City of Steel A Visit to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Hometown
How did the actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy transform into a wartime president? Some answers can be found in his hometown, the heavy industry city of Kryvyi Rih. Pride in their famous son is palpable, as is a feeling that the war is drawing ever closer.
By Walter Mayr in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine
05.07.2022, 16.39 Uhr
Kryvyi Rih is as a city with a core of steel. And even today, it is an apt appellation, offering up images that seem straight out of the Soviet era: men who labor away at the blast furnaces for 10 hours a day; working women who rush home from their jobs in the evening through the urban canyons. Images from a world dominated by iron ore, coke and steel. DER SPIEGEL 27/2022
[M]: J.H. Darchinger / Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung; Getty Images
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 27/2022 (July 1st, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL. SPIEGEL International
The majority of the 630,000 residents of this metropolis in central Ukraine speak Russian – not so much in administrative offices, but certainly outside on the streets. And those streets are covered in the dust of iron ore, with deep red puddles forming after rainfall. Kryvyi Rih has the highest cancer rate in the country. The steel complex covers an area roughly the size of a mid-sized Ukrainian city.
- During Soviet times, a delicate boy grew up not far away from the factory. In the afternoons, he would attend dance class and guitar lessons, and as an 11-year-old, he even made an appearance on the “Gentleman Show,” a citywide competition for those with singing, dancing and acting abilities. The dark-haired boy, nicknamed Vova, proudly took home the victory.
A visit to Kryvyi Rih is crucial for understanding how Vova, with his talent for music and comedy, transformed into Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the man in the olive-green T-shirt who has led his country in the face of four months of Russian hostilities. The steel city in which the president was born and grew up, shaped and hardened him – at least that’s what is said by those who are eager to emphasize the city’s role in his success. Others, though, say that it was Zelenskyy himself who forged his own way.
The search for the first key to understanding his rise leads to Valentina Ignatenko, deputy director of School #95, which has a reputation for being quite challenging. This is where Zelenskyy started his schooling in the second grade, following a brief stay in Mongolia. He would later complete his graduation examinations at this same school. Fastidiously attired in pale pink, Ignatenko, who says she is “the last Mohican who still knows and taught him,” is a monument to Soviet didactics. Her tone is sharp, her heart kind and her focus is on her school’s accomplishments (“We had 13 medalists this year. That means the best marks in every subject.”)
She affectionately refers to her former charge as “our Volodya.” And yet, there is no picture of the president in her office. “He knew how to move, he was able to perform, he had an impressive voice. Until that point, I had rarely seen such an outstanding talent,” says Ignatenko.
But did she think this boy had what it would take to stand up to Putin, the Russian aggressor, in the way he has? “I was a bit surprised at first,” the deputy director admits. But now that the unshaven president in his olive-green T-shirt speaks to her and her compatriots via Telegram or every evening on television, his eyes looking squarely into the camera, she doesn’t skip an appearance. Zelenskyy’s recipe for success? “The people believe him.”
Zelenskyy’s political breakthrough began with the 2015 television series “Servant of the People,” which looks rather prophetic in hindsight. He plays a schoolteacher who rises to the position of president because of his unwavering fight against corruption, thereby capturing the hearts of the voters. And that is almost exactly the script Zelenskyy followed in real life. He still, however, can get tangled up between fact and fiction: “Sometimes he slips into the role and starts to talk like an actor playing the president. I don’t think that helps us,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy and an actor himself, in comments to Time magazine.
Zelenskyy’s first home in Kryvyi Rih Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
The Ukrainian flag flying from the memorial commemorating the Soviet defeat of the Nazis Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
Zelenskyy is from a Jewish family but didn’t grow up in a religious environment. His part of town was considered relatively sheltered during the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time when the city was rocked by massive gang battles. They were known as the “Begunys” – the Runaways – around 40 armed youth groups engaging in bloody fights from district to district. They would assemble double-barreled pistols and hand grenades, resulting in deaths and lost limbs. Zelenskyy’s video message from March 4, eight days after the Russians invaded, seemed to hint at this period from his youth in Kryvyi Rih: “I am in Kyiv. I have no time to run away.” Before then adding: “Death to those who run away.”
