TThe hardest nights for him are when he’s lying on his back, his phone buzzing and the noises of air-raid sirens fill his ears. Its screen makes his face look like a ghost in the dark, his eyes scanning messages he didn’t have a chance to read during the day. His wife, children, and many of his advisors were there, as well as his troops, who were encircled in their bunkers and asking for additional weapons to end the Russian siege.
In his own bunker the President is known to stare at his daily calendar even though the day has ended. He often lies awake wondering if someone has forgotten him or missed something. “It’s pointless,” Volodymyr Zelensky told me at the presidential compound in Kyiv, just outside the office where he sometimes sleeps. “It’s the same agenda. I see it’s over for today. But I look at it several times and sense that something is wrong.” It’s not anxiety that keeps his eyes from closing. “It’s my conscience bothering me.”
The same thought keeps turning over in his head: “I’ve let myself sleep, but now what? Something is happening right now.” Somewhere in Ukraine the bombs are still falling. Still, civilians remain trapped beneath rubble and in basements. Russians continue to commit war crimes, rape and torture. They are destroying entire cities with their bombs. Mariupol’s last defenders and the city itself are under siege. The east has seen a crucial battle. Zelensky is the comedy-turned-President. He must maintain international engagement and convince foreign leaders that his nation needs them now.
Alexander Chekmenev Photograph, TIME
Outside Ukraine, Zelensky told me, “People see this war on Instagram, on social media. When they get sick of it, they will scroll away.” It’s human nature. Horrors are able to make our eyes close. “It’s a lot of blood,” he explains. “It’s a lot of emotion.” Zelensky senses the world’s attention flagging, and it troubles him nearly as much as the Russian bombs. His list of tasks is less about the war as it is perceived, most nights he finds when he looks at his calendar. He has one mission: to get the world to experience the war in Ukraine the same way he did. It is a matter for its survival.
He appears to be able to pull it off. Europe and the U.S. rushed to help him, providing Ukraine with more weapons than any other nation since World War II. Many thousands of journalists visited Kyiv to fill his inbox with requests for interviews.
I was asking for more than just a chance at questioning the President. I wanted to witness the war from his perspective. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks with them at the presidential compound in Bankova Street. To observe their lives and visit the places they work and live, it was possible to see the daily activities of the president and his team. The place felt almost like it was home to Zelensky, his team and others. There were jokes to be made, coffee was drank, and we waited patiently for our meetings to end or start. The soldiers were our constant chaperones. They took us all around and shined flashlights through dark corridors to show us the places where they had slept.
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This was a great example of how Zelensky’s life has changed from when we first met backstage in his comedy show, Kyiv three years ago. He was an actor still running for president. His humor remains intact. “It’s a means of survival,” he says. He says that two months of conflict have made him more difficult, faster to anger and more comfortable taking on risks. Within minutes, Russian troops found him and his family within the first hour of war. Their gunfire was once heard inside his office walls. He is haunted by images of civilians killed. The daily appeals of his troops to him, which number in the hundreds, are belowground and starving for food, water, or ammunition.
Based on interviews with Zelensky, nearly one dozen of his aides and others, this is Zelensky’s account at war. Many of these men were thrust into this situation without much preparation. Zelensky, as well as many others, comes from showbusiness and the acting worlds. Before the conflict, bloggers and journalists were also well-known in Ukraine.
On the day we last met—the 55th of the invasion—Zelensky announced the start of a battle that could end the war. The Russian forces, having suffered heavy losses around Kyiv and regrouped, had started a fresh offensive in the East. Zelensky said that either the Russian or Ukrainian armies will probably be destroyed there. “This will be a full-scale battle, bigger than any we have seen on the territory of Ukraine,” Zelensky told me on April 19. “If we hold out,” he says, “it will be a decisive moment for us. The tipping point.”
Zelensky rarely waited until sunrise to call his top general before calling him for status reports during the initial weeks of the invasion. They usually called each other around 5:15 a.m. before sunlight began to show through the windows. Later they moved the conversation back by a couple of hours, enough time for Zelensky to have breakfast—invariably eggs— and to make his way to the presidential chambers.
These rooms did not change much following the invasion. It remained a cocoon of gold leaf and palatial furniture that Zelensky’s staff find oppressive. (“At least if the place gets bombed,” one of them joked, “we won’t have to look at this stuff anymore.”) But the streets around the compound became a maze of checkpoints and barricades. The soldiers asked pedestrians to give secret passwords. These are often obscure phrases that can be difficult for Russians and cannot be accessed by civilian cars.
There is a government district beyond these checkpoints that Russian forces attempted to take over at the outbreak of the invasion. It was known as The Triangle. When those first hours came up in our interview, Zelensky warned me the memories exist “in a fragmented way,” a disjointed set of images and sounds. The most vivid was the time Zelensky went before dawn on February 24th to share with his children that bombing had occurred and prepared them to leave their home. Their son, 9, and daughter are 17 years old respectively. “We woke them up,” Zelensky told me, his eyes turning inward. “It was loud. There were explosions over there.”
Soon it became apparent that the presidential offices weren’t the most secure. Zelensky received a report from the military stating that Russian strike forces had flown into Kyiv to murder or capture him and his families. “Before that night, we had only ever seen such things in the movies,” says Andriy Yermak, the President’s chief of staff.
The presidential guard attempted to secure the compound using whatever materials they could as the Ukrainian soldiers fought back against the Russians in the streets. The rear gate was blocked by a stack of plywood boards and police bars, which resembled a heap of scrapyard junk more than an effective fortification.
Friends and allies rushed to Zelensky’s side, sometimes in violation of security protocols. Many of them brought their families with them to the compound. In the event that the President was to die, there is a chain of succession which requires the Speaker to assume control. Ruslan Stefanchuk who is the holder of that position drove to Bankova Street the morning before the invasion, rather than hiding at a distance.
Stefanchuk saw the President for the first time that day. “It wasn’t fear on his face,” he told me. “It was a question: How could this be?” For months Zelensky had downplayed warnings from Washington that Russia was about to invade. He now recognized that there was an all-out conflict, but he couldn’t grasp its full meaning. “Maybe these words sound vague or pompous,” says Stefanchuk. “But we sensed the order of the world collapsing.” Soon the Speaker rushed down the street to the parliament and presided over a vote to impose martial law across the country. Zelensky was the one to sign the decree.
The first night of darkness fell, and gunfights broke out at the government quarter. Zelensky, along with about 12 of his assistants, were brought to the compound by guards who turned out the lights. Few of the men were able to use the guns. One was Oleksiy Arestovych, a veteran of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. “It was an absolute madhouse,” he told me. “Automatics for everyone.” Russian troops, he says, made two attempts to storm the compound. Zelensky said that his children and wife were present at the scene.
To evacuate President Obama and his staff, offers came from the British and American forces. Their goal was to set up an exile government, likely in Eastern Poland that would allow them to continue their leadership from far away. None of Zelensky’s advisers recall him giving these offers any serious consideration. Speaking on a secure landline with the Americans, he responded with a zinger that made headlines around the world: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
“We thought that was brave,” says a U.S. official briefed on the call. “But very risky.” Zelensky’s bodyguards felt the same. The bodyguards urged Zelensky to flee the area immediately. The compound is located in densely populated neighborhoods, and its buildings can be seen from nearby private houses that might act as nests for enemy shooters. Some of the houses can be reached from across the street to fire a grenade out the windows. “The place was wide open,” says Arestovych. “We didn’t even have concrete blocks to close the street.”
A secure bunker, built to withstand long sieges, was located somewhere outside of the capital. Zelensky was unwilling to visit it. The President instead walked out into the courtyard to record a short video on his cellphone, even though Ukrainian forces were fighting Russians nearby. “We’re all here,” Zelensky said after doing a roll call of the officials by his side. These men were wearing the same army green jackets, T-shirts and jackets they would wear during wartime. “Defending our independence, our country.”
Zelensky had already understood the significance of his contribution to this conflict. His people, and the entire world, were focused on him. “You understand that they’re watching,” he says. “You’re a symbol. You need to act the way the head of state must act.”
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He posted the short clip of 40 seconds to Instagram on February 25, but the impression it created of unity was misleading. Zelensky was alarmed at the sheer number of military and government officials who fled. He didn’t respond to threats and ultimatums. He would allow them to leave their homes for a while if they were in need of some extra time. He then asked them to return to their respective posts. Most did.
Others offered to stay in the bunkers at the presidential compound. Serhiy Lechenko (a well-known journalist and lawyer) arrived in the area to assist the team against Russian disinformation. He had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, forbidding him from sharing any details about the bunker’s design, location, or amenities. This pledge of secrecy is binding on all its residents. The residents are forbidden from discussing the meals they have down there.
