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The Showman - Simon Shuster

Last updated Feb 25, 2024


# Metadata

# Highlights

# Prologue

There were plenty of retirees, hipsters and office workers, young couples on expensive dates, the full range of the middle class that had formed in Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Location 53)

When the show was over, Zelensky spent nearly an hour with his fans, taking photos with them and accepting their bouquets. (Location 79)

“Going onstage gives me two emotions,” he once said of these moments. “First comes the fear, and only when you overcome the fear, the pleasure kicks in. That’s what always drew me back out there.” (Location 82)

No matter how much he might try to resist the metamorphosis, the job would turn him sooner or later into the thing he claimed to despise: a politician. (Location 88)

our meeting at the Palace of Ukraine opened the door for me to write this one. (Location 111)

The greatest changes in Zelensky, the ones that became a central focus of this book, took place in the first few months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, (Location 120)

Stubborn, confident, vengeful, impolitic, brave to the point of recklessness, resistant to pressure, and unsparing toward those who stood in his way, he channeled the anger and resilience of his people and expressed it with clarity and purpose to the world, (Location 122)

it was the showmanship he honed over more than twenty years as an actor on the stage and a producer in the movie business that made Zelensky so effective in fighting this war— a war that required Ukraine not only to hold the world’s attention but to win the sympathy of people and their governments across the globe. (Location 124)

His success as a leader in the first hours of the invasion relied on the fact that courage is contagious. (Location 128)

When it started, he gave the military brass the freedom to lead on the battlefield, while he focused on the dimension of the war where he could be most effective: keeping Ukraine in the headlines, and persuading the world to help. (Location 136)

Sometimes, in the middle of a story, he would call his bodyguard or one of his aides to check the details. They often remembered things differently. (Location 173)

Some of them spoke to me during these events or very soon afterward, when the memories were still fresh, and before their stories settled into an accepted narrative of what had happened. (Location 180)

Fear can protect us. It can also make us run away, and the president’s ability to manage it, to conquer it, has a lot to do with the way Ukraine survived this threat to its existence. (Location 185)

# Part I

# Chapter 1 Daybreak

Zelensky knew that his success in both comedy and politics relied on his ability to play that role, to seem relatable, normal, like one of the guys. (Location 209)

it had never been his style to worry her. More often he veiled his concerns behind jokes and smiles, then made excuses when she learned what he was hiding. (Location 247)

Many of those with the luck and foresight to have their bags packed and a tank full of gas tried to leave Kyiv as soon as the explosions started. (Location 259)

For a millennium and a half, the empires of Europe have fought over this ancient city on the banks of the Dnipro River. The Vikings, Ottomans, Mongols, Lithuanians, and Poles had all laid claim to Kyiv, (Location 264)

That kind of confidence, even in the face of very long odds, had always been one of Zelensky’s strong suits. (Location 276)

if you let all that distract you, then your chances of getting where you need to go— to your interim goal, let’s call it that— they are low. Not quite zero, but they are very low.” (Location 289)

The presidential compound in the center of Kyiv had no such safeguards, but Zelensky insisted on going there first. It is the seat of presidential power, and his message was the same for the senior aides and ministers who called or texted him that morning: GO TO THE OFFICE. I’LL MEET YOU THERE. (Location 296)

Ukrainians often say rainy weather brings good luck. (Location 311)

Soviet forces took less than four days in 1956 to occupy the capital of Hungary and overthrow its government, whose leader was then arrested, tortured, found guilty of treason in a secret trial, and, two years later, executed on the gallows. (Location 322)

For days before the invasion started, Ukraine’s intelligence services had been tracking three groups of assassins tasked with killing Zelensky. (Location 328)

He refused to believe that in the twenty-first century, three decades after the end of the Cold War, hit men would try to hunt down a sitting European head of state. Nor could he imagine that Putin would start a full-scale war, (Location 334)

Some of his allies in Europe, including the leaders of France and Germany, assured him that the American predictions of an invasion were overblown. (Location 337)

Putin’s rise two decades earlier had relied on his victory in a war against Chechnya, a breakaway statelet in southern Russia whose cities he bombed into oblivion in 1999 and 2000, killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process. (Location 353)

