WSJ: Who Is Volodymyr Zelensky?

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Free WSJ read titled, "Who Is Volodymyr Zelensky? What to Know About Ukraine’s President

Born on Jan. 25, 1978, Mr. Zelensky grew up in a gritty, Russian-speaking region in southeast Ukraine. His background was Jewish; several family members died in the Holocaust while his grandfather served in World War II as an officer in the Soviet army. His father, a mathematician, and his mother, an engineer, chose to stay in Ukraine while many other Jews departed for the U.S. or Israel when the former Soviet Union permitted them to emigrate. Childhood friends recall how he stood out for his earring and his good grades in school. He later obtained a law degree at Kyiv National Economic University.

Mr. Zelensky himself has made little of his Jewish identity, saying in 2020 that he came from an ordinary Soviet Jewish family and that most such families weren’t religious. This appears to ignore how Jews in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, largely had to suppress their religious identity and were viewed as outsiders. Some commentators have suggested this has informed Mr. Zelensky’s own self-image as an outsider, reflected in both his TV work and his presidential campaign in 2019.

Ukrainians appear more favorably disposed toward Jews than do the people of other countries that were in the Soviet bloc. A Pew Research Center poll in 2019 found that 5% of Ukrainians were unwilling to accept Jewish people as fellow citizens, compared with 18% in Poland, 19% of Czechs and 22% in Romania. And Ukraine’s prime minister when Mr. Zelensky became president, Volodymyr Groysman, is also Jewish.