She’s the wife who stood steadfastly by Ukraine’s heroic president. But an incisive new book reveals their romance nearly ended when it had barely begun: How Volodymyr Zelensky wooed the love of his life with a fib about a steamy film he’d seen 15 times
The argument at an expensive Moscow restaurant in May 2014 had become so heated that staff had no option but to call the local police.
Diners at the well-heeled establishment had been disturbed by a very unlikely squabble.
A famous TV personality, whose career spanned two decades, was shouting across a table with such rage that his colleagues had to hold him back.
The irate celebrity in question, 36-year-old Ukrainian comedian-turned-actor Volodymyr Zelensky, was the star of a satirical comedy troupe that specialised in mocking both Russian and Ukrainian politics and society.
His adversary was his erstwhile Russian friend and co-star, Aleksey Chadov.
Their feud was political rather than professional, sparked in the febrile aftermath of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
But what was most surprising was that the war of words had been instigated by Zelensky. Visiting Moscow to film a sequel to his romantic comedy Eight First Dates, the star had always been careful never to be overtly partisan – let alone nationalist – and wisely used his satire to poke fun at both sides of the political divide.
United front: Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena wearing traditional Ukrainian attire
Fighting spirit: The president has been leading his country’s defence during the war against Russia
Zelensky was a bright pupil who wore a ring in his ear which, in a town like Kryvyi Rih, raised suspicions of homosexuality – an open invitation to the thugs. To avoid violence, it was best to have a girl on one’s arm. In Zelensky’s case, one in particular had caught his eye. Olena Kiyashko was an attractive blonde who had known Zelensky from high school. Pictured: Olena and Zelensky in 2019
But on that trip, Zelensky was tempted to cross the line when he saw the euphoria in Russia generated by Putin’s propagandist slogan, disseminated via state media, which crowed, ‘Crimea is Ours’.
He flew into arguments with any Russian friends who dared repeat the line – including, on this occasion, Chadov.
What action police took is not recorded. While it marked the end of the relationship between the two men, it would not be long before Zelensky’s political awakening would turn him from TV clown into resolute wartime leader.
The only son of a mathematician and an engineer, Zelensky – known as Vova – moved from the south-eastern Ukrainian steel town of Kryvyi Rih to Mongolia in the early 1980s when his father took charge of a mining company.
But within four years, his mother Rymma had brought little Vova back to their spartan, Soviet-era apartment in Ukraine.
Kryvyi Rih was a tough place to grow up. Open-cast iron ore mines filled the air with a red dust that clung to the lips and turned rain puddles blood red.
It had a serious problem with youth gangs, whose senseless violence drew comparison to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and the city was also known as the ‘Ukrainian Palermo’, so firmly was it in the grip of the local mafia.
Zelensky was a bright pupil who wore a ring in his ear which, in a town like Kryvyi Rih, raised suspicions of homosexuality – an open invitation to the thugs. To avoid violence, it was best to have a girl on one’s arm.
In Zelensky’s case, one in particular had caught his eye. Olena Kiyashko was an attractive blonde who had known Zelensky from high school. One day she ran into him on the street while she was carrying a VHS of the film Basic Instinct.
Their relationship had a rather stuttering start, and Olena broke it off early on as she ‘had romantic feelings for someone else’. Pictured: The husband and wife in 2021
‘I’ve always wanted to see that!’ Zelensky cried. ‘Could I borrow it?’
It wasn’t entirely honest. Film buff Zelensky had seen the erotic thriller starring Sharon Stone at least 15 times – but his quick-thinking ploy allowed him something far more valuable: the opportunity to ask for Olena’s telephone number.
Olena – which means ‘shining light’ in Ukrainian – knew who Vova was. The lean, 5ft 7in-tall, dark-haired young man with the deep bass voice bore a resemblance to a young Al Pacino, even if his facial expressions were occasionally more like Mr Bean’s.
He and his friends were local personalities, who always livened up school events and other festivities with their performances.
‘I didn’t think we would start dating,’ Olena later recalled. ‘Those boys were always surrounded by the prettiest girls.’
Their relationship had a rather stuttering start, and Olena broke it off early on as she ‘had romantic feelings for someone else’.
What so impressed Olena was that Zelensky dreamed big. Pictured: Zelensky and Olena in Tallinn in 2019
Zelensky, putting his charm and tenacity to the ultimate test, called Olena up for ‘a very serious talk’.
‘I told him I had other plans and that we had to go our separate ways,’ she recalled. ‘But then he said a few things that got me thinking about what I would be missing out on. Once he’s set his mind on something, he never lets go.’
What so impressed Olena was that Zelensky dreamed big.