Its isolation often forced Zelensky’s team to experience the war through their screens, somewhat like the rest of us. Before Zelensky was able to be briefed on the events, footage from battles or rocket attacks appeared on social media. The President, his staff and others would gather in a bunker with a laptop or phone to curse images of destruction or cheer a drone attack on a Russian tank.
“This was a favorite,” Leshchenko told me, pulling up a clip of a Russian helicopter getting blown out of the sky. The internet was full of memes, viral videos and war balls that Ukrainians recorded, posted and shared online. The first one was this:
Look how our people, how all Ukraine United the world against the Russians Soon all the Russians, they’ll be gone And we’ll have peace in all the world.
Zelensky and his chief of staff, Andriy Ermak (center), speak to Bucha journalists on April 4.
Metin Aktas—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
It wasn’t long before Zelensky insisted on going to see the action for himself. The Russians had begun to shell Kyiv, and were trying to surround the capital. In March, Zelensky drove in secret from his compound with two friends, and small group of bodyguards. “We made the decision to go on the fly,” says Yermak, the chief of staff. They had no cameras. Some of Zelensky’s closest aides only learned about the trip nearly two months later, when he brought it up during our interview.
They headed north from Bankova Street to reach a fallen bridge, which marked the boundary of the city. Zelensky saw the direct effects of fighting for the first time. Zelensky marveled at how large a crater was left from an explosion on the road. When they stopped to talk to Ukrainian troops at a checkpoint, Zelensky’s bodyguards, he says, “were losing their minds.” The President had no pressing reason to be that close to the Russian positions. He said he was just looking to see the frontlines and wanted to speak to them.
A few days later, Zelensky went on a ride that aides refer to as “the borscht trip.” At a checkpoint near the edge of the city, the President met a man who would bring a fresh pot of borscht for the troops every day. While they sat in the midst of hostile artillery fire, Zelensky and another man had soup with bread and talked about the Soviet Union’s collapse and how the Russians were changing. “He told me how much he hated the Russians,” Zelensky recalls. He then reached for his car’s trunk to retrieve some medals that he had received while serving with the Soviet military. Zelensky was moved by this conversation. “It felt right,” says Yermak. “Just talking to the people we work for.”
These outings are rare. Zelensky received updates regularly from his generals, and gave them detailed instructions. However Zelensky didn’t pretend to be an expert tactical strategist. He rarely saw his Defense Minister. Nor were any of Ukraine’s top military commanders. “He lets them do the fighting,” says Arestovych, his adviser on military affairs.
His day consisted of many meetings and interviews. These were usually done through a computer or phone screen. Time was taken up by courtesy calls, such as one Zoom session with actors Mila Kunis or Ashton Kutcher. These Zoom sessions were part of a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Ukraine. Zelensky, in conversation with his staff, would outline themes ahead of the nightly address to nation. “Very often people ask who is Zelensky’s speechwriter,” says Dasha Zarivna, a communications adviser. “The main one is him,” she says. “He works on every line.”
Zelensky gave about one speech per days in March and April. He addressed venues such as the Parliament of South Korea and the World Bank. Every speech was designed with the audience in mind. He spoke about Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and other topics to Congress. He was heard by the German Parliament referring to the Holocaust history and the Berlin Wall.
One adviser described the team’s constant rush to complete urgent and minor emergencies as a paralyzing effect that shortened the time frame. The days would sometimes feel like weeks, while the hours could seem to be hours. It was only before you fell asleep that the fear intensified. “That’s when reality catches up with you,” says Leshchenko. “That’s when you lay there and think about the bombs.”
Early April saw the team emerge more often from their bunker. As the Ukrainian forces drove their enemy out of the Kyiv suburbs, Russian forces were moving eastward to fight for the East. Zelensky returned to the compound again on the 40th of the invasion. This time, he had his camera with him. In a convoy, Zelensky traveled that morning with cameras in tow. He was riding an armoured vehicle convoy from Bucha, a wealthy commuter town where Russian soldiers had killed hundreds.
Bucha’s victim in a mortar attack lies dead in her kitchen, April 6.