- “With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no longer any culture or sports, so the youth just hung around,” says Andriy Shaikan, rector at the Institute for Economics and Technology at the University of Kryvyi Rih. Shaikan was a student of the university at the same time Zelenskyy was there – and he still teaches at the school, his office now in a building whose basement was once used by the Soviet secret service NKVD and by the Gestapo.
The would-be comedian and president studied law in Lecture Hall 18. Shaikan has since risen to become the boss of Zelenskyy’s father, an ambitious and spirited man in his mid-70s who still assiduously introduces students to the secrets of information technology and software design. In June, he oversaw examinations in Kryvyi Rih.
Volodymyr, the president, got to know Shaikan on stage as part of a KWN contest. The Russian abbreviation KWN standseb for “Club of the Funny and Imaginative.” The show was considered an effective springboard into the world of television, film and theater. The fact that he wouldn’t stand a chance against the future star comedian and his troupe is something he quickly realized, the rector now says. “They had been rehearsing for years, they were professionals. And their leader was Volodymyr, he took care of the solo appearances.”
Shaikan says they kept track of each other over the years. Zelenskyy, he says, had initially wanted to become a police officer like his grandfather, but until 2019, he would return to his alma mater in Kryvyi Rih twice a year for benefit shows to raise money for children who had lost their parents or who were similarly disadvantaged. “He is a person who doesn’t shy away from responsibility,” says Shaikan.
The residential district known as the “Ant Hill.” Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
Children with electric toy cars in Kryvyi Rih Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
The journey continues through this ragged, multifaceted city. Parts of its center make it seem as though you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in a picturesque Ukrainian farming village. But then, a range of residential towers looms, stretching out to the horizon. And in between are all the elements of modern life: A relaxing spot for a shisha in the Georgian restaurant Grusha, right next to the No Taboo sex shop. And all of it within walking distance of where Zelenskyy spent his childhood.
But the old Soviet-era circus, the Heroes Park, the Cultural Palace of the Metallurgists – it’s all still there. As is the often-terrible air and the red dust, which is everywhere whenever production is ramped up to full capacity. In Zelenskyy’s former neighborhood, they tell credible stories of red-colored dogs in the residential areas near the mines and blast furnaces. The dust-absorbing pools in front of the steel factory, which have expanded into small lakes, are used by the locals of Kryvyi Rih for fishing and swimming.
The residential building where Zelenskyy was born is located in a leafy courtyard on today’s Hurova Street. The current head of the Ukrainian domestic intelligence agency SBU, Ivan Bakanov, lived in the same staircase of the same building, together with his parents. The Zelenskyys later moved to the so-called “Ant Hill,” a monstrosity of residential towers with 854 apartments, a complex that has since become rather run down. The search for those with memories of the Ukrainian leader turns up a threatening man wielding a manhole lifting hook. He is afraid that a photo could betray to the Russians where the president used to live and put thousands of people in danger.
Sometimes, it seems as though his old buddies from Kryvyi Rih are more of a hindrance than a help to the president. Ivan Bakanow from Staircase 5, for example. He and Zelenskyy went to university together and then joined forces as business partners. In 2019, he went on to organize Zelenskyy’s triumphant election campaign, after which he was appointed to head up the intelligence agency. Now, though, Ukrainian reports indicate that he may soon be gone. He has been blamed for catastrophic strategic errors that contributed to the Russians being able to march into the important city of Kherson. He has also been blamed for endemic corruption within the SBU.
