Less than four years ago Volodymyr Zelensky was one of Ukraine’s most popular TV comedians, starring in a satirical TV show and performing in a troupe where he played the piano with his penis for five minutes.
Zelensky, now 44, won the presidential election in a landslide in 2019 after much of his campaign was allegedly bankrolled by one of Ukraine’s richest — and most corrupt — oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky.
In a scenario that even the writers of his old show, “Servant of the People,” couldn’t have dreamed up, Zelensky is now the leader at the center of a new war in Europe and at risk of assassination as Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country Thursday night.
Mykhail Podolyak, one of Zelensky’s advisers, told local media Wednesday he was worried about a possible paratrooper assault aimed at Zelensky. “One of [Russia’s] aims is to oust the leadership of the country,” he said.
Surprisingly, given his frivolous showbiz past, experts say Zelensky has more than risen to the occasion — even though his impassioned televised speeches directed at both Russians and his own countrymen before and after the onslaught did little to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military might.
Zelensky took to his message to the Russian people as well as his own citizens in a powerful speech three hours before Russian troops hit Ukraine in a direct plea to stop and question what their country was doing.
“What are you fighting for?” he asked in the address, posted online at 2 a.m., not long after Putin outlined his reasons for attacking Ukraine. “And with whom?”
When addressing Ukrainians, both on TV and online, Zelensky rallied citizens with exhortations to hold the line against the Russians and fight for their country.
“We have severed diplomatic relations with Russia,” Zelensky tweeted early Thursday from Kyiv. “For all those who have not yet lost their conscience in Russia, it is time to go out and protest against the war with Ukraine.”
Zelensky called for martial law and remained defiant as Russian and Belarussian forces hit Ukraine in the kind of land, air and sea invasion not seen since World War II, blocking the capital of Kyiv as residents tried to flee.
“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in #2WW years,” Zelensky tweeted. “As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history. 🇷🇺 has embarked on a path of evil, but 🇺🇦 is defending itself & won’t give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”
To the shock of many, Zelensky, who grew up in Russian-speaking southeast Ukraine, has been not been a bad leader — even before Thursday’s invasion.
Originally thought to be a puppet of the oligarch Kolomoisky, Zelensky re-branded himself as a crusader against oligarchs, just as he had evolved from being a native Russian-speaker brought up in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine into more of a nationalist.
“He’s kept a unified government and not gone along with either what Russia or the US wanted,” Russ Bellant, a longtime Ukraine researcher told The Post Thursday. “He knows he’s in the middle of a bigger power game between superpowers and he seems to know what he’s doing. He’s handling himself pretty well. He’s his own man. He knows what’s really at stake but he knows what happened to Viktor Yanukovych.”
Yanukovych, 71, was the fourth president of Ukraine who was overthrown during the 2014 Maidan revolution.
Zelensky played a fictional character on “Servant of the People” named Vasily Goloborodko, a thirtysomething high school teacher who wakes up one morning to learn he has been elected the country’s president with over 60 percent of the popular vote. In the show, one of his students put a video of him ranting against corruption in the country online and it went viral.
Both Zelensky, in his comedy troupe performances, and in the plotlines of “Servant of the People” satirized the corruption in Ukraine and also showed what the country could look like if given a shot at democracy.
During his presidential campaign, however, he used a bulletproof Mercedes registered to a business associate of him and his benefactor Kolomoisky. There’s a reason Zelensky watched his back when he was closely associated with Kolomoisky, who co-founded PrivatBank, the largest commercial bank in Ukraine before it was nationalized in 2016.
Kolomoisky was so tough he crushed Russian separatists with his own paramilitary units, called the 5-foot-7 Putin a “schizophrenic dwarf,” allegedly ordered contract killings and often fed a live shark in a massive aquarium in his office to intimidate guests.
The FBI began investigating Kolomoisky in 2019 for financial crimes involving some of his US interests. American prosecutors said he and a partner embezzled and defrauded PrivatBank of billions and laundered some of the money via their holdings in the US. He was also officially sanctioned by the US last year for, among other things, undermining democracy in Ukraine.
But despite Zelensky’s ties to Kolomoisky, he didn’t live up to expectations that he’d be a buffoonish clown — or a crooked frontman for Ukrainian billionaires.
“Though many commentators label Zelensky a Ukrainian Donald Trump because of his lack of political experience and background in entertainment, Zelensky is in fact an adept political actor,” Nina Jankowicz, a Ukraine expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC, wrote in 2019 after a visit to the country.
Zelensky, who has been married to Olena Zelenska since 2003, has a son, Kiril, and a daughter, Aleksandra.
He’s shown that he has a knack for being front and center of an international scandal. Trump’s first impeachment stemmed from a now-notorious phone call with Zelensky in July 2019 in which Trump leaned on him to investigate Biden family corruption in Ukraine. The call also thrust the suspect and lucrative business dealings of Joe and Hunter Biden in Ukraine into the spotlight.
Ukrainians and their friends and relatives were hoping for the best from Zelensky even as Russian forces pushed toward Kyiv Thursday.
“Zelensky does not have a lot of political experience,” a Ukrainian woman living in Italy told The Post Thursday as she tried to contact her father, grandmother and sisters who were stuck in Kyiv.
“But we hope he gets support from his own government and others. The situation is very bad. No one can escape the country. My friends are hiding in bomb shelters. (Putin) will kill all Ukrainians.”
She added, “If you have any contacts in the government I beg you to speak to them. We are facing a world disaster.”