‘He was special’: the story of Zelenskiy told by his hometown

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

The university has a modern vibe. Teenage programmers sit on bean bags and wander up and down an external staircase built for a recent hackathon. Only one item of furniture is incongruous amid the bright colours and glass cubicles at the institute of economics and technology: an old turquoise-painted desk.

A student who once sat at it went on to became an international celebrity – and Ukraine’s wartime president. “Volodymyr Zelenskiy was special. He was bright, hard-working and wanted to be the best of the best,” Andrii Shaikan, rector of the state university in Zelenskiy’s home town of Kryvyi Rih, told the Guardian.

In the mid-1990s, Shaikan was at the university himself, in the year above Zelenskiy. The president’s father, Oleksandr, is a well-known academic and heads its department of informatics and applied software. Zelenskiy’s mother, Rymma, is an engineer. Both parents are Jewish. Like his friends and neighbours, Zelenskiy grew up speaking Russian.

Shaikan said Zelenskiy Sr had hoped his son, who read law, may go into academia. Instead, the future president developed a taste for show business, taking part in sketches and comedy competitions. A photo taken by Shaikan in 1996 shows a floppy-haired Zelenskiy standing with a group of fellow student performers, dressed in white jeans and a colourful waistcoat.

His home was in one of the city’s middle-class districts. Back then, Kryvyi Rih was known for its criminal associations. Young men who returned from the Soviet war in Afghanistan drifted into lives of crime and drug dealing. “As a teenager, Volodymyr had two alternatives: he could succeed, or he could become a member of a criminal gang,” Shaikan recalled.

He added: “We watched Volodymyr realise himself step by step. He has great leadership skills and is quick at solving problems. He makes instant decisions. And it’s very difficult to influence him.” The rector said he was not a fan of Zelenskiy’s “mass culture” TV shows including Servant of the People and preferred his live standup acts.

The rector voted for him in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, which Zelenskiy won by a landslide. “We knew his environment and family roots,” he said. One influence, Shaikan said, was Zelenskiy’s grandfather who worked in the USSR as a criminal detective. “Volodymyr was interested in the law. He wanted to take after his grandfather,” the rector said.

In an interview with CNN, Zelenskiy revealed that his grandfather Semyon had fought in the Red Army, reaching the rank of colonel. Semyon’s father and three brothers perished in the Holocaust. The Germans murdered Zelenskiy’s great-grandparents when they burned down their village. His tragic family history makes ridiculous the Kremlin’s claim that Zelenskiy is a fascist.

The president’s former teachers described Zelenskiy as an intellectually capable undergraduate, who sometimes missed classes because he was busy on stage. Afterwards, he would apologise and hand in his assignments, they said. He drew other people to him, they added, and won an Olympiad competition for his mastery of English.

“He had a great sense of humour. I taught him business English in his fourth year. I was strict. Students had to write letters. He made fun of stereotypes, and would mock the format by saying he intended to transport camels and elephants,” lecturer Kira Vyshnevska said. “You could see his political sensibility growing. He criticised our corrupt political system,” she added.

Economics lecturer Natalia Voloshaniuk said Zelenskiy was a “leader and an organiser” who took his studies seriously, even as his show business career took off. She added: “People followed him. He was an intellectual light, and a humorous and fun guy. His decency was obvious. There was lot of the real Zelenskiy in the president he portrayed in Servant of the People.”

In spring, Russian forces came close to seizing Zelenskiy’s home town, which was built in the 19th century along a series of mines. The city in south-east Ukraine is Europe’s longest at 75 miles (120km) and is dotted with chimney stacks and 20th-century foundries. When the enemy advanced, Shaikan said he and his colleagues made molotov cocktails and dug ditches.

Russia’s objective was to seize Kryvyi Rih’s airfield and use it as a base to conquer the south – and to humiliate Zelenskiy by occupying his native city and hanging up Russian flags. Ukraine’s armed forces shoved the Russians back. The frontline is now 31 miles (50km) away. Russian troops are encamped on the bank of the Dnieper river in Zaporizhzhia oblast.

From there, they have been bombarding the Ukrainian-controlled towns of Nikopol and Marhanets, last week killing at least 16 people. All the victims were civilians. A 13-year-old girl was hospitalised. Enemy soldiers have occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, just across the river, prompting international concern and accusations from Zelenskiy of “state terrorism” by Russia.

Oleksandr Vilkul, the head of Kryvyi Rih’s military administration, said Moscow could no longer reach Kryvyi Rih with artillery. It still bombards the city once a week with longer range rockets. There was no prospect of the Russian army launching a second offensive in the region, he said, adding: “People are patriotic. Everybody is working for victory. Ukraine will free all its territory.”

Since February, 70,000 internally displaced people have arrived in Kryvyi Rih, Vilkul said, fleeing from the Nikopol district and eastern and southern regions. He said that when Ukraine liberated these occupied areas, it would find evidence of murders and war crimes. “There will be many places like Bucha. The Russians are worse than German fascists,” he said.

The city – which has a peacetime population of 600,000 – is feeding 40,000 refugees every day. It has converted a house of culture into a humanitarian centre, complete with racks of secondhand clothes, medicines, a nurse, legal advice and a children’s play area. Its industrial enterprises have ground to a halt, since Ukraine is unable to export and import materials from its Black Sea ports.

Outside the centre, a mural of a familiar figure was being painted on a brick wall. It was none other than Boris Johnson. Artist Anastasia Scherba said she was grateful to the outgoing UK prime minister for supporting Ukraine and giving it weapons. The design – created by a collective from Odesa – showed Johnson giving a thumbs up. “He’s cool,” Scherba said.