In eastern Ukraine, the plight of another Volodymyr Zelenskyy

In eastern Ukraine, the plight of another Volodymyr Zelenskyy


When Russian occupying forces knocked on the doors of his small village in eastern Ukraine at the end of April to verify the residents’ identities, 64-year-old pensioner Volodymyr Zelensky was horrified.

Then one of the Russian soldiers glanced at his passport and burst out laughing.

“It’s okay folks, the war is over,” said the soldier. “We can go home – we have their President!”

Zelensky, a namesake of the Ukrainian leader, was born in 1958 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, then part of the Soviet Union, the son of a miner and a construction worker, served as a driver in the Soviet Army and then worked in construction.

Since Russia ambushed its neighbor in February, Zelenskyy, who has no known relationship with Ukraine’s president, has spent most of the war hiding from bombing in the basement of his home.

“I quit smoking four years ago, but I started again,” said Zelenskyy.

For security reasons, AFP does not disclose the name of his village.

– ‘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 house he bought 20 years ago.

Here, after years in a mining town, he could finally breathe “the purest air,” grow vegetables on his own property, enjoy time on the patio, and fish in the local pond.

Zelenska returned home after Kiev’s forces drove Russians out of the village late last month.

But now it’s under fire from Russian artillery, and she’s alarmed when an explosion outside blows in the plastic sheeting on her shattered window.

“She’s not used to it,” said her husband, who wore corduroy pants and a zip-neck sweater.

Using a flashlight, he pulled out an old photo album and found a photo of himself as a man in his forties in a khaki uniform.

“I don’t think I look like the President. Not at all,” he said.

“But you look like him!” she said from her stool across the living room.

“What President are you talking about? Biden?” he asked.

– “People can’t take it anymore” –

His wife said Zelensky was a common surname in both Ukraine and Russia.

But she admits she never knew another Volodymyr Zelenskyy until Ukraine’s current leader, a former comedian, was elected president in 2019.

Zelensky, the pensioner, voted for his namesake in the election.

“He presents well, he is young, intelligent,” he said.

But now Zelenskyy says he’s disappointed that the president isn’t doing more to negotiate an end to the war with Russia.

“People here can’t take it anymore,” he said.

Like many residents of his generation in the eastern Donbass region, Zelenskyy considers Ukraine his homeland.

But the former Soviet soldier is also nostalgic for his years under the Soviet regime, which brought peace and prosperity to his generation.

Wednesday was the couple’s twenty-second wedding anniversary, and Zelenskyy wanted to give his wife a bouquet of flowers.

But in a village devastated by fighting and cut off from the rest of the world, no one was to be found.

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