reclaimed areas and witnessed the damage and violence left behind by Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes part in a national flag-raising ceremony in Izium, Ukraine, Sept. 14, 2022. Zelenskyy visited the recently liberated city, greeting soldiers and thanking them for their efforts in retaking the area.
Leo Correa/AP

Zelenskyy addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28 via a virtual presentation from Ukraine and echoed this message to the world stage.

During his speech, he continued to criticize Russia over the violence against his country and the hundreds of lives that were destroyed by the invasion.

"A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment," he said.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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