On Jan. 23, Time journalist Simon Shuster’s book about the President Volodymyr Zelensky, “The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky” will be published.

Shuster was the only journalist who had access to Zelensky from the first days of the war. As he recounts Zelensky’s biography, Shuster describes the changes the President has gone through, especially since Feb. 24, 2022.

The first excerpts from the book were published in The Telegraph and TIME. Kyiv Post cites the most striking fragments.

1) Future humorist from the city of bandits

Volodymyr Zelensky was already a celebrity when his first child was born in 2003. Back then, he and his wife Olena Zelenska often lived apart. He spent his days touring and promoting his comedy troupe in Kyiv, while she often stayed with her parents in their hometown of Kryvyi Rih, the city that Zelensky would later credit with forging his character.


The future president called Kryvyi Rih the city of bandits at the end of the 20th century. His wife also remembers that there were many gangs, which consisted mainly of young people. They often committed crimes, so it was dangerous to walk the streets.

“Just being on your own was scary,” Olena recalls.

Despite the gangs, Zelensky was able to avoid a criminal fate. And for that, he is grateful to his parents.

2) Anti-Soviet family

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“His paternal grandfather, Semyon Zelensky, served as a senior officer in the city’s police force, investigating organized crime or, as his grandson later put it, ‘catching bad guys.’ Stories of his service in the Second World War made a profound impression on the young Zelensky, as did the traumas of the Holocaust. Both sides of his family are Jewish, and they lost many of their own during the war,” Shuster says.

In addition, Zelensky’s father Oleksandr refused to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union all his life, he was categorically against it. But the family of the future comedian tried not to publicly voice their feelings.


Zelensky recalls that 15 years of his childhood were torn between two countries – Ukraine and Mongolia, where his father accepted a prestigious job in mining development. They even moved there to live. But the local climate did not suit his mother Rymma, so she and her son returned to Kryvyi Rih.

“Zelensky’s parents were often separated in those years by five time zones and around 6,000 kilometers. Even at that distance, his father continued to be a dominant presence in Zelensky’s life,” the book says.

Zelensky remembers his father as strict, and his mother as someone who spoiled him more often than punished him.

3) Obsession with humor

Shuster describes Zelensky as a “the product of an era of change… too young to experience the Soviet Union as the stagnant, repressive gerontocracy his parents had known.”

He had already seen how the USSR was gradually collapsing, and television began to allow itself to talk more about the forbidden. At the same time, Zelensky and his friends fell in love with the most popular TV show of that era, KVN, which stands for “The Club of the Funny and Inventive.”


KVN was more like a sports league of young comedians. It featured competing groups of performers, often made up of college students, who performed skits and improvisations in front of a panel of judges who decided at the end of the show which team was the funniest.

“For Zelensky and his friends, it was an obsession,” Shuster writes.

In Kryvyi Rih, he formed his team to achieve success and conquer the main stage of KVN in Moscow.

“Around their neighborhood in the 1990s, Zelensky’s crew stood out from the start. Instead of the track pants and leather jackets that local hoodlums wore to school, their look was a kind of ’50s retro: plaid blazers and polka-dot ties, slacks with suspenders, pressed white shirts, long hair slicked back with too much gel. Zelensky wore a ring in his ear. At a time when Nirvana was on the radio, he and his friends sang Beatles songs and listened to old-timey rock ’n’ roll.”

4) The first success in Russia

Thanks to KVN, Zelensky met his future wife Olena. They fell in love with each other already after having finished school. She became not only a life partner, but also her husband’s partner in his comedy career.


The first success came to them in 1997, when they performed in Moscow.

A year after their breakthrough performance in Moscow, they competed for the first time under the name Kvartal 95 (District 95), a nod to the neighborhood where they grew up. Zelensky settled in the capital of Russia for his dream.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also liked to watch KVN. He was a frequent guest there, so over time any sharp jokes in his direction were forbidden.

Zelensky, who was living and working in Moscow at the time, watched the turn toward authoritarianism in Russia with the same concern as all his colleagues in show business, Shuster says.

5) Return to Ukraine

Despite success, Zelensky left Russia in 2003.

“Members of Zelensky’s team agree their departure was far from amicable, though they all seem to remember it a little differently. One of them told me the breaking point with KVN was an antisemitic slur. During a rehearsal, a Russian producer stood on the stage and said loudly, in reference to Zelensky, ‘Where’s that little yid?’” Shuster recounts.

So, a decision was made to build a career in Ukraine.

Kvartal 95 gained incredible fame in Ukraine – even though his parents were not pleased with his career choice.

“It proved to be such a success that, shortly after, the team at Kvartal 95 reached a deal to make a series of variety shows that would air in Russia and Ukraine. Their tone departed from the more wholesome, aw-shucks style of KVN. The jokes took on a harder edge, and they became much more overtly political.”


