In the fog of war and amid Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s inspiring wartime leadership, it is important not to forget how politics in Ukraine worked for decades before Russia’s full-scale invasion. Even in victory, the risks for democracy in Ukraine may include the reappearance of the partially staged democratic elections that were a key element of politics in independent Ukraine prior to Zelensky: Ukrainian politicians with authoritarian ambitions periodically used economic pressure to compel people to vote for them, leading many Ukrainians to feel that they were being treated like background players on a stage, not agents of their own political destinies. These manipulations affected not only electoral outcomes, but also the meaning of democratic institutions for Ukrainians who were subject to such pressure. The danger of a return to political theater in Ukraine after victory emanates not only from the threat of Russian occupation and the Kremlin’s “referenda” at gunpoint, but also from the economic precarity of war and its deprivations.1
Yet Ukrainian politics no longer looks as it did even five years ago, and Zelensky has participated in changes at every level of Ukrainian society—changes he was positioned to lead precisely because of, not in spite of, his previous career as an actor and comedian, where he was known for his close connection with Ukrainian audiences. To understand the nature and significance of the transformation in Ukrainian politics since his arrival on the political stage, it is helpful to examine not only Zelensky’s wartime leadership, but also his previous work. International audiences have viewed Zelensky through the narrow lens of the wartime leader who commands respect because of his courage in the face of grave danger. For those who do not know him or his story, it could seem as if Zelensky had risen above his former calling as comic and showman. But that misunderstands Zelensky. Many Ukrainians have long known him for his fearless and eloquent responses to injustice, and for his evident and profound patriotism. In his career as a showman, Zelensky, trained as a lawyer, led from the stage. His present heroism continues to express an integrity that Ukrainians recognized long before the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion.