Serhii Rudenko, a Ukrainian political analyst, has written the first significant biography of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to be published in English. Polity, which is publishing “Zelensky,” which was translated by Michael M. Naydan and Alla Perminova, stated that Rudenko, who has produced several works on Ukrainian leaders, is based in Ukraine and is “responding to emails from a bomb shelter. Any evaluation of this book must begin with the recognition that its existence, like the change of a man from TV star to fumbling president to nearly universally acclaimed wartime hero, is no minor feat. After all, there is a war going on in Ukraine, which has been going on since late February.
This is a biography of a presidency rather than the president himself. Though the book includes chapters on previous events in his life, such as the year he was born, the start of his acting career, and his marriage, the vast majority takes place between 2018 and 2022, between Zelensky’s intention to run for president and his administration thus far.
Because the book is not ordered chronologically, it might be difficult to keep track of what happened when and who was in and out of Zelensky’s good graces at certain periods. It’s also not sorted by theme. Or, more precisely, each chapter has a topic – Zelensky’s relationship with a specific individual, or a specific world event — but there does not appear to be much rhyme or reason as to why one chapter follows another.
It should also be noted that the book has been translated somewhat poorly and that the author occasionally outright contradicts himself. Those who mistake the actor’s performance for a prank by a famous comic had no knowledge Zelensky had indeed decided to run for president a couple of decades ago, he claims, referring to Zelensky’s televised campaign kickoff on December 31, 2018. On the following page, he says, “According to the former Head of the President’s Office Andriy Bohdan, Zelensky himself did not make the ultimate decision to run for president until December 31, 2018.
Worryingly, there is a clear factual inaccuracy in the chapter about Zelensky’s interactions with President Donald Trump. The American press asked Trump to exert pressure on his Ukrainian counterpart to expedite the probe into Biden’s son, writes Rudenko. That is not what occurred. Many suspected Trump urged Zelensky to probe Joe Biden’s kid to harm a domestic political opponent (specifically, Biden), and the American press reported on it.
Worryingly, there is a clear factual inaccuracy in the chapter about Zelensky’s interactions with President Donald Trump. The American press asked Trump to exert pressure on his Ukrainian counterpart to expedite the probe into Biden’s son, writes Rudenko. That is not what occurred. Many suspected Trump urged Zelensky to probe Joe Biden’s kid to harm a domestic political opponent (specifically, Biden), and the American press reported on it. Rudenko goes on to argue that if Zelensky had investigated the son, Biden, as President of the United States, might not have been so staunchly supportive of Ukraine. This appears to gloss over the fact that Ukraine, as a sovereign state, has been used for internal political ends. For American readers unfamiliar with Ukrainian politics other than Trump’s impeachment story, such as myself, the Trump chapter calls the remainder of Rudenko’s research into question.
Perhaps most frustratingly, while Rudenko frequently draws parallels between Zelensky’s various crises and the strength and resolve he’s demonstrated since Russia launched its all-out assault on Ukraine, he spends far less time analysing how the same person was capable of being all of these things: TV star, clown, reported oligarchic ally, disappointing president, and heroic wartime leader.
Rudenko states near the close of the book, “Everyone in Ukraine today, without exception, has only one opponent, the triumph over which the survival of the Ukrainian state depends. There is no doubt that Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have strengthened and united the Ukrainian people. “Zelensky is no longer acting in the capacity of president. He is the leader of a nation that is defending its freedom and independence with guns. But what was it that enabled him to switch from one to the other?
Despite this, there are some highlights in the novel. The chapters regarding Zelensky and members of his presidential team at various stages throughout his presidency are particularly powerful and read like sizzling small political dramas. The chapter on Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch to whom the president is allegedly linked (though at different stages in the book, as the book makes clear), is particularly incisive. It’s difficult to imagine a finer way to begin any chapter of any modern book than: “Legends abound about this individual. One of them is that he sliced a portion of one of his top managers’ ties with a cake knife during a business gathering.
Despite the time and theme jumps, certain realities about Ukrainian politics and Zelensky emerge: Corruption and nepotism have always been a problem in Ukraine. Politicians have made promises to do better, only to return to the status quo. In threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia has succeeded in uniting Ukrainians and transforming a floundering president into a leader.
However, the battle is not done, and neither is Ukraine’s history. Neither is Zelensky’s account, for that matter. Despite its limitations, this book represents the first look at this individual in this place at this time. One hopes that, in the not-too-distant future, the war will be done, the story will continue, and new novels will be added.