Maxim Dondyuk—Der Spiegel
Their bodies were left scattered around town, Zelensky said, “found in barrels, basements, strangled, tortured.” Nearly all had fatal gunshot wounds. Many had been left in the street for several days. Zelensky’s team witnessed atrocities close up, and their terror quickly turned into rage. “We wanted to call off all peace talks,” says David Arakhamia, whom Zelensky had chosen to lead negotiations with the Russians. “I could barely even look them in the face.”
While investigators still were exhuming mass graves at Bucha, Russian missiles hit a Kramatorsk train station, eastern Ukraine, on April 8. Women, children, and seniors gathered in large numbers with their bags and pets to board evacuation trains. At least fifty people were killed and more than 100 others were injured by the missiles. Several children lost limbs.
Zelensky discovered about the attack by looking at photos of the scene. These were then forwarded to Zelensky that morning. He keeps one in his head. It displayed a picture of a woman who’d been killed by an explosion. “She was wearing these bright, memorable clothes,” he says. When he entered one of the most significant meetings in his professional career, he couldn’t shake that image. Ursula von der Leyen was the highest official of the E.U. and had come by train from London to give Ukraine a quick track to full membership. This opportunity had been awaiting for many decades. The President couldn’t stop thinking of the headless woman standing on the ground when it finally happened.
He took the podium beside von der Leyen and was covered in a greenish-colored smile. His usual talent for oratory had failed him. In his speech, he couldn’t even think of mentioning the missile attack. “It was one of those times when your arms and legs are doing one thing, but your head does not listen,” he later told me. “Because your head is there at the station, and you need to be present here.”
The funeral for Artur Shchukin who died March 25th in Mala Rohan is attended by mourners.
Maxim Dondyuk—Der Spiegel
It was part of an ongoing parade featuring European leaders, which began in April in Kyiv. During these visits, smartphones were prohibited inside the compound. The enemy could have located the meeting location by locating a large number of signals from mobile phones, which are all being transmitted from the same place. “And then: kaboom,” one guard explained, tracing the arc of a rocket with his hand.
Zelensky’s team spent the majority of their nights there and also held meetings underneath in bunkers. The Russian retreat gave them the opportunity to return to their normal rooms. It was a similar layout as before World War II. The darkness was a noticeable difference. Some windows had sandbags covering them. To make it more difficult for enemy snipers, lights were turned off. Others precautions didn’t make sense. The elevator which led up to the executive offices was robbed by guards. A tangle of wires protruded from the holes where they had been, and Zelensky’s aides rode up and down in the dark. No one knew why.
There was a more casual atmosphere on the days that I went to the compound with only my family. Custodians cleaned and relined the cabinets. I was surprised to discover the metal detector, X-ray machine and the entrance were unplugged. Then it became routine for a janitor to mop the area. It felt natural for a tired guard later to look in my bag before allowing me through.
The war felt distant upstairs. Mykhailo Podolyak, one of a quartet of the President’s closest advisers, declined to barricade the windows in his office. He didn’t even close the drapes. He invited me in April to his room. The door was still engraved with his nameplate so it was easy for me to find the place. “We go downstairs when we hear the air-raid sirens,” he explained with a shrug, referring to the bunker. “But this is my office. I like it here.”
Such faith in Kyiv’s air defenses seems like a coping mechanism, the offspring of defiance and denial. Russia is using hypersonic missiles to attack Ukraine. There’s no stopping them. The Kinzhal—the name means dagger in Russian—can travel at more than five times the speed of sound while zigzagging to avoid interceptors. It can also carry one of Russia’s nuclear warheads. Podolyak does not believe it is necessary to dwell on these details. “The strike is coming,” he told me. “They’ll hit us here, and it’ll all be ruins.” There was no fear in his voice as he said this. “What can we do?” he asked. “We’ve got to keep working.”
Fatalism was used as an organizing principle. Some crude precautions—barricaded gates, bulletproof vests—had felt necessary during the war’s opening stage. Later, when there was no longer a risk of Russian commandos bursting through the doors, Zelensky’s team understood that such defenses were ultimately futile. Their enemy was armed with nuclear weapons. They decided to not run. Why hide?
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Zelensky now works most often in the compound’s Situation Room, which is neither belowground nor fortified. It is a windowless boardroom with one embellishment: a trident, the state symbol of Ukraine, glowing on the wall behind Zelensky’s chair. The walls are lined with large screens, while a camera facing the President is located at the centre of the table. Around 9 AM on April 19, his intelligence chiefs and generals filled the screen in front Zelensky.
