Volodymyr Zelensky may be the most accessible wartime president in human history. Since Russia invaded his country in February, Zelensky has masterfully paired his everyman charisma with his uncommon social-media savvy, making the whole world feel as though they know him—and inspiring millions of people to root for Ukraine’s victory.
And yet actually getting to the man in person is not so easy. The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, and staff writer Anne Applebaum learned as much when they traveled to Kyiv in April to interview Zelensky, a journey that involved getting on a train without tickets and navigating the city long after curfew.
Their wide-ranging conversation with Zelensky is a window into how he is living, what shapes his thinking, and what it looks like when an unlikely political figure like Zelensky goes “from Larry David to Winston Churchill” overnight, as Goldberg put it.
What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of Goldberg and Applebaum describing their time in Kyiv, including portions of their conversion with Zelensky.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You couldn’t think of a leadership style more different from that of Vladimir Putin than Zelensky’s. It’s almost too neat. If you’re writing a screenplay, you’d be like: “Oh, these guys, they’re two opposites. Give me a break.”
Anne Applebaum: I’ve been writing and working on Ukraine for many, many years. And I always felt that it was a very minority interest. And to have it suddenly become a mass phenomenon has been really amazing. And I think probably that mass phenomenon is not possible without Zelensky.
Goldberg: Anne Applebaum and I were meant to go to Ukraine what turned out to be two days before the invasion. So we postponed the trip, because there was an assumption at the very outset that Russia would just roll over Kyiv and that we would be stuck there and bad things would happen.
And it just seemed like an odd moment to go, but we kept on planning. It’s just a matter of getting in. Because there are no flights, obviously. And so we took a very, very long train ride on a very, very slow-moving train.
Applebaum: It wasn’t a train that you could buy tickets to. We got on the train because an old friend of mine works for Zelensky. He’s actually a Ukrainian journalist. He’s now got a job, both in the president’s office and also in the railway administration. And so, when we landed in Warsaw, Jeff said to me: “Do you have the tickets?” And I said: “No, Jeff, I don’t have any tickets because what happens is we get to the platform and we find the conductor. And we say, ‘Sergei sent us.’” And Jeff said: “You’re joking.” And I said: “Nope, I’m not joking.” And then we went to the platform and we found the conductor and I said, “Sergei sent us.” And he said: “Okay, here’s your car.”
Goldberg: Much of the trip was at night across the Polish countryside. And in the middle of the night, you arrive at the border, there’s a Polish border check. Then the train moves a little bit and there’s a Ukrainian border check. The fascinating thing about trains that move between Poland and Ukraine is that the old Soviet Union made sure that its tracks were a different size than tracks moving to the west. Because, assuming that NATO was going to invade through Poland, the Soviets wanted to make sure that their trains couldn’t move. So what they have to do at the border is literally change the wheels.
Applebaum: And this was meant to prevent, you know, Germans or whoever from riding their trains into the country. It’s funny in retrospect. It’s actually not funny in one sense, because one of the reasons why Ukraine now has trouble exporting its grain by road—historically, it’s always exported it through the ports, through the Black Sea—is because of this wheel problem, because it would take a long time and a lot of effort to move that kind of cargo by train.
Goldberg: We arrived in the station. We were met by some people who were there to help us. The elegiac, beautiful, evocative thing was that there was a concert, a free concert taking place in the main hall of this train station: a balalaika orchestra with a couple of very big Ukrainian pop stars singing Ukrainian patriotic songs.
One of the performers was Oleg Skrypka, who is among a group of musicians now seen as symbols of Ukraine’s resistance. It would be the equivalent of Taylor Swift showing up in Union Station to, you know, make the crowd feel like life was worth living or that we can have some normalcy.
So we stood there and listened for a few minutes. It was quite moving. But the city is mostly empty. The streets are not filled with people. Some stores were operating, a couple of restaurants were operating, but we moved quickly to our hotel.
