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Book excerpt reveals details of Zelensky's bunker routine during first weeks of invasion

by Elsa Court January 5, 2024 2:27 PM 4 min read
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on at a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 3, 2022 (Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images)
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President Volodymyr Zelensky was said to have "resembled a walking corpse" in the first weeks of the full-scale invasion, which he did not believe would happen "until the final hours," the Telegraph reported on Jan. 4 in an excerpt of a book on Zelensky by Time journalist Simon Shuster.

Zelensky and his team reportedly lived in the bunker under the President's Office with little sunlight and with "not much to eat," other than sweets, tinned meat, and stale bread. One minister told Shuster he "survived for days on chocolate."

Some government officials had "packed up their cars and fled" in the early hours of the morning of February 24, 2022, with the "worst defections" affecting the Security Service of Ukraine, according to Shuster.

Those working in the bunker slept for just a few hours every night, and Zelensky would request updates from his team "as early as 4:50 a.m."

"Eventually life in the bunker settled into a more manageable routine," with staff served hot meals and meetings shifted to 7 a.m, Shuster wrote.

A makeshift gym was installed for the president, which he reportedly often used at night, and a ping-pong table for staff.

"Zelensky and his team kept a supply of alcohol even after the government banned its sale, and he would on occasion pour wine for the aides who joined him for a meal," according to Shuster.

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Staff would occasionally be invited to watch a film, "often new Hollywood releases," as Zelensky "could no longer stomach Soviet comedies."

The president was also deeply affected by the Russian attack on Kramatorsk station on April 8, 2022, according to Shuster.

The attack coincided with a visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Kyiv, but Zelensky struggled to speak at the podium with her as his mind was "on the puddles of blood on the pavement."

Thinking of the images of the 60 bodies of those killed, "it was one of those times when your arms and legs are doing one thing, but your head does not listen," Zelensky told Shuster.

The book excerpt also revealed that Zelensky would prefer to be associated with George Orwell or Charlie Chaplin than British wartime leader Winston Churchill, as they were "artists who helped society" whose influence "was often stronger than artillery."

Zelensky's previous life as a comedian is covered in more depth in an excerpt of the book published in Time on Jan. 4, with Zelensky crediting his hometown of Kryvyi Rih and his Jewish roots as responsible for forging his character.

Zelensky said he avoided the gangs and crime that the city was infamous for in the 1990s due to his family, particularly the fact that his grandfather had been a senior police officer.

Growing up in a Jewish family also affected his early life, with his parents believing that Zelensky had to be better than everyone else in order to achieve in a Soviet system that was "rigged against them," Shuster wrote.

The Holocaust, which killed his great-grandparents, as well as his grandfather's military service in the Second World War "made a profound impression on the young Zelensky."

When he began his comedy career, his parents hoped it was a temporary phase and he would become a lawyer. Contemporaries from his time as a comedian remember him as having "chutzpah" and a "bulletproof belief in himself."

"I think that this confidence of his betrayed him in the end," Alexander Rodnyansky, a Ukrainian television network executive told Shuster, as it led him to believe he could "outmaneuver Putin and negotiate his way out of a full-scale war."

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Russia’s war against Ukraine did not start on Feb. 24, 2022. The illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the invasion of Donbas in 2014 were also not isolated incidents and had many historical precedents: Russian Tsar Peter I ordered the Baturyn Massacre in 1708 as “revenge” against Ukraini…
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