Overnight the President delivered a video address, annoucing the commencement of the fight for the eastern Ukraine. The President wanted to find out where fighting was intense and which parts of the country were being retreated. He also needed to learn who had left, how they got help, and where they’d managed to advance. “At certain points in the east, it’s just insane,” he told me later that day, summarizing the generals’ briefing. “Really horrible in terms of the frequency of the strikes, the heavy artillery fire, and the losses.”
Zelensky texted with two Ukrainian commanders for more than a month. These were the last remaining defenders Mariupol. Mariupol was home to half a million residents, which the Russians had encircled shortly before the invasion began. One small group is still able to hold out in a huge steel plant. Zelensky has been in contact with Major SerhiyVolynsky from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade for many weeks. “We know each other well by now,” Zelensky told me. They call and text their friends almost daily, often in the middle or late of the night. A selfie that they had taken long before the invasion was sent by the soldier to the President. “We’re even embracing there, like friends,” he says.
On April 5, an elderly couple retrieved their possessions from their Borodyanka apartment, which was bombed near Kyiv.
Maxim Dondyuk—Der Spiegel
This brigade was decimated by the Russian invasion of Mariupol. Zelensky said that 200 soldiers from the brigade survived. Before they found shelter and supplies inside the steel factory, they had run out of food, water, and ammunition.“They had it very hard,” Zelensky says. “We tried to support each other.”
Zelensky couldn’t do much on his merits. The Ukrainian army does not possess enough heavy weapons to penetrate the siege of Mariupol. The Russian forces hold clear advantage in the east. “They outnumber us by several times,” says Yermak.
Zelensky is a common questioner in foreign leader conversations. He asks for weapons to help even the playing field. Some countries have offered to supply them, such as the U.S. and the U.K. Other countries, especially the Germans, hesitated. “With the Germans the situation is really difficult,” Zelensky says. “They are acting as though they do not want to lose their relationship with Russia.” Germany relies on Russia for a lot of its natural gas supplies. “It’s their German pragmatism,” says Zelensky. “But it costs us a lot.”
Ukraine made it clear that they are frustrated. In the middle of April, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was already on his way to visit Kyiv when Zelensky’s team asked him not to come.
At times the President’s bluntness can feel like an affront, as when he told the U.N. Security Council that it should consider dissolving itself. Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, told me he would have appreciated if Steinmeier had been invited to Kyiv “as what he is, a friend.” But Zelensky has learned that friendly requests will not get Ukraine the weapons it needs. This is Zelensky’s core responsibility. Not as a military strategist empowered to move battalions around a map, but as a communicator, a living symbol of the state, whose ability to grab and hold the world’s attention will help determine whether his nation lives or dies.
Zelensky addressing the Portuguese parliament via videoconference on April 21
Patricia De Melo Moreira—AFP/Getty Images
Zelensky is well-respected by his aides, who are acutely aware that he has a mission. “Sometimes he slips into the role and starts to talk like an actor playing the President,” says Arestovych, who was himself a theater actor in Kyiv for many years. “I don’t think that helps us.” It is only when Zelensky is exhausted, he says, that the mask comes off. “When he is tired, he cannot act. He can only speak his mind,” Arestovych told me. “When he is himself, he makes the greatest impression as a man of integrity and humanity.”
Maybe it was luck that I got to see the President just as the day ended. Two months after the invasion, his appearance had drastically changed. His face was now wrinkled and he didn’t look for his advisors anymore when attempting to find an answer. “I’ve gotten older,” he admitted. “I’ve aged from all this wisdom that I never wanted. It’s the wisdom tied to the number of people who have died, and the torture the Russian soldiers perpetrated. That kind of wisdom,” he added, trailing off. “To be honest, I never had the goal of attaining knowledge like that.”
This made me think about whether he had regretted his decision three years earlier, at the same time that we met. It was a huge success. As he stood in his dressing area, he still had a glowing face from admiring the attention of the crowd. Backstage, friends waited to begin the party. He was greeted by fans outside who gathered for a photograph. Zelensky was only three months into his presidential run.
He doesn’t regret his decision, even though he can see the consequences of it now. “Not for a second,” he told me in the presidential compound. He doesn’t know how the war will end, or how history will describe his place in it. He knows that Ukraine requires a president during wartime. He intends to assume that role.
—By reporting Nik Poli/ Washington Simmone Shah/ New York
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