At this writing, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has survived at least three assassination attempts since Russia invaded his country. Two different groups sent to kill the Ukrainian president have been thwarted by anti-war elements within Russia’s Federal Security Service, according to a London Times report.
Mercenaries of the Kremlin-backed Wagner group sustained losses in Kyiv during their attempts and are said to have been alarmed by how accurately their moves were anticipated by the Ukrainians.
Mr. Zelensky’s courage in the face of Russia’s invasion and the subsequent threat to his life has made him a global hero. This even though most of us knew little or nothing about him before the invasion began.
“A suddenly popular figure”
Volodymyr Zelensky was born on January 25, 1978, to Jewish parents in the industrial metropolis of Kryvyy Rih in southern Ukraine. His country at that time was part of the USSR. Like many people from his region, he grew up as a native Russian speaker, but he also acquired fluency in Ukrainian and English. In 2000, he graduated from the local campus of Kyiv National Economic University with a law degree.
Although licensed to practice law, he had become active in theater while a student and this became his primary focus. After his improvisational comedy performance group appeared in the televised finals of a comedy competition, he and his group became regulars on the show from 1995 until 2003.
That year, he founded a production company that would become one of his country’s most successful and prolific entertainment studios. In addition to working in television, Zelensky appeared in a number of feature films, including romantic comedies and a historical farce.
In 2014, his country’s government was toppled after months of popular protests. The next year, a TV show cast Zelensky as an everyman history teacher who becomes a viral internet sensation after delivering an address against official corruption. The show was a massive hit.
Five years later, Zelensky entered the race for president. His campaign eschewed detailed policy statements and press conferences in favor of short speeches or comedy routines posted to YouTube and Instagram.
As the Atlantic noted, “Zelensky grabbed the attention of Ukrainians by playing out what has traditionally been the part of the Jew: the outsider. In this case, what Ukrainians saw in this lonely figure banging on the window was themselves, embattled, trying to hold on to their national identity amid growing threats to their independence. It may have been this aspect of his Jewishness and the way it came to dovetail with those Ukrainian anxieties that made him such a suddenly popular figure.”
On April 21, 2019, he was elected president of Ukraine with 73 percent of the vote.
He came to American attention in September 2019 when a whistleblower lodged a formal complaint alleging that US President Donald Trump had withheld a significant military aid package to Ukraine unless Ukraine initiated an investigation of alleged wrongdoing by former US Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. These funds were released later in the year; Mr. Trump was later impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
“The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride”
On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country was initiating a “special military operation” against Ukraine. A few hours before Russia invaded, Zelensky announced on social media that he had tried to call Putin to avert a war but had been met by silence.
The two countries didn’t need a war, Zelensky said, “not a Cold War, not a hot war, not a hybrid war.” But he added that if Ukrainians came under attack, they would defend themselves: “When you attack us you will see our faces—not our backs, but our faces.”
On February 25, Zelensky stated in an early morning address that his intelligence services had identified him as Russia’s top target. The next morning, as Russian troops escalated their assault on Kyiv, the US government and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged him to evacuate to a safer location. Both offered assistance for such an effort.
However, Zelensky turned down both offers and chose to remain in Kyiv with its defense forces. He stated, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
In the days following the invasion, Zelensky has been widely described as a national hero or a “global hero.” Historian Andrew Roberts compared him to Winston Churchill.
“Of course, I believe in God”
Zelensky told the Times of Israel that he grew up in “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family.” He explained: “Most Jewish families in the Soviet Union were not religious. You know religion didn’t exist in the Soviet state as such.”
When asked if religion is important to him now, he replied, “I never speak about religion and I never speak about God because I have my own personal opinion about it. Of course, I believe in God. But I speak with him only in those moments which are personal for me, and important, and where I feel comfortable in those places.”
Zelensky has said that his great-grandfather and three of his grandfather’s brothers died as a result of the Nazi invasion of Ukrainian territory. He did not specify whether they died in combat against the Nazis or in the extended massacre of more than one million Ukrainian Jews that the Nazis carried out.
Zelensky married Olena Kiyashko in September 2003, with whom he had attended school. Their first daughter, Oleksandra, was born in July 2004. Their son, Kyrylo, was born in January 2013.
“My heart’s desire and prayer”
Paul’s heartfelt call is just as relevant today as when he first wrote these words: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1–2, my emphasis).
Let’s pray for protection and security for President Zelensky and his family. Let’s pray for his continued courage and perseverance as he leads his endangered nation.
And let’s pray for the Lord to use this crisis to lead Volodymyr Zelensky to personal faith in Jesus as his Messiah and Lord. Paul’s passion for the Jewish people was clear: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).
Let’s make the apostle’s prayer for his Jewish people our prayer for Ukraine’s heroic Jewish president today, to the glory of God.