6) Thirst for flattery

Shuster writes that Zelensky has a passion for applause and flattery. The comedian himself said that going on stage causes him two emotions: “First comes the fear, and only when you overcome the fear, the pleasure kicks in. That’s what always drew me back out there.”

Shuster wondered about Zelensky’s motivation: “He had been chasing that feeling since he started doing comedy as a teenager, and it struck me as strange that he would now abandon everything he’d built to become the thing he claimed to despise: a politician. Did he really want that job? Was it power he wanted? Was he bored?”

Zelensky did not have any reasonable or convincing answers, the journalist recalls.

Until the final hours, Zelensky did not believe the invasion would happen.

7) The first days of the great war

After Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Zelensky had to stop being so irreverent.

Until the final hours, Zelensky did not believe it would happen. Only on the eve of the invasion did Olena make a note to pack a suitcase. But she never got around to it. She did homework with the kids. They had dinner and watched TV. Her husband said nothing to make her believe they were in danger. Often, he veiled his concerns behind jokes and smiles.


“‘Emotionally,’ she later said, ‘he was like the string on a guitar, his nerves stretched to the point of snapping.’ But she does not remember seeing fear that morning. ‘He was completely together, focused,’” Shuster writes.

Shuster sustains that by his actions before the invasion, Zelensky bore at least part of the blame for the weak state of the nation’s defense. He spent weeks downplaying the risk of a full-scale invasion, and he rejected advice from military commanders to fortify the border.

Zelensky said that he was very offended by the allies’ proposals to leave the country, “as if he had been written off.”

When information was received about the first possible air strike on the President’s Office, the President was forced to go down into the bunker. But even there he cheered himself up.

He girded up his loins by imagining the world was watching him. “You’re a symbol. You need to act the way a head of state must act.”

8) Battle for Hostomel

Zelensky showed his greatest anger when Russian attack helicopters ended up in the city of Hostomel, not far from the capital. Although the United States warned Russia about this plan, the President did not believe it until the end.

When this happened, Zelensky gave orders to use all available weapons to destroy the Russians. But there were problems with this, because there were not enough weapon stocks.

Meanwhile an emergency summit of European leaders was taking place to determine what punishment Russia deserved. The leaders of Germany, Austria and Hungary, among others, didn’t want to cut ties with the Russian banking system. Their debate went in circles – until Zelensky dialed in.

“Pale and tired, with the early stubble of his wartime beard beginning to show, the President did not have much faith in his allies to save him, and the pessimism showed. ‘This may be the last time you see me alive,’ Zelensky told them.”

Instead of asking to be saved, he demanded an answer to the question that Ukraine had been asking for years: will it ever be allowed to join the European Union?

9) Life in a bunker

Zelensky began living in a bunker. “The nights were hardest for Zelensky. His bed was barely wide enough to toss and turn. The buzzing from his phone rarely stopped. ‘In those first days, I would wake everybody up,’ he said. ‘I didn’t have the right to sleep until I knew what strikes had landed where.’ Then as early as 4:50 a.m., Zelensky would be requesting an update,” Shuster writes.

Zelensky’s face turned sallow. He complained about the lack of sunlight and fresh air. Some of his employees were worried. His paralegal recalls that he looked like a walking corpse.

Zelensky and his team kept a supply of alcohol even after the government banned its sale, and he sometimes poured wine for aides who joined him for meals.

The President had dumbbells and a bench press, which he made a habit of using, often at night. Later, a ping-pong table was set up. Few could beat him.

“Occasionally, he invited staff to watch a film, often new Hollywood releases. Zelensky could no longer stomach Soviet comedies. ‘They revolt me,’ he said. In place of the joy and nostalgia they had once evoked, he now felt a void.”

Communication with his wife and children, who were hiding in another part of the country, decreased.

10) Zaluzhny and Zelensky: “awkward partners”

The book also mentions Zelensky’s relationship with Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Gen. Valery Zaluzhny. Shuster describes him as a potential opponent of the President:

“Since the war began Zelensky had been seen as Ukraine’s hero. But now fan pages devoted to the General had hundreds of thousands of followers. Headlines called him the Iron General. People printed his image on T-shirts. Some officials in the President’s office suspected the General of harboring a hunger for power.”

Shuster recalls that during his first meeting with Zaluzhny, the General made it clear that “politicians and generals are awkward partners.”

Indeed, “their relationship worked best when Zelensky stuck to convincing allies to provide the weapons,” Shuster recounted, adding that the General claimed Zelensky “doesn’t need to understand military affairs any more than he needs to know about medicine or bridge building.”

But when the Russians retreated from the occupied part of the Kyiv region, Zelensky became more confident. He formed his military priorities, and they did not always coincide with Gen. Zaluzhny’s.

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