Jhe university has a modern vibe. Teenage programmers sit on beanbags and walk down an outdoor staircase built for a recent hackathon. A single piece of furniture is incongruous amid the bright colors and glass cubicles of the Institute of Economics and Technology: an old desk painted turquoise.
A student who once sat there has become an international celebrity – and Ukraine’s wartime president. “Volodymyr Zelenskiy was special. He was bright, hardworking and wanted to be the best of the best,” Andrii Shaikan, rector of Kryvyi Rih State University, Zelenskiy’s hometown, told The Guardian.
In the mid-1990s, Shaikan was in college himself, the year above Zelenskiy. The president’s father, Oleksandr, is a well-known academic and heads his department of computer science and applied software. Zelenskiy’s mother, Rymma, is an engineer. Both parents are Jewish. Like his friends and neighbors, Zelenskiy grew up speaking Russian.
Shaikan said Zelenskiy Sr had hoped his son, who read law, would get into academia. Instead, the future president developed a taste for show business, entering sketch and comedy competitions. A photo taken by Shaikan in 1996 shows a floppy-haired Zelenskiy standing with a group of student performers, dressed in white jeans and a colorful vest.
His house was in one of the bourgeois quarters of the city. At the time, Kryvyi Rih was known for its criminal associations. Young men who returned from the Soviet war in Afghanistan descended into crime and drug trafficking. “As a teenager, Volodymyr had two alternatives: he could succeed, or he could become a member of a criminal gang,” Shaikan recalls.
He added: “We have seen Volodymyr come true step by step. He has great leadership qualities and is a quick problem solver. He makes instant decisions. And it is 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 stand-up acts.
The rector voted for him in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election, which Zelenskiy won overwhelmingly. “We knew his environment and his 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 look like his grandfather,” the rector said.
In an interview with CNN, Zelenskiy revealed that his grandfather Semyon fought in the Red Army, rising to 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 the Kremlin’s claim that Zelenskiy is a fascist ridiculous.
The president’s former professors described Zelenskiy as an intellectually capable undergraduate who sometimes missed classes because he was busy on stage. Then he would apologize and hand in his homework, they said. He drew others to him, they added, and won an Olympic competition for his fluency in English.
“He had a great sense of humor. I taught him business English in his fourth year. I was strict. “He intended to transport camels and elephants,” said speaker Kira Vyshnevska. “You could see his political sensitivity growing. He criticized our corrupt political system,” she added.
Natalia Voloshaniuk, an economics professor, said Zelenskiy was a “leader and organizer” who took his studies seriously, even as his career in show business took off. She added: “People followed him. He was a light intellectual, and a humorous, fun guy. His modesty was evident. There was a lot of real Zelenskiy in the president he portrayed in Servant of the People.
In the spring, Russian forces nearly seized Zelenskiy’s hometown, which was built in the 19th century along a series of mines. The city in southeastern Ukraine is the longest in Europe at 120 km (75 miles) and is dotted with 20th-century chimneys and foundries. When the enemy advanced, Shaikan said he and his colleagues made molotov cocktails and dug ditches.
Russia’s objective was to seize the Kryvyi Rih airfield and use it as a base to conquer the south – and to humiliate Zelenskiy by occupying his hometown and hanging Russian flags there. Ukrainian armed forces repelled the Russians. The front line is now 50 km away. Russian troops are encamped on the bank of the Dnieper River in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
From there they bombed the Ukrainian-held towns of Nikopol and Marhanets, killing at least 16 people last week. All the victims were civilians. A 13-year-old girl was hospitalized. Enemy soldiers occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, just across the river, sparking international concern and accusations of 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. He 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 patriots. Everyone works for victory. Ukraine will liberate all its territory.
Since February, 70,000 internally displaced people have arrived in Kryvyi Rih, Vilkul said, fleeing Nikopol district and eastern and southern regions. He said that when Ukraine liberates these occupied areas, it will find evidence of killings and war crimes. “There will be many places like Bucha. The Russians are worse than the German fascists,” he said.
The city – which has 600,000 inhabitants in peacetime – feeds 40,000 refugees every day. He has transformed a culture house into a humanitarian center, with shelves of second-hand clothes, medicines, a nurse, legal advice and a children’s play area. Its industrial enterprises are at a standstill as Ukraine is unable to export and import materials from its Black Sea ports.
Outside the center, a mural of a familiar figure was painted on a brick wall. It was none other than Boris Johnson. Artist Anastasia Scherba said she was grateful to the outgoing British Prime Minister for supporting Ukraine and giving it arms. The design – created by a collective from Odessa – showed Johnson giving a thumbs-up. “He’s cool,” Scherba said.