Before his valiant stand against Russian aggression inspired underdogs around the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delighted families as his country’s voice of Paddington Bear in dubbed versions of Paddington and Paddington 2.
Zelensky became a professional comedian at the age of 17, and prior to his political career he enjoyed a place as one of Ukraine’s most beloved entertainers. He also won the country’s version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006, and in 2015 he created the popular political satire Servant of the People, in which he played a history teacher who was elected President of Ukraine after one of his student’s recorded a profanity-ridden tirade against government corruption and uploaded it to the internet.
The show’s anti-corruption message was so popular that in 2018 Zelensky founded the Servant of the People political party, and in 2019 he was elected President in a second-round-vote landslide. Almost immediately he faced nearly unprecedented challenges. Also in 2019, then-US President Donald Trump withheld $250 million in Ukrainian aid in an effort to extort Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Zelensky resisted this pressure, and the political fallout led to Trump being impeached the first time.
Today, the 44-year-old President is credited with leading Ukraine’s surprisingly stout defense against Russia’s unprovoked invasion. His refusal to flee seems to be one of the reasons that so many citizens have joined Ukraine’s army in the fight; when the US offered him an escape route, he reportedly responded, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” His instantly iconic “We are here,” video, shot as a selfie in the streets of Kyiv, will likely go down as one of the greatest wartime speeches of the early 21st century.
As Ukraine refuses to buckle in the face of Russia’s greater resources, the international community has come together to offer as much support as they dare without starting World War III. Sanctions have sent Russia’s ruble into a tailspin, with support coming even from the famously neutral country of Switzerland. After generations of pacifism, Germany has announced a huge increase in its defense budget, while the conflict might be pushing Sweden and Finland to finally join NATO. We may be seeing the largest geopolitical realignment since the end of the Cold War, and while Russia’s Vladimir Putin deserves most of the blame for his brazen invasion, Zelensky’s courage has made it possible.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that many wartime acts of bravery don’t hold up under sustained scrutiny. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we view Zelensky very differently later on. But for now, he seems to be the most important European leader since World War II. He’s come a long way since voicing a lovable ursine spouting off about “мармелад” (“marmalade”). Check out a selection of his Dancing withe the Stars routines below.