How Zelensky Gave the World a Jewish Hero

As the Ukrainian president captivates the world with his bravery, he offers a reminder of the inroads Eastern and Central European Jews have made in overcoming their status as perpetual outsiders.

A photo of Volodymyr Zelensky in profile
Johanna Geron / AP

For those inclined to see history as depressingly cyclical, the war in Ukraine offers fairly strong evidence. It all feels lifted from a familiar script in which only the actors have been switched—at anti-Russian protests, a popular placard even has the 20th century’s most evil mustache Photoshopped onto Putin’s face. But there is one protagonist who is an unusual fit for his role: Volodymyr Zelensky.

The 44-year-old former comedian turned president has exhibited great patriotism and bravery, joining his fate with that of his countrymen on the streets of Kyiv, refusing to leave despite Western offers of an airlift. If he is now, as he put it, “the No. 1 target” for the Russians, it is because he is the No. 1 Ukrainian. And what is remarkable, truly mind-blowing in the long sweep of history, is that his Jewishness has not stood in the way of his being embraced as a symbol of the nation.

In the Soviet world that shaped Zelensky and his parents, Jews were perceived as the eternal outsiders, possible fifth columnists, the “rootless cosmopolitans” of Stalin’s imagination. This of course came on top of living in a place where a particularly virulent strain of anti-Semitism had always existed, a legacy of pogroms and Nazi collaboration. Just outside embattled Kyiv is Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were shot and thrown into a ravine over the course of two days in 1941. If Zelensky has now become synonymous with the blue-and-yellow flag of his country, it might signal an unexpected outcome of this conflict that has found Jews feeling finally, improbably, one with a land that has perpetually tried to spit them out.

Zelensky grew up in the Russian-speaking city of Kryvyi Rih, in the eastern part of Ukraine. And like most Soviet Jews, his parents were highly educated but also limited as to where their ambitions and learning could take them. His father was a professor of mathematics and his mother had studied engineering. These were standard-issue careers for a certain class of Soviet Jews who knew they couldn’t come close to any of the fields that shaped society and culture—one after another turned to the applied sciences as a way to excel.

When asked about what his actual Jewishness has meant to him, Zelensky has been blasé. In an interview in 2020, he said he came from “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family,” adding that “most Jewish families in the Soviet Union were not religious.” What this hides, though, is the reality that Jewish identity didn’t exist in the Soviet Union, because it couldn’t. To be a Jew from the time of Stalin onward was to have a stamp in your internal passport that marked you as such (just as a Ukrainian or Latvian national identity was also indicated). There was very little opportunity for Jewish community, religious practice, or even bare-bones cultural expression. Unlike Ukrainians and Latvians who had national homelands within the Soviet empire where some degree of culture and language were permitted as long as it stuck to the Communist party line, Jews had nothing of the sort. Synagogues were mostly shut down or crawling with KGB informants. Until the  late 1980s, gathering for something as innocuous as a Passover seder was practically a subversive act, and teaching Hebrew was simply not allowed.

By the time Zelensky came of age, three or four generations of Soviet Jews had experienced their Jewish identity as a hollow thing, nothing but a black mark on a passport and a sense of peoplehood born of exclusion and a second-class status. All the while, no matter how steeped in Pushkin they might be, they were never able to fully claim any other national allegiance. When the Soviet Union began buckling to pressure to let Jews emigrate in the 1970s, many took the opportunity to do so, even those mathematicians and engineers who had achieved the heights allowed to them. By the early 1990s, just after the Soviet collapse, the permitted trickle became a deluge, and about 1.5 million headed to the United States and Israel.

Zelensky and his family were part of the few hundred thousand Jews who stayed, content to assimilate in a post-Soviet world, in which Zelensky found success, first as an actor and then as a politician. Two intersecting trends took place over the past 20 years, both of which transformed the status of Jews in Ukraine. First, the end of the Soviet Union allowed some air to enter Jewish communal life for those who remained. In the eastern-Ukrainian city of Dnipro, not far from where Zelensky grew up, there are now 10 synagogues and a gargantuan community center called Menorah, opened in 2012, that reportedly serves 40,000 people a day—even though there are only 60,000 Jews in Dnipro. By 2019, a Pew Research Center poll found Ukraine the most accepting of Jews among all Central and Eastern European countries.

As new opportunities for Jewishness were opening up, the past decade also saw instances when Jews were on the front line of defending a democratic and free Ukraine. Prominent Jewish-identified activists participated in the 2013 Euromaidan demonstrations that forced the ouster of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014. Later that year, the Jewish governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region established and personally helped fund a militia to defend against Russian-backed separatists in the east.

Zelensky’s political rise also took place in this context. It’s uncanny in retrospect that the character he played on television in the series Servant of the People—the role that foretold his actual ascendance to the presidency—is a nobody whose rise begins when a private rant is filmed and goes viral. But there is a kind of logic to this coincidence. Zelensky grabbed the attention of Ukrainians by playing out what has traditionally been the part of the Jew: the outsider. In this case, what Ukrainians saw in this lonely figure banging on the window was themselves, embattled, trying to hold on to their national identity amid growing threats to their independence. It may have been this aspect of his Jewishness and the way it came to dovetail with those Ukrainian anxieties that made him such a suddenly popular figure, winning 73 percent of the vote in his 2019 election.

In these days of war and uncertainty, the fact that a Jew has come to represent the fighting spirit of Ukraine provides its own kind of hope. Along with all that seems to be recurring—the military aggression, the assault on freedom—there is also something new: inclusion and acceptance in a place where it once seemed impossible.