The saga of Volodymyr Zelensky — the Jewish comedian elected president of Ukraine — was already mind-boggling. Now it’s taken a turn for the surreal, as the 41-year-old has assumed a place not just as head of a country of 44 million people, but also at the center of a potentially historic American political scandal. The allegations against Trump: In July, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter. Democrats are calling Trump’s alleged solicitation of a foreign power to act on his behalf against a political rival grounds for impeachment and say they are opening an inquiry to explore that possibility. It’s a story that even Zelensky, who starred as a fictional president on his television show “Servant of the People,” couldn’t have made up. Here are some key facts about Zelensky and Ukraine.
Zelensky had no political experience before he ran for president. Indeed, he named his party after his television show. Trump leaned heavily on the neophyte leader, asking him eight times to investigate Joe Biden’s son, who has business interests in the country, according to the Journal.
Ukraine is a country with big problems. Russia-sized problems. It’s been at war with its massive neighbor for five years in eastern Ukraine. The Washington Post has reported that Trump decided to withhold $400 million in military aid from Ukraine before that call with Zelensky, raising the possibility that he did so to intensify his leverage over the Ukrainian leader.
The war with Russia has also generated lots of propaganda about ostensibly rampant anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Ukrianians, in turn, touted Zelensky’s victory as evidence that Ukraine is hardly the pogrom-happy land Russian media makes it out to be.
Jews in Ukraine do seem to be safe from anti-Semitic violence. Yet the sentiment persists. The leading Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KMIS), from September 2018, asked Ukrainians if they would accept members of particular ethnic and religious groups into their country, using a seven-point scale called the Bogardus Social Distance Scale. 12 per cent of Ukrainians, when asked about Jews, chose the last option —“wouldn’t let them in Ukraine” at all.
Local Jewish leaders scoff at the notion of Zelensky as a Jewish symbol. The man himself has seldom even publicly noted his Jewish origins. “Zelensky is not seen as a Jew by most of voters,” one such leader told the Forward. “He’s never been associated with the Jewish community, no one has ever seen him in synagogue, he has never commented on Jewish things. I don’t see a connection between his victory and anti-Semitism.”
Indeed, Zelensky has ties to a controversial Jewish figure. Yet the association doesn’t seem to have harmed him in the election, which he won handily. His television show ran on a network owned by controversial self-exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi. Kolomoiskyi is currently living in Israel, seeking to avoid criminal charges from Ukrainian authorities for allegedly defrauding a Ukrainian bank of billions of dollars. Zelensky was called Kolomoiskyi’s “puppet.”
Zelensky was born in the southern industrial city of Kryvyi Rih. Home to about 45,000 Jews before World War II, the city’s Jewish population was decimated by the war, but some say Jewish life has rebounded there since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. One Kryvyi Rih rabbi wrote effusively several years ago of new opportunities for the city’s Jews – and stressed that “the issue of interethnic hostility has never come up in Kryvyi Rih.”
Michael Colborne contributed reporting.
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Helen Chernikoff is the Forward’s News Editor. She came to the Forward from The Jewish Week, where she served as the first web director and created both a blog dedicated to disability issues and a food and wine website. Before that, she covered the housing, lodging and logistics industries for Reuters, where she could sit at her desk and watch her stories move the stock market. Helen has a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University and a BA in History and French from Amherst College. She is also a rabbinical school dropout. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @thesimplechild.