And then there is the affair involving Borys Shefyr, a long-time confidant and business partner of Zelenskyy’s. In late May 2019, he said in an interview: “Do you believe that Putin is a crazy man who derives pleasure from shooting at living people? A psychopath or something like that? He is a clever man. Sure, he has imperial ambitions. Still, we can come to an agreement.” Borys Shefyr has said he thinks the war “was started to make a lot of money. On both sides.”
Borys and his brother Serhiy, who grew up in the center of Kryvyi Rih, continue to be key figures in the Zelenskyy system. They got to know each other in the city where they were born, then lived together in an apartment on the outskirts of Moscow in the 1990s. All three were involved in 2003 when the media corporation Studio Kwartal 95 was founded, which produced the show “Servant of the People.” Significant elements of Ukraine’s present-day political epicenter got their start in that corporation.
Zelenskyy pins for sale in Heroes Park in Kryvyi Rih Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
Serhiy, the younger brother, is still considered to be the president’s mentor and most important adviser. Officially, he serves as first secretary. In recent comments to DER SPIEGEL, he described his role as being a modest one: “I wouldn’t see myself as a mentor, more as a partner, colleague, friend. We know each other from Kryvoy Rog.” Shefyr continues to use the Russian name for what he calls “a city that is with you for life.”
He says he has spent years working with Zelenskyy on various projects, “including political ones,” and that he is “immensely proud” of being on the team of a president “who the entire world now knows and loves.” Shefyr, who survived an assassination attempt last September that still hasn’t been cleared up, says of his hometown: “People from Kryvoy Rog stand for real business, not for idle chatter – they are people of word and deed, and they keep their promises.” Main characteristic? “Iron character.”
A longtime contemporary from the city confirms as much during a walk in a park that used to be named for the former party newspaper Pravda. “When us members of the tussovka (clique) partied until five in the morning following a show on the Crimea, Zelenskyy and the Shefyrs disappeared into the hotel immediately after it was over to write new screenplays.” Zelenskyy, he says, only does things he is convinced of “and he undeviatingly follows his path even if others bail out along the way.”
Does that mean that the president believes what he is now saying – that all of Ukraine, including Crimea and the Donbas, will be retaken? “Maybe he knows more than we do, but I think it’s a rather bold statement.”
After it became known in October 2021 that the famous four from Kryvyi Rih – the Shefyr brothers together with Zelenskyy and Bakanov – owned a stake in a network of offshore companies, the president’s popularity sank to just 23 percent within two months. Hadn’t Zelenskyy just promised honesty and transparency? And what about Zelenskyy’s relationship with his crucial patron, the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who was facing numerous legal proceedings on suspicions of fraud running into the billions? The Russian invasion on February 24 rapidly overshadowed such issues. And by early March, more than 90 percent of those surveyed indicated support for the course the president had charted.
Valentyna Ignatenko, deputy director of School #95 Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
Andriy Shaikan, rector of the Institute for Economics and Technology at the University of Kryvyi Rih Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
Zelenskyy’s mother tongue is Russian, and until 2014, much of the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih was considered to be a reliable source of votes for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow former prime minister and president. Zelenskyy himself, along with his troupe, were at Yanukovych’s 60 birthday in the state dacha in the Crimean resort town of Foros – as entertainers. Only after the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the violent crushing of the Maidan protests in Kyiv did the mood slowly begin to shift in Kryvyi Rih.
Pushkin Square will be called Joe Biden Square, in the future, and Maxim Gorki Alley and Moscow Alley will also have to be renamed, according to the Renaming Commission. The cast iron Soviet soldier at the memorial for the victory over Nazi fascism now holds a Ukrainian flag in his hand. Here too, in this traditionally pro-Russian city, Vladimir Putin has accomplished the opposite of what he wanted.
Should a living example be needed to prove the point, Oleksandr Wilkul wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Until 2014, he was the perfectly dressed and clean-shaven vice president – but here he is in battlefield fatigues and a beard, sitting behind his desk in his new role as head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration. He shares power in the city with his father, who, after more than 10 years in office, has once again jumped in as mayor. The legal office holder was found shot dead in August, with both the perpetrator and the motive remaining a mystery.