He wanted foreign travel, and to study at Moscow’s famous MGIMO diplomatic academy, alma mater of Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. But the bribe needed to gain admission was far beyond anything Zelensky could afford.
In the end, and to avoid military service, he enrolled on a law degree in their home town, and it was this decision that ultimately set him on his path to showbiz.
During his first year, he assembled a group of school friends to form a comedy troupe – Kvartal 95, named after their neighbourhood – to appear on KVN, a TV comedy show and competition.
In the end, and to avoid military service, he enrolled on a law degree in their home town, and it was this decision that ultimately set him on his path to showbiz. During his first year, he assembled a group of school friends to form a comedy troupe – Kvartal 95, named after their neighbourhood – to appear on KVN, a TV comedy show and competition. Pictured: Olena and Zelensky with their children
KVN, the ‘Club for the Joyful and Inventive’, was a Russian institution on the lines of Britain’s Got Talent. Pictured: President Zelensky in Servant of the People, a show he starred in
KVN, the ‘Club for the Joyful and Inventive’, was a Russian institution on the lines of Britain’s Got Talent. The competitors were given no payment – not even travel or accommodation expenses. The team took their own food on tour and prepared instant noodles in their hotel rooms.
But with their mix of irreverent sketches, jokes and songs, Kvartal 95 soon became a hugely successful fixture on the show – and with Zelensky its undisputed star.
When Zelensky and Olena were married in September 2003, the reception was held at the only venue they could afford that could hold 100 guests – a bowling club in Kryvyi Rih. The newlyweds shared a one-bedroom Kyiv apartment with two of his comedy partners, brothers Boris and Serhiy Shefir, their mother and a dog.
Zelensky drove the Shefir brothers to meetings in his rundown Lada estate, always parking out of sight. (‘I couldn’t present myself to serious companies with such a disgraceful car,’ he recalled.)
Kvartal 95 got its first big break – its own series on the Kyiv TV station 1+1 – at a fortuitous moment. In 2004, the country was ripe for political satire amid Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, when a rigged presidential election had pitted two main candidates against each other: the sitting prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, and his opponent Viktor Yushchenko, who pledged to end the corruption and cronyism that had plagued the pro-Putin regime.
Within two years, Zelensky had registered Servant Of The People as a political party. He initially claimed he’d done it ‘just in case’ anyone else used it, insisting it was ‘not a genuine political project’. Pictured: Zelensky in Servant of the People
The battle between the two Viktors had been between east and west: those wanting Yushchenko’s pro-Western, liberal Ukraine, and those determined to maintain the Moscow-backed status quo.
When the election result was overturned in favour of Yushchenko – the Supreme Court deciding that irregularities had skewed the vote in favour of Yanukovych – it was a magical awakening for Ukraine.
The politics also provided a rich source of spectacle and satire, and the troupe’s new TV show, Kvartal By Night, spared nobody.
But Zelensky faced pressure from many politicians who tried to ‘buy’ control of the show’s script. (After his election in 2010, Yanukovych reportedly offered $100 million.)
‘They would often call, with a proposition to ‘collaborate’ under favourable financial conditions,’ said Zelensky. ‘But we have never accepted even a cent to write a joke. And we never will.’
The show was a huge success, partly because Zelensky was a workaholic. One collaborator recalled he was in ‘a constant state of elevated activity and drive’, living on junk food and cigarettes.
Volodymyr Zelensky in the TV show ‘Servant of the People’, a hugely successful show which he starred in before becoming president
He worked an 80-hour week, and expected the same from his fellow members. ‘I’m always ready to have a firm word with anyone,’ he said. ‘I have no time for pleasantries. But I love my team, and I can only hope they forgive me.’
Within a few years, the company had 50 employees and a successful sitcom, The In-Laws, about two elderly couples fighting for the attention of their only grandchild.
In 2008, Zelensky was wealthy enough to buy a house in an exclusive residential area about 20 miles south of Kyiv, where he and his wife, herself a scriptwriter, brought up their daughter Sasha and son Kyrylo.
But the pro-Moscow Yanukovych swept back to power in 2010. And in 2013, nine years after the first Orange Revolution, protesters once again pitched camp on Kyiv’s Independence Square.
President Yanukovych ordered the riot police to clear them out. The protesters fought back.
In one sketch, Servant Of The People, Zelensky played a history teacher who launched into a tirade against injustices in Ukraine: corruption, broken election promises, stagnation and poverty, and the tax privileges, dachas [second homes] and motorcycle escorts for the political class. Pictured: Stars of Servant Of The People
Other Ukrainian stars publicly sided with the protesters, performing in the square.
Yet Zelensky remained non-partisan. ‘We communicate via Kvartal,’ he said.