Applebaum: There were soldiers manning roadblocks. There were these metal contraptions that the Russians call hedgehogs that were around many of the bridges and blocking some of the roads.
I had been there in December, only three months earlier. And in December, it was a completely normal city. I remember there was an ice-skating rink set up outside the presidential administration. There were little children ice skating on the rink. So it had been absolutely normal. A couple of months into the war, it was very different.
Goldberg: So the meeting was at night. We got there before curfew. You get to a checkpoint, and then you go through to another checkpoint. And they’re soldiers of different units. Some of them are very young. Some of them clearly had been soldiers for a month. You get into the presidential compound and it’s all blacked out.
What happens is you have no sense of where you are in the building. It’s dark. You’re going down long, winding, circuitous hallways, making rights and lefts, upstairs and downstairs.
Applebaum: I assume it’s a way of evading bombers or somehow protecting people inside. Eventually we arrived at a kind of secure room that’s in the center of the building, which had no windows, but had Ukrainian flags all around.
And this was where we met Zelensky.
Applebaum: We could hear him coming in with his chief of staff and one or two other people. And he was swearing as he was walking in.
Goldberg: He walks in, he looks at us and he raises his hand shyly, like to wave, and says “Hi” in English. And we said: “Hi.”
Applebaum: And then he made a joke about having an old back or something like this. And my first thought was: That’s so un-Putin-like. The first thing he was showing us was: I’m a normal person. I’m not pretending to be pompous. I’m not making you wait. I’m going to talk to you as if we were in a coffee shop, and I’m not going to act like I’m so important, and so on.
It was a very different atmosphere than that created both by previous Ukrainian presidents—but also very, very different to the filmed meetings that we’ve seen people having with Vladimir Putin, where there’s a big, long table. And there are these very grand rooms and the guests are kept at arm’s length, and so on. This was not like that at all. This was very collegial.
Goldberg: He’s very informal in his approach. You’re reminded that he actually is a comedian and entertainer. He’s not trying to intimidate with the size of his office, with his bearing, with his personality. He’s just Volodymyr Zelensky, this television comedian who wound up becoming the president of a country under siege.
Applebaum: He’s not living some exceptional life. He’s not escaped to Monaco. He’s suffering the same things [his people] are and feeling what they feel. And I think it’s become very politically effective to do that. I mean, and you can even see it by what he’s wearing.
Goldberg: He was wearing his typical green shirt and green semi-army pants.
Applebaum: You can imagine a different Ukrainian president wearing a uniform. He’s the commander in chief; he might want to dress up in something with epaulets or even just camouflage. But mostly he’s wearing t-shirts. And I think this is the uniform of ordinary Ukrainians. It’s also more or less the uniform of the territorial army, which lots of Ukrainians are serving in. So he’s demonstrating all the time that he’s one of them. He’s like them. He feels what they feel. And the same message is being sent to the west.
Goldberg: There is something incredible about this story in that he’s, like, some Jewish comedian who somehow ended up the president of Ukraine. And then Putin invaded. And somehow he had to figure out how to stop being a comedian and be a wartime leader. Be Churchill, you know. Moving from Larry David to Churchill.
Applebaum: We talked about what weapons Ukrainians needed. This was of course one of the big themes of the interview, because it was really, in that particular moment, what they especially wanted to get across.
And Zelensky describes calling world leaders. He says, well, you know, I speak to the—I don’t know—the chancellor of Austria and the president of Germany, and I call them every week. And every week, they say: “How can we help you?” “What do you need?”
And he says, “Well, actually here’s a list. I need airplanes, howitzers, so on, and so on.” And then a week later, they call back again, and they say: “How can we help you? What do you need?” And he says, “Well, actually I told you last week, but here’s the list again.”
Goldberg: He gets tired of all the same questions—and what he really gets tired of, he told us, was having to explain over and over and over again what weapon systems and what kind of support he needs.
Applebaum: At that moment in April, it felt like there was still a pretty big gap between what the Ukrainians needed to defend themselves and what America in particular was able to supply. I think in the early part of the war, there were several things going on.
