In the midst of a battle, Zelenskyy has demonstrated that you can be both brave and committed to your family. Since the Russian attack began on Feb. 24, the actor-turned-politician has addressed his people and the world several times, appearing in selfie-style videos and rejecting offers of evacuation.
“We will fight to the end,” he told the U.K. House of Commons in an unprecedented video address earlier this week that ended with a standing ovation. “We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”
His old friend and colleague David Dodson, a filmmaker, who was watching from halfway across the world in Los Angeles, was not surprised by Zelenskyy’s courage.
“Physically, Volodya is not a tall guy — like, 5-foot-6 or actually 5-foot-3, to be honest — but he is monumental in character,” Dodson, who edited 10 and directed three of Zelenskyy’s movies, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “He’s always been fearless.”
Putin, according to several reports, has underestimated his foe. Before sweeping to the presidency in a landslide victory in 2019, Zelenskyy, 44, was well-known as a comedian and performer in both Ukraine and Russia, two neighboring European countries with historic cultural ties that had been strained by conflict.
Zelenskyy is a newcomer on the international stage: he is best known for a call from then-President Donald Trump in 2019 asking for a “favor,” which led to Trump’s impeachment.
But Zelenskyy’s camera-ready phrasing, social media savvy, and stagecraft intuition have inspired an outnumbered and outgunned — but proud — country to stand up to their more powerful invaders.
“He’s perfect for the role,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former National Security Council adviser on Ukraine.
“He’s an actor. He knows how to relate to people and tap into their emotions,” Kupchan says of Zelenskyy. “There’s nothing wooden about him. He’s the real deal, and his defiance and fighting spirit are inspiring not just Ukrainians but the world.”
He was born and reared in southeastern Ukraine as a Jew who spoke Russian as his first language. He went to college to study law before turning to comedy. He began dating Olena Kiyashko, a student who was studying architecture, during his university years. Despite growing up in the same town, the two had never met.
Olena quit architecture to join Zelenskyy in forming Kvartal 95, a sketch comedy troupe with several high school friends. They were together for eight years until marrying in 2003, when she adopted her husband’s surname, Zelenska, with the feminine version.
“They’re so good together,” says Lily, a college friend of the 44-year-old Ukrainian first lady. “They have goodness in them. These are two people who love each other very much. He is comic, she is witty.”
Zelenskyy relished his roles in front of the cameras, says Dodson, including in Zelenskyy’s hit TV show Servant of the People, which featured him as a populist school teacher improbably elected as president. The series made him a superstar and gained his name and fame in both Ukraine and Russia.
Meanwhile, his wife preferred to stay behind the scenes, writing for his productions. Still, says Dodson, “They see each other as equals.”
“He was the Tom Hanks of Ukraine,” says Dodson. “And he was a big celebrity in Russia. Nobody there thought of him as a villain, which is why there’s such a disconnect between Russian propaganda now what the reality is.” (Putin has told Russians that Ukraine has to be liberated from Nazis and far-right nationalists. Zelenskyy lost relatives in the Holocaust.)
“It’s hard for Putin’s ridiculous claims to jive with the Russian people,” says John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Atlantic Council.
Out of the spotlight, Zelenskyy “is without question one of the kindest souls that I’ve ever met,” says Dodson. “When you’re around him, there’s no feeling of a celebrity or of remoteness. You feel like a friend. You feel like he’s listening.”
“In the three films that I directed him in, every time he would walk onto the set, he would make me feel like I was [Steven] Spielberg,” Dodson adds. “He gives you that trust, and he empowers you to do the very best of whatever it is that you want to do.”
It became an open secret around Kvartal 95 in 2018, during the making of Zelenskyy’s final films before becoming office, that he would run for president, according to Dodson.
“I would go up to his office and, if there were a pile of cell phones on his desk, you knew everyone inside was there to talk about the campaign and nobody wanted anything recorded,” Dodon remembers.
Servant of the People was Zelenskyy’s political party’s name, a play on his famous TV show and a way to tap into a growing enthusiasm among voters who had been outspoken in their opposition to the previous president. In April 2019, he won a landslide victory with 73 percent of the vote, promising to clean up corruption and make peace with Russia, which had stationed 70,000 troops along the eastern border and was stirring up separatist violence.
This taught him a great lesson, people say that: “He learned the hard way that peace with Moscow would require him to give Moscow control,” says Herbst.
Zelenska, out of sight with their children, joins Zelenskyy’s rallying cry over social media. To NATO, the first lady who once stuck to “soft power” topics like museums and child nutrition pleads on Instagram for international support: “Save our children, because tomorrow it will save yours!”
Meanwhile, Dodson expects his friend will “fight until the very end, no matter what that end turns out to be.”
On Monday, the president was at his desk in Kyiv, posting a video from the presidential office suite. “I’m not afraid of anyone,” he said. “For as long as it takes to win this patriotic war.”