The crisis prompted Yanukovych’s exile and, notoriously, a brutal Russian response: the annexation of Crimea.
During the fighting, Kvartal 95 performed along the front line, which had a profound effect on Zelensky.
Like most Ukrainians, he had always looked down on the military, with their rigid discipline and sadistic initiation rituals for recruits. But the soldiers he met were different. ‘Real men, who endured tremendous hardships,’ he said.
Zelensky made donations to fund uniforms, boots and rations, a stance that did not go unnoticed in Russia, where he was accused of sponsoring ‘death squads’ and put under official investigation. His lucrative Russian contracts dried up. ‘To be honest, it doesn’t worry me in the slightest,’ he said.
Volodymyr Zelensky during The Kyiv Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen organised by his wife
Then, in November 2015, Kvartal 95 released the first episode of a satire that would turn out to be very prescient.
In one sketch, Servant Of The People, Zelensky played a history teacher who launched into a tirade against injustices in Ukraine: corruption, broken election promises, stagnation and poverty, and the tax privileges, dachas [second homes] and motorcycle escorts for the political class.
A student put the video online and the tirade went viral. The young history teacher was asked to run for office and won with a landslide. A new kind of leader was born.
Within two years, Zelensky had registered Servant Of The People as a political party. He initially claimed he’d done it ‘just in case’ anyone else used it, insisting it was ‘not a genuine political project’.
But, at 39, Zelensky was ready for a new challenge.
In spring 2018, he announced his intention to run for president – only after Olena, his shining light, who was strongly against it, failed to talk him out of it.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a joint press conference with Dutch Prime Minister Rutte (not pictured) following their talks in Kyiv
He was swept to power in April 2019, the sixth president of Ukraine, with 72.3 per cent of the vote.
Within a year, Zelensky had been disabused of many illusions.
He had promised he’d leave the grand presidential palace and move into modern offices. The plan was abandoned on cost grounds.
He also realised that he would be unable to fulfil a promise to put things right within a single presidential term.
An anti-corruption drive was curtailed, but he was still on a mission to transform Ukraine into a modern country with a digital economy and high standard of living. Nearly 9,000 miles of road – 40 per cent of the country’s arterial network – received fresh tarmac. Historic buildings were restored and some agricultural land was privatised.
But the challenge was immense. Corruption was endemic. Nearly everyone’s hands were dirty. As he admitted to journalists, Ukraine was ‘a complete s*** heap’.
President Volodymyr Zelensky facing journalists during a visit to Black Sea port of Chornomors ahead of an export of grain
Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a statement during a joint press conference with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda
Confronted with these seemingly insurmountable problems, Zelensky brought to bear his cast-iron personal discipline.
He permitted himself his favourite snack – hot chips – only once or twice a year. He was still an avid gym-goer, although he had less time to walk Nora, his white Swiss herder, or Petya, his black miniature schnauzer.
He found it genuinely regrettable. After all his negative experiences with politicians, he had come to like people less and his dogs more.
In moments of weakness, he would relapse into his nicotine addiction, vaping on an e-cigarette.
‘He has changed a lot,’ said his longtime collaborator Aleksander Pikalov. ‘He talks to people differently, is more analytical, and is less prone to losing his temper. He has become wiser, stronger. He is continually working on self-improvement, as though in some kind of internal dialogue with himself.’
By the start of this year, as Russia massed troops and artillery on the Ukrainian border, Zelensky knew he was preparing for war.
Olena Zelenska speaks to members of the US Congress about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in the US Capitol Visitors Center Auditorium, in Washington, DC
On February 24, Olena awoke just after 4.30am to the sound of explosions. Her president husband was already dressed – the last time he was seen in a suit and tie. ‘It has begun,’ he said.
The following evening, he stood next to the palace and made a video on his phone. ‘Your president is here,’ he said. ‘Our armed forces are here, our people are here. We will defend our independence, our country. Long live Ukraine!’
Putin underestimated Zelensky. Oleksander Rodnyansky, a TV boss who gave him his big break, said: ‘This man is no coward, no thief, he has made no compromises, hasn’t fled the country and has not surrendered. He’s a fighter.’
On June 3, as Kyiv became safe again, Zelensky was back in front of the presidential palace, but in broad daylight. ‘We have defended Ukraine for 100 days,’ he said.
As a triumphant smile spread across his face – and with a knowing echo of a slogan Putin had previously used – Zelensky added: ‘Victory is ours.’
© Steven Derix and Marina Shelkunova, 2022
- Zelensky, by Steven Derix with Marina Shelkunova, is published by Canbury Press at £16.99. To order a copy for £15.29, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before August 21. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
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