One was that the Americans, first of all, didn’t believe the Ukrainians would last that long, that they would defend Kyiv. Second of all, there was some kind of lack of understanding between the two sides. Ukraine is not a traditional American ally. It’s not Israel. It’s not Britain. It’s not Australia. It’s not a country that we’ve been working with for decades [where] we have decades of understandings and treaties and joint military exercises that we can draw on.
And so I think there was some lack of fellow feeling in the beginning. And some Americans weren’t sure, you know: Should we really send these things? Will they know how to use them? Will they lose them? What will happen? I mean, I’m guessing that that was what was going on. I don’t really know that. But there was some reluctance initially. There has also been, from the beginning, a reluctance on the part of the United States to give weapons that would seem to be very provocative to the Russians.
Goldberg: The most interesting thing about his request for weapons was the subtext. The subtext was: If you want to defeat Russia, you’re going to have to give me this stuff. And if I don’t do it with your material, one day you’re going to have to do it yourselves. So you might as well have Ukrainians fight this fight.
Applebaum: I find the appeal of Zelensky in America fascinating, because I think it comes from something quite specific. So for the last decade, maybe two decades, you know, Americans have been divided by a culture war. Which to be incredibly crude about it, is something like: liberal values on the one hand, versus nationalism or patriotism on the other.
And what Zelensky has done is demonstrate what it’s like to do a national, patriotic defense of liberal values. He’s very much defending a free society, an open society, but also a multicultural society. He’s Jewish. People around him speak both Russian and Ukrainian. There are people of other faiths and nationalities in his entourage and in the Ukrainian leadership.
And part of what they’re fighting to preserve is that definition of Ukraine as a form of civic patriotism. Ukrainian civic patriotism. And that’s one thing that I think—even if everybody doesn’t articulate it that way—I think that’s part of his appeal in the United States and in Europe.
Goldberg: I surmised that he is, psychologically, a very healthy person. Because he’s been basically trapped in this complex. Every day brings new information about nightmares that are happening across this country. He can only deploy so many soldiers, and the army is only so effective. It can’t defend everything at once. He’s having endless Zoom conversations and phone conversations with people he has to repeat himself to. He doesn’t have his family near him for obvious security reasons. It’s a miserable life.
And I got the feeling—and this is more of a vibe than an explicit conversation—but I have a feeling that he’s at peace with the fact that he’s a wartime leader. That he might never make it out of this place. But he’s not going to leave. And that somehow history has chosen him to be the leader and spokesman for his country. And so he’s just going to sit there and do the task. But he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. He doesn’t get a lot of rest. He doesn’t get any breaks.
But he made the most important decision he probably has made in his life, at least as a public figure, by not running away in the first days. We all remember Ashraf Ghani: the president of Afghanistan who got the hell out of Dodge right as the Taliban was at the gates of Kabul. And Ashraf Ghani has to live with himself forever with that decision.
And no matter what happens in the future, Zelensky should be remembered for his decision to stay. And stand with his people. And stand with his country. That was an act of supreme bravery. There were a lot of people in Europe and America telling him to get out. Obviously the CIA and other agencies had figured out ways to move him out of the country if they had to. And he stayed.
Applebaum: We spent about an hour and a half with Zelensky, and then about an hour and a half with Andrii Yermak, his chief of staff. And so, by the time that was done, it was very late. The presidential administration building was totally empty, and we had the same scene as before, with people leading us out through the darkened stairways with flashlights.
Goldberg: There was one street-cleaning vehicle going down the road, I remember, which is incongruous because it was the only vehicle and it was a street cleaner. Which shows that they’re still trying to maintain some level of order and safety and cleanliness. But it was very interesting to walk out into that kind of absolute quiet, absolute dark.
And it made me think of Zelensky in his bunker, alone with his thoughts. Eventually, everybody has to go to sleep for at least a couple of hours. And then he sits there. And I wonder what that’s like, thinking: What will tomorrow bring?