When occupying Russian forces came knocking on doors in his small village in east Ukraine in late April to check the identities of residents, 64-year-old retiree Volodymyr Zelensky was terrified.
Then, one of the Russian soldiers glanced at his passport and burst out laughing.
“It’s okay guys, the war is over,” the soldier said. “We can go home — we got their president!”
Born in 1958 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, then part of the Soviet Union, to a coal miner and a construction worker, Zelensky, a namesake of the Ukrainian leader, served as a driver in the Soviet army and then worked in construction.
Since Russia invaded its neighbour in February, Zelensky, who has no known relationship to the Ukrainian president, has spent most of the war hiding from bombardment in the basement of his house.
“I had quit smoking four years before, but I started again,” Zelensky said.
AFP is not disclosing the name of his village for security reasons.
– ‘Don’t look like him’ –
His wife Valentina Zelenska, 72, evacuated to western Ukraine at the start of the war, but Zelensky refused to leave the home he purchased 20 years ago.
Here, he could finally breathe “the purest air” after years in a mining town, plant vegetables on his own plot, enjoy time on the patio, and fish in the local pond.
Zelenska returned home after Kyiv’s forces expelled the Russians from the village late last month.
But it is now being pounded by Russian artillery, and she is alarmed whenever a blast outside blows the plastic sheet on their gutted window inwards.
“She hasn’t gotten used to it,” said her husband, wearing corduroy trousers and a jumper with a zip collar.
With the help of a flashlight, he retrieved an old photo album, and found a photo of himself as a man in his 40s in khaki uniform.
“I don’t think I look like the president. Not at all,” he said.
His wife disagreed.
“But you do look like him!” she said from her stool on the other edge of the living room.
“Which president are you talking about? Biden?” he asked.
– ‘People can’t take it anymore’ –
His wife said Zelensky was a common last name in Ukraine, as well as in Russia.
But she admits she had never known any other Volodymyr Zelensky until Ukraine’s current leader, a former comedian, was elected president in 2019.
Zelensky, the retiree, voted for his namesake in the election.
“He presents well, he is young, intelligent,” he said.
But now Zelensky says he is disappointed that the president is not doing more to negotiate an end to the war with Russia.
“The people here can’t take it anymore,” he said.
Like many residents of his generation in the eastern Donbas region, Zelensky considers Ukraine to be his homeland.
But the former Soviet soldier is also nostalgic for his years under the Soviet regime, which he says brought peace and prosperity to his generation.
It was the couple’s twenty-second marriage anniversary on Wednesday, and Zelensky wanted to give his wife a bunch of flowers.
But in a village ravaged by fighting and cut off from the rest of the world, there were none to be found.