Wilkul junior, a Kalashnikov at the ready on the sideboard in his office, joined Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of the Regions in 2003. Starting in November 2013, he was deputy prime minister, a position he held during the Maidan protests, which were ultimately brutally put down. He was a candidate for president in 2019, but lost to Zelenskyy. Instead of talking about his past, though, he prefers discussing the present and the war.
Wilkul is proud of his farsightedness. He had the city’s access roads blocked with heavy equipment as the Russians, in the early days of the war, were bombing the airport with Ilyushin and Sukhoi bombers to prepare for the conquering of Kryvyi Rih. Later, the steel factory donated 130-ton trailer trucks and the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov sent along barricades and anti-tank obstacles.
What is it like for someone who enjoyed the support of Moscow not all that long ago yet is now charged with organizing the defense of Zelenskyy’s hometown against the Kremlin terror? Wilkul hems and haws a bit before finally finding a few words to say about the president. “My respect for him has grown, and we are proud that our compatriot from Kryvyi Rih is so courageous. A symbol of Ukrainian resistance.”
In parting, Wilkul comes up with a comparison: “Prior to 1945, we had the German fascists here. Now, we have the Russian fascists in our country, and in some ways, they are even worse.”
Former Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Wilkul Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
The graves of Zelenskyy’s grandparents: His grandfather was the only one of four brothers to survive World War II. Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
- A massive Soviet memorial recalls the victory over the German fascists, with the inscription: “Never forget.” It stands next to a mosaic depicting larger-than-life factory workers and a smaller Lenin in front of the imposing steelworks in the background. The first blast furnaces were fired up in 1934.
In a sparsely furnished office on the factory grounds is Artyom Filipyev, vice chairman of the board for the facility. The steelworks are now owned by the multinational ArcelorMittal and still employs 22,000 people, down from a one-time high of 57,000. Next to Filipyev hangs a poem which reads in part: “You want roses, I shit on them, the country needs locomotives made of steel.”
Filipyev says that in his position, he can’t speak about Zelenskyy and politics. But he does lament that production cuts due to the blockaded ports and export difficulties have not been universally bemoaned by some elements in politics and in the population. “We aren’t just the largest employer and taxpayer, but also the largest polluter here.”
The endless corridors and corners of the smoke and dust-belching monster provide some insight into how Asovstal in Mariupol became the last bastion of the city’s defenders. Kryvyi Rih is still far away from that reality, but Vitaliy – who keeps watch over a huge catchment basin where the molten iron gathers after being separated from the slag – says he can’t rule out being mobilized for the war effort soon. The thermometer to his left shows 1,435 degrees Celsius. Is this the most dangerous job in the entire factory? “It’s dangerous everywhere,” he Vitaliy says, “particularly in these times.”
The simple narrative of Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds that a steel town produced a man with an iron will. But that version gives short shrift to the influence his parents and grandparents had on the young boy, who was nicknamed Vova. Far from the city center, on the outskirts of Kryvyi Rih, is the All Brothers cemetery, where the black gravestone of Semyon Zelenskyy and his wife can be found. The president’s grandfather was a colonel in the Soviets’ 57th Guards Motor Rifle Division during World War II. He was the only one of four brothers to survive.
Even after the war, Semyon kept fighting. On the strength of his solid reputation, he was asked by the city council to bring down the notorious crime syndicate in Kryvyi Rih. The original dream of his grandson Volodymyr to become a police officer was allegedly born of his admiration for his grandfather. A photo showing Zelenskyy kneeling at the grave of his grandfather on the eve of his inauguration appeared in media outlets around the world.
Not even three years later, Putin told the Jewish Zelenskyy that he was set on “de-Nazifying” Ukraine.