“Before you find yourself in that situation, there is no way to tell how you will react.” (Location 365)

Early in the Second World War, the leaders of Albania, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Yugoslavia, among others, fled the advance of the German Wehrmacht and lived out the war in exile. (Location 369)

some had turned off their phones, packed up their cars, and headed toward the western border as soon as the bombing started. (Location 380)

The worst defections affected Ukraine’s main intelligence agency, known as the SBU. “Especially in the upper and middle ranks, (Location 381)

The terms of martial law, as laid out in Ukraine’s Constitution, grant the president vast powers to rule by decree, suspending elections and other democratic rights and freedoms of Ukrainians for the duration of the war. Curfews could be imposed, and every man of fighting age, between eighteen and sixty, would be subject to conscription and forbidden from leaving the country. The normal functions of parliament would be put on hold, while the assets of state companies and all private property would be subject to requisition in the interest of national defense. (Location 401)

He did not want to create the impression that the lawmakers had left their posts, so he told them all to gather in the plenary hall, (Location 409)

Panic was spreading, and Zelensky understood that it could overtake the capital far more quickly than the Russian tanks. He needed to reassure people that it was safe to stay home, and he made his first attempt at around six thirty a.m. (Location 415)

The first number he dialed while pacing around his office that morning was that of Boris Johnson, (Location 434)

“The crux of it was: accept Russia’s demands, or you and your family are dead,” Sybiha told me. Several of the foreign leaders offered to act as mediators for Ukraine to negotiate the terms of its surrender. (Location 444)

Zelensky felt his only hope, however delusional, was for the West to convince the Kremlin to call off the attack and withdraw its forces. (Location 463)

Olena gathered the family documents and packed one roller suitcase for herself and the children. All the pets were left in the care of the maid and security guards, (Location 486)

As long as these staffers asked permission to get their loved ones out of the city, they were allowed to go. “We’re all human beings,” he said. “And some fast decisions had to be made.” (Location 510)

At Kyiv’s central station, a train stood ready to take them out of the city, their destination a secret even among the president’s closest aides. (Location 520)

# Chapter 2 The Target

Anyone healthy enough to donate blood must offer it at their local hospital. Anyone who wanted an assault rifle, Zelensky said, could go and get one from the distribution points being set up around the city. (Location 532)

The Soviet Union never managed to produce an automobile that could compete on the global market, but they could build a bunker with the best of them. (Location 547)

inspected the place in the months before the invasion, and he made sure the Internet connections had several layers of redundancy. (Location 561)

“Everyone has their own life and needs to make a decision for themselves,” Zelensky told his aides. “Choose to either stay or go somewhere safer.” (Location 570)

Russian forces could hijack Ukraine’s judicial system and begin to issue rulings to legitimize their occupation or undermine the president’s authority. To prevent this, Smyrnov and an officer of the security forces rushed to a courthouse in central Kyiv, broke through the door, and ripped the wires out of its computer servers— (Location 601)

“If we did not give out the weapons,” said Denys Monastyrsky, the minister of internal affairs, “the Russians would have seized them straightaway.” (Location 606)

As dawn broke on the second day of the invasion, the Armed Forces of Ukraine issued an alert on their Facebook page, informing residents of Kyiv that enemy formations were already in the city. “Make Molotov cocktails,” the statement commanded. “Neutralize the occupiers!” (Location 639)

Zelensky was adaptable, trained not to lose his nerve under the glare of a massive audience. (Location 643)

Most of his decisions had no real basis in experience or planning. Zelensky had neither of these things to guide him at the time, but he didn’t seem to mind. (Location 650)

Zelensky became what one of his aides described as a “decision generator.” (Location 652)

In attacking Ukraine from multiple directions, they seemed to calculate that the command structure in Kyiv would crack, overwhelmed by the volume of threats that needed an immediate response. (Location 654)

Some would later backfire in tragic fashion, like the order Zelensky gave to distribute weapons to just about any adult with a Ukrainian passport and a trigger finger. The glut of guns soon turned parts of Kyiv into a shooting gallery. (Location 657)

