TIME magazine’s new cover. pic.twitter.com/JiwBVFsu1E
— Jon Cooper (@joncoopertweets) April 28, 2022
"As night fell February 24th, Guards brought bulletproof vests and assault rifles for Zelensky and aides, only a few knew how to handle. Russian troops made two attempts to storm the compound. Zelensky later told me his wife and children were still there."https://t.co/AbkUFK9zg2
— Bianna Golodryga (@biannagolodryga) April 28, 2022
When the ‘special military incursion’ was still just a talking point, a Russian expat on twitter (probably Slava Malamud) talked about how ‘The Moth’ Putin was regarded by his countrymen as a nasty little mid-level bureaucrat. An aging grey functionary whose natural metier would have been gleefully denying office equipment upgrades and meddling with his subordinates’ leave schedules got unexpectedly lucky when the kleptocrat he served as bagman won the murder lottery during the looting of the collapsing Soviet Union.
If that’s anywhere near the truth, the emergence of President Zelenskyy — a Jewish comedian! — as a national icon and a global celebrity has got to be giving him ulcers:
The nights are the hardest, when he lies there on his cot, the whine of the air-raid sirens in his ears and his phone still buzzing beside him. Its screen makes his face look like a ghost in the dark, his eyes scanning messages he didn’t have a chance to read during the day. Some from his wife and kids, many from his advisers, a few from his troops, surrounded in their bunkers, asking him again and again for more weapons to break the Russian siege.
Inside his own bunker, the President has a habit of staring at his daily agenda even when the day is over. He lies awake and wonders whether he missed something, forgot someone. “It’s pointless,” Volodymyr Zelensky told me at the presidential compound in Kyiv, just outside the office where he sometimes sleeps. “It’s the same agenda. I see it’s over for today. But I look at it several times and sense that something is wrong.” It’s not anxiety that keeps his eyes from closing. “It’s my conscience bothering me.”…
Outside Ukraine, Zelensky told me, “People see this war on Instagram, on social media. When they get sick of it, they will scroll away.” It’s human nature. Horrors have a way of making us close our eyes. “It’s a lot of blood,” he explains. “It’s a lot of emotion.” Zelensky senses the world’s attention flagging, and it troubles him nearly as much as the Russian bombs. Most nights, when he scans his agenda, his list of tasks has less to do with the war itself than with the way it is perceived. His mission is to make the free world experience this war the way Ukraine does: as a matter of its own survival…
My request was not just for a chance to question the President. It was to see the war the way he and his team have experienced it. Over two weeks in April, they allowed me to do that in the presidential compound on Bankova Street, to observe their routines and hang around the offices where they now live and work. Zelensky and his staff made the place feel almost normal. We cracked jokes, drank coffee, waited for meetings to start or end. Only the soldiers, our ever present chaperones, embodied the war as they took us around, shining flashlights down dark corridors, past the rooms where they slept on the floor.
The experience illustrated how much Zelensky has changed since we first met three years ago, backstage at his comedy show in Kyiv, when he was still an actor running for President. His sense of humor is still intact. “It’s a means of survival,” he says. But two months of war have made him harder, quicker to anger, and a lot more comfortable with risk. Russian troops came within minutes of finding him and his family in the first hours of the war, their gunfire once audible inside his office walls. Images of dead civilians haunt him. So do the daily appeals from his troops, hundreds of whom are trapped belowground, running out of food, water, and ammunition…
Beyond the checkpoints is the government district, known as the Triangle, which Russian forces tried to seize at the start of the invasion. When those first hours came up in our interview, Zelensky warned me the memories exist “in a fragmented way,” a disjointed set of images and sounds. Among the most vivid took place before sunrise on Feb. 24, when he and his wife Olena Zelenska went to tell their children the bombing had started, and to prepare them to flee their home. Their daughter is 17 and their son is 9, both old enough to understand they were in danger. “We woke them up,” Zelensky told me, his eyes turning inward. “It was loud. There were explosions over there.”
It soon became clear the presidential offices were not the safest place to be. The military informed Zelensky that Russian strike teams had parachuted into Kyiv to kill or capture him and his family. “Before that night, we had only ever seen such things in the movies,” says Andriy Yermak, the President’s chief of staff…
Offers came in from American and British forces to evacuate the President and his team. The idea was to help them set up a government in exile, most likely in eastern Poland, that could continue to lead from afar. None of Zelensky’s advisers recall him giving these offers any serious consideration. Speaking on a secure landline with the Americans, he responded with a zinger that made headlines around the world: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
“We thought that was brave,” says a U.S. official briefed on the call. “But very risky.” Zelensky’s bodyguards felt the same. They also urged him to leave the compound right away. Its buildings are nestled in a densely populated neighborhood, surrounded by private homes that could serve as nests for enemy snipers. Some houses are close enough to throw a grenade through the window from across the street. “The place was wide open,” says Arestovych. “We didn’t even have concrete blocks to close the street.”
Somewhere outside the capital, a secure bunker was waiting for the President, equipped to withstand a lengthy siege. Zelensky refused to go there. Instead, on the second night of the invasion, while Ukrainian forces were fighting the Russians in nearby streets, the President decided to walk outside into the courtyard and film a video message on his phone. “We’re all here,” Zelensky said after doing a roll call of the officials by his side. They were dressed in the army green T-shirts and jackets that would become their war-time uniforms. “Defending our independence, our country.”
By then, Zelensky understood his role in this war. The eyes of his people and much of the world were fixed on him. “You understand that they’re watching,” he says. “You’re a symbol. You need to act the way the head of state must act.”…
Perhaps it was lucky for me to meet the President toward the end of a very long day. Nearly two months into the invasion, he had changed. There were new creases in his face, and he no longer searched the room for his advisers when considering an answer to a question. “I’ve gotten older,” he admitted. “I’ve aged from all this wisdom that I never wanted. It’s the wisdom tied to the number of people who have died, and the torture the Russian soldiers perpetrated. That kind of wisdom,” he added, trailing off. “To be honest, I never had the goal of attaining knowledge like that.”
It made me wonder whether he regretted the choice he made three years ago, around the time we first met. His comedy show had been a hit. Standing in his dressing room, he was still glowing from the admiration of the crowd. Friends waited backstage to start the after-party. Fans gathered outside to take a picture with him. This was just three months into his run for the presidency, when it was not too late for Zelensky to turn back.
But he does not regret the choice he made, not even with the hindsight of the war. “Not for a second,” he told me in the presidential compound. He doesn’t know how the war will end, or how history will describe his place in it. In this moment, he only knows Ukraine needs a wartime President. And that is the role he intends to play.