By Bill Simons
For those who value freedom, the last two years started badly. On January 6, 2021, a violent mob stormed the U.S. Congress, intent on overturning the presidential election. And on February 24, 2022, Russia mounted an invasion of Ukraine, expecting to emulate Adolf Hitler’s rapid blitzkrieg conquests. But liberty did not buckle in America or in Ukraine.
It is astonishing that Volodymyr Zelensky is the president of Ukraine, even more extraordinary that he has earned comparisons to Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s World War II prime minister. Prior to his 2019 election as president, Zelensky was known as a comedian and actor. Unlike former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, politically seasoned as governor of California, Zelensky jumped directly from entertainment to head of state. Initially, his presidential leadership floundered, unable to fulfill campaign promises to eradicate corruption and resolve tensions with Russia. All that changed when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Amidst devastating damage inflicted by Russian tanks, missiles and drones, Zelensky summoned a personal courage that inspired and matched that of the brave Ukrainian people. When the U.S. offered to evacuate Zelensky from the dangers in the Kyiv capital, he responded, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” Beyond Ukraine, Zelensky’s words and actions fostered a new unity in the West that flummoxed Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who had dismissed the liberal democracies as weak and decadent.
Zelensky holds special meaning for Jews. Ukraine was once home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. The majority of Jews observed traditional practices; others followed more secular lifestyles and made major contributions to culture and commerce. Under Cossacks, Soviets and Nazis, antisemitism – including “the Holocaust by bullets” – took countless Jewish lives and spurred immigration. Many American Jews have roots in Ukraine. A Jewish population, greatly reduced in size, however, remains in Ukraine.
Zelensky, age 44, is Jewish and widely identified as such. Both of his parents are Jewish. Zelensky’s paternal grandfather, a colonel in the Soviet army, fought against Nazi Germany. Several members of the Zelensky family perished in the Holocaust. Zelensky’s media-adverse parents, Oleksandr, formerly chairman of the Department of Cybernetics and Computing at Kryvyi Rih State, and Rymma, an engineer, are now retired. Like most Soviet-era Jews, Oleksandr and Rymma were largely assimilated and secular. Zelensky’s wife, Olena, is a Gentile, and their two children were reportedly baptized in the Christian Orthodox Church. Zelensky has visited Israel only once: for a Holocaust remembrance. During his presidential campaign, Zelensky stated, “The fact that I am a Jew is about the 20th question among my characteristics.”
Many Jews of the Diaspora, particularly those whose ancestors were subject to pogroms and genocide in Eastern and Central Europe and were viewed as – and often carried the legacy of – perpetual outsiders, Christ killers and decadent subversives, identify strongly with Zelensky. Zelensky, Jewish by birth and history, reversed the narrative of Jewish otherness and victimization. Possessed of physical and moral courage, patriotic and charismatic, he epitomizes resolve, opposition to tyrants and Jewish inclusion. In The Atlantic, Gal Beckerman observed, “[W]hat is remarkable, truly mind-blowing in the long sweep of history, is that his Jewishness has not stood in the way of his being embraced as a symbol of the nation… Just outside embattled Kyiv is Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were shot and thrown into a ravine over the course of two days in 1941… this conflict… has found Jews feeling finally, improbably, one with a land that has perpetually tried to spit them out.”
Standing against the Russian Goliath, Zelensky is the David of our times. Like the shepherd boy, the former actor is an improbable hero and small – 5’5”, 137 pounds – albeit fit and coiled. Armed with a Western arsenal of weaponry and growing number of international volunteers, Ukraine, with Zelensky at the front, is unbowed.
From late 2015-early 2019, Zelensky starred in the Ukrainian television series “Servant of the People” as a high school teacher, Vasily Goloborodko, implausibly elected to the presidency when his students covertly videorecorded his rant about corruption and posted it on YouTube. The series, available with scroll carrying English translation, is both revelatory and prescient about Zelensky’s future. In the initial episodes, “Servant of the People” is primarily comedic, depicting Goloborodko as a naïve and inept idealist continuing to live in austere circumstances with his hectoring parents and sister, and the target of complaints by his ex-wife that he is an absentee father to their son. However, as the series evolves, the tone of the series grows more serious and Goloborodko acquires judgment and competency. Demonstrating grit when imprisoned by political enemies and regaining the presidency, he aggressively pursues an agenda against corruption, oligarch influence and centrifugal forces turning the Ukrainian provinces into autonomous regions. By series end, Goloborodko is an accomplished leader, inspiring the people to share his dream that a democratic Ukraine can assume its place as major economic and diplomatic power, exemplified by the launching of a satellite into space. Within a few weeks of the TV program’s final episode, Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine under a party label that shares the name of the series, Servant of the People.
Zelensky’s growth as a wartime president has proved exceptional. Time magazine named him its person of the year. Unshaved, bags under his eyes, dressed in olive green military fatigues, sharing danger and deprivation, and speaking candidly and frequently, Zelensky has become a symbol of the bravery of the Ukrainians and the common values of all democratic peoples. These attributes animated Zelensky’s words in an impassioned address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on December 21, 2022: “The battle is not only for life, freedom and security of Ukrainians or any other nation which Russia attempts to conquer… This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren… Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in… global security and democracy.”
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.