“That calmed people down,” says Podolyak. “They stopped thinking and started working.”* (Location 666)

a swarm of at least thirty Russian attack helicopters swept down over the reservoir north of Kyiv, flying close enough to the water to avoid air defenses. The Ukrainians shot one of the helicopters down on its approach to Hostomel. But the others managed to land a force of several hundred Russian troops, enough to take the airport by storm. (Location 678)

Once in control of the runways, the Russian commandos prepared for the arrival of reinforcements in giant military transport planes, each one packed with soldiers and armored vehicles. (Location 687)

No one could summon the force of conscience the moment seemed to require, at least not until Zelensky dialed into the call. (Location 699)

in real time, they could see the president of a European democracy, holed up in a bunker, preparing to face his own death and the subjugation of his country, all because of the imperial ambitions of his neighbor to the east. (Location 705)

# Chapter 3 City of Bandits

She did not want to put her husband in the position of needing to choose between protecting their children and submitting to Russian demands. To avoid that scenario, she knew she would need to accept the security protocols, even if she found many of them suffocating. (Location 749)

As a child, Zelensky remembers his grandmothers talking in vague terms about the years when Soviet soldiers came to confiscate the food grown in Ukraine, its vast harvests of grain and wheat all carted away at gunpoint. (Location 848)

Zelensky was a first grader in a Mongolian school, just beginning to pick up the local language, when they traveled home in 1987. (Location 864)

it was typical of Jewish families in the Soviet Union, who often felt that overachievement was the only way to get a fair shake in a system rigged against them. (Location 874)

Zelensky’s father, through hard work, managed to overcome these obstacles as he reached the heights of his own profession, and he intended to help his son do the same. (Location 881)

Zelensky was the product of an era of change. (Location 885)

By the mid-1990s, the average university and many high schools in the Russian-speaking world had at least one KVN team. (Location 897)

“It was a rough, working-class place, and you just wanted to escape,” (Location 905)

half an hour goes by,” Pikalov told me. “Somebody comes over and busts the guitar.” But Zelensky was laughing. He had won the bet. “He said he made it through the third song.” (Location 919)

he finally got that across to him one night over drinks and a cigarette: “We had a couple shots, and I said, ‘Papa, you have to understand me. I want to be number one in my profession. Looking at you, I will never do better than you can. And being worse than you in your profession is not what I want. You understand? I want to be number one.’ That made Papa sad. You know, men are stingy with their tears. But then he let me go, like a fish from his hands.” (Location 924)

To make the connection, Pikalov, their mutual friend, borrowed a videocassette from her, a copy of Basic Instinct, and Zelensky used it as an excuse to visit her at home and return the tape. (Location 934)

for him, “Losing is worse than death.” (Location 943)

The informal hierarchy, she said, corresponded to Moscow’s vision of itself as an imperial capital. (Location 962)

Viewed in a generous light, these contests could be seen as a vehicle for Russian soft power in much the same way that American movies defined what good guys and bad guys are supposed to look like for viewers around the world. To be less generous, the league could be construed as a Kremlin-backed program of cultural colonialism. (Location 970)

With the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000, the Russian state embraced the symbols and icons of its imperial past, and it encouraged its people to stop being ashamed of the Soviet Union. One of Putin’s first acts in office was to change the melody of the Russian national anthem back to the Soviet one. (Location 974)

# Chapter 4 Mr. Green

if he felt any fear he hid it from everyone, including his wife. (Location 1017)

their aim was to make a version of Saturday Night Live with elements of Monty Python. (Location 1032)

“That was his main quality as a leader. He’d just say, ‘Let’s do it.’ Then we’d all get scared, and he would just tell us to trust him. (Location 1034)

Early in his tenure, Putin described the Soviet collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” and his plan for rectifying it depended on preserving the bonds between Kyiv and Moscow. (Location 1048)

Solid majorities in southern and eastern Ukraine backed Russia’s favored candidate, as did the people of Crimea. (Location 1063)

“We always reacted to political events, but it was based on the people’s point of view,” Olena told me. “We were not political experts. We joked about the things that people talked about in their kitchens. Our perspective was always from the outside in, and it was pretty superficial.” (Location 1086)

