Western leaders were still divided two days after the invasion, when they met to agree on a package of sanctions to punish Russia for its attack. Germany, Hungary, and Italy initially wanted to water down these measures. Then Zelensky dialed in to their meeting. Calm but determined, his pale face covered in stubble, he told the leaders of the free world that this might be the last time they would see him alive. “The enemy has marked me as target No. 1,” he said in a video statement shortly after the call. “My family is target No. 2.”
Yet Zelensky decided to stay in his capital, an act of courage that has already altered the course of history. It roused the U.S. and its allies to impose unprecedented penalties against Russia, crashing the ruble and unplugging much of its economy from the rest of the world. Germany decided to pour more than $100 billion into its military, casting aside a postwar tradition of pacifism that has long frustrated allies. Switzerland broke from its tradition of neutrality to support sanctions. The E.U. agreed to put Ukraine on a path to membership, shedding decades of internal resistance.
On the sixth day of the invasion, Zelensky delivered a speech via video link to the European Parliament. “Do prove that you are with us,” he implored through an interpreter, who seemed to choke back tears while translating the President’s words. “Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you indeed are Europeans, and then life will win over death, and light will win over darkness.” As one observer noted, it was as if Charlie Chaplin had morphed into Winston Churchill.
Zelensky now spends his days underground, in bunkers and basements, emerging every now and then to raise the nation’s spirits, often on social media. In one video message, he shares a meal with a few of his troops: bread with salami, sprats, and instant coffee. The people who surround him are mostly old friends, the ones who followed him through the world of show business, into the presidency, and now to war. “No one is here by accident,” his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote to me from the bunker on the seventh day of the invasion.
Born in 1978, the future President grew up in a working-class Jewish family in the city of Kryvyi Rih (“Crooked Horn”), in the shadow of Ukraine’s biggest steel mill. Like many in that part of the country, his parents spoke Russian at home. Like nearly all Jews in Ukraine, the family had suffered tremendously during World WarII. Zelensky’s grandfather, who commanded an artillery platoon in the Red Army, lost his father and three of his brothers in the Holocaust. [Continue reading…]