Younger viewers, having shed the Soviet instinct of deference before the state, found the satire exhilarating. (Location 1095)

“‘ You live under a lucky star. Just watch out that it doesn’t turn away from you one day.’ (Location 1102)

“I don’t talk about my income,” he once said. “It makes me really ashamed.” It troubled him that, as a rich celebrity, he risked losing touch with his audience. (Location 1109)

Through extensive polling, the Yanukovych operation calculated that their promise of economic growth and appeals to Russian tribalism would get enough votes in the east and south to tip the scales in their favor. The strategy worked. (Location 1125)

One of Yanukovych’s allies even offered to buy his loyalty. The price, Zelensky later claimed, was $ 100 million. “I didn’t go for it. I’m not sick in the head,” he said. “My life, my reputation, and my family are worth more than that sum.” (Location 1138)

Prosecutors would later allege that, during his four years in power, he and his allies siphoned as much as $ 100 billion into offshore bank accounts— a sum equal to about half of Ukraine’s total economic output in the year before Yanukovych was ousted. (Location 1145)

By the summer of 2012, Yanukovych felt so secure in his post that he agreed to give an interview to the Western press. (Location 1152)

# Chapter 5 Annexation

On the night of November 30, they stormed the encampment, swinging their batons, and began to stomp the tents and banners. It was the first of several turning points that winter. The crowds on the square began to multiply after that, more outraged over the treatment of the first group of demonstrators than any abstract political issue of Europe versus Russia. (Location 1195)

Many of Ukraine’s most famous entertainers performed for the protestors on Independence Square that winter, or at least came out to support them. But Zelensky stayed away. (Location 1202)

From his career in political satire, Zelensky had an instinctive mistrust for populists who claimed to speak on behalf of the people, (Location 1231)

Protestors overran several cities in western Ukraine, seizing armories inside police stations and threatening to march on the capital. (Location 1249)

In total, thirteen police officers were killed in those furious days of fighting. Among the protestors, the death toll topped a hundred. (Location 1259)

they came to us and said, ‘You’re not leaving. We know where your wife is. We know where your children are. You can decide to be a brave soldier, but then we’ll go and kill them all.’ That is what happened in Crimea.” (Location 1294)

“The key reason was psychological,” said Polishchuk. “Ukrainian soldiers were not mentally ready to shoot at Russians at the time.” (Location 1296)

Then he stuttered and hesitated for a moment before setting aside his pride. “If you need it, I can beg you on my knees,” he said to Putin. “But please, don’t put our people on their knees.” (Location 1350)

The statement put Zelensky in a role he had never occupied before. It marked the point when his political satire switched into political activism. (Location 1352)

Zelensky never abandoned the belief that his fame as an actor could help him as a peacemaker. Having learned to make Russians laugh, he thought he could also make them listen. (Location 1362)

# Part II

# Chapter 6 Battle of Kyiv

The president held him back, afraid that such measures would spread panic among the population and give the Russians an excuse to strike. (Location 1403)

“We were pursuing two strategic goals,” the general said. “We could not allow the capture of Kyiv. And on all the other vectors, we had to spill their blood, even if it meant losing territory.” (Location 1410)

“My aim was not to drag him into it,” the general later told me. “What I hate more than anything else in the army is when a lower rank shifts part of the responsibility onto their superiors. That can get you killed straightaway in my command. (Location 1421)

He focused instead on the aspects of the war where he could be most effective— inspiring Ukrainians to resist, and pressuring the West to help. His most frequent questions to the military command in those first days were pragmatic: What do you need? How can we support you? (Location 1428)

Zelensky’s actions, and the power of his appeals, put to shame the politicians who refused to help him. (Location 1448)

if Zelensky died, he wanted his foreign allies to understand that his blood would be on their hands. (Location 1451)

Zelensky had given them simple instructions: “It doesn’t matter what you say,” Arakhamia recalled. “The main thing is for them to hear us, to get the signal that we can negotiate.” (Location 1483)

Morale among Ukrainians surged as news of these confrontations spread on social media, each one chipping away at the myth of Russia’s indomitability. (Location 1509)

One of his aides in the bunker found the number of a man who lived in Hostomel, a friend of a friend, who agreed to get close enough to the airport to see where the Ukrainian shells were landing and correct their aim over the phone. (Location 1518)

vast numbers of regular Ukrainians joined the resistance in whatever ways they could, often at great personal risk and with little if any training. (Location 1524)

Mobile teams of Ukrainian special forces crept up to the column on foot, launched shoulder-fired rockets, and disappeared into the tree line. (Location 1539)

The ground was not frozen solid at the end of February, and the Russian tanks could not easily turn off the roads and advance through the fields and forests. (Location 1540)

Their biggest flaw was a lack of imagination, an inability to adapt to changes on the battlefield. Their command structure still followed the Soviet model, which had no culture of initiative among the junior officers. (Location 1548)

By coincidence, a new interpreter had been assigned to Milley around that time, and the translations of their phone calls grew stilted and confusing, creating space for misunderstandings between the two commanders. (Location 1562)

moving and hiding Ukraine’s air-defense systems and military aircraft in the days before the invasion. When these systems survived the initial barrage of missiles and aerial bombs, the Russian Air Force lost its chance to dominate the skies. (Location 1573)

I asked Mark Milley about this two or three times, but I understood that his intelligence was misleading him.” (Location 1589)

Not all of them were sturdy enough to complicate the advance of an enemy tank, but it seemed to be a point of pride for the volunteer fighters in every neighborhood to build these barricades and tend to them, burning barrel fires to keep warm and flying the national flag. (Location 1597)

“You have to follow certain rules if you want someone on the other side of the screen to keep watching you, and to remain sympathetic to you,” he said. “These are the same rules that work everywhere, in marketing strategies and in military strategies. You have to be winning, because people love winners. From time to time, you have to impress them with something big and unexpected, because no one can follow routine,” he continued. “Third, you need a clear character associated with the story to be visible to them all the time, and that’s President Zelensky in our case. And last you need a good story to tell. It’s the story of a smaller nation kicking the ass of a larger nation that invaded it. It’s bad guys attacking good guys, and good guys winning. (Location 1618)

On the propaganda front, Ukraine had an early advantage. It was the underdog and Russia the aggressor. But that did not guarantee the level of support Ukraine needed to stay in the fight. Past wars had shown how little the world’s sympathies mean on the battlefield. (Location 1641)

Zelensky and his team, as producers and performers, understood the power of perceptions as well as any Kremlin propagandist, and probably better. (Location 1646)

Despite the danger and the stress, the separation from his family, the weight of the responsibility he bore, and the horrors he witnessed each day, the president felt privileged, even happy, to do the job that fate had put in front of him. (Location 1655)

“I think the main purpose in life is to be needed, not just to be a blank space that breathes, walks, and eats. But to live, to know that certain things depend on your being alive, and to feel that your life matters to others.” (Location 1660)

# Chapter 7 The Bunker

That night my phone lit up with messages from one of Zelensky’s aides, pleading with me to report the story. (Location 1681)

The occupiers later used the plant to store their ammunition, fuel, and fighting vehicles, secure in the knowledge that Ukraine would not lob shells toward a nuclear power station. (Location 1686)

One minister told me he survived for days on chocolate bars and, in the process, gained several pounds. For the most part, though, anxiety suppressed the hunger of the presidential staff, and it started to wear them down. (Location 1695)

On a few occasions, the president would invite his staff to watch a movie in the conference room, (Location 1777)

there were thousands of railroad stations all across Ukraine, and the employees at many of them began to serve as lookouts, spotting the approach of Russian tanks and aircraft and reporting what they saw up the chain of command. (Location 1805)

In Kyiv alone, the authorities gave out twenty-five thousand firearms to regular citizens, who helped man checkpoints or patrol the streets. (Location 1832)

No matter how hard she tried to distract him with music and drawing, the boy wanted to practice marksmanship and martial arts. He had fixed his mind on becoming a soldier. (Location 1876)

# Chapter 8 Blank Slate

He just wanted to get a sense of what his troops were experiencing. “I needed their emotions,” he told me. “What are they feeling, what is their situation.” (Location 1899)

With the annexation of Crimea, Putin got his first taste of foreign conquest, and it was intoxicating. (Location 1922)

The vast majority of Russians saw the annexation as a brilliant and bloodless act of revenge against the insolent Ukrainians and their patrons in the West. Zelensky, like millions of his countrymen, experienced the theft of their land as a devastating act of betrayal. (Location 1959)

From then on, touring the front would become a tradition for Zelensky and his troupe. (Location 1990)

Zelensky, after visiting the front, would never again be content to devote himself solely to show business and entertainment. (Location 1994)

Zelensky’s idea for a presidential run began to germinate during his trips to the Donbas in 2014. (Location 2004)

Once, after a concert near the front, Tyra saw the widow of a paratrooper come up to Zelensky and tell him to run for office. For good luck, she gave him the beret from her dead husband’s uniform. (Location 2020)

“The war had a centrifugal effect on the political spectrum,” Bohdan told me. “Both sides went to their corners and got more extreme, and that created a vacuum in the center. Our candidate was designed to fill that vacuum.” (Location 2102)

a pattern in his administration. Those who questioned or opposed Zelensky’s plans often found themselves pushed to the periphery. (Location 2117)

# Chapter 9 The Favorite

During Poroshenko’s tenure, the economy shrank nearly in half, largely due to the toll of the war. The national currency had collapsed in value by about 70 percent in 2014, and it had not recovered. (Location 2132)

Zelensky conducted the campaign on his own terms, and it left him nearly impervious to political attacks. (Location 2168)

“Turn in a Corrupt Official, Get 10%!” (President Zelensky, true to his word, later signed an anti-bribery law that allowed for such payments.) (Location 2182)

Under Ukrainian law, television channels are obliged to give presidential candidates roughly equal amounts of airtime. But the law did not apply to the lineup of movies, reruns, and television specials that beamed Zelensky’s image into every household in the land. (Location 2188)

During one of Trump’s speeches at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, she got a seat in the front of the room, within the frame of the television cameras. Then she waited for him outside the bathroom for a quick chat and a photo, which she framed and placed on her desk. (Location 2209)

In the eastern regions that Putin liked to describe as parts of the “Russian world,” Zelensky got nearly 90% of the vote. (Location 2242)

# Chapter 10 Trust No One

the agenda for the first part of his presidency: peace at any cost, and a total renewal of power. (Location 2278)

the bookkeepers and security guards won the argument. The costs were too high, and the risks too severe, for Zelensky to move to another building. (Location 2296)

he suffered from the actor’s malady— an abiding need to be liked and applauded. (Location 2311)

The spouses of European leaders rarely have any formal title or responsibilities, and their duties tend to be poorly defined. That changed in France after Emmanuel Macron took office in 2017. His wife took on official status in the administration, with her own staff, budget, and office space. (Location 2346)

usual post-election window of opportunity to skip a couple of steps on the career ladder,” (Location 2373)

Since the start of his tenure in 2017, Trump had expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin and undermined NATO. He had repeated Putin’s claims that Ukrainian politicians, not Russian spies, meddled in the 2016 presidential election. He also echoed Russian talking points about Crimea, once claiming the peninsula belongs to Russia (Location 2384)

In the spring of 2014, Hunter Biden accepted a lavishly paid seat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company. The arrangement looked awful for the Bidens, like a classic case of influence peddling. (Location 2397)

William Taylor, who was then the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, warned Zelensky to avoid that. “I said over and over and over that they should just stay out of our politics,” (Location 2421)

he chose not to hide. On the sidelines of the General Assembly, he agreed to appear at a press briefing with Trump. He even insisted on speaking in English, (Location 2448)

The White House did not even consult with the Ukrainians before declassifying the transcript of Zelensky’s phone call with Trump and sending it out to the press. (Location 2457)

in the span of eight months. He was not only more tired and more of a realist, he seemed to have caught a strain of the political disease he once detested and wanted to cure: cynicism. (Location 2469)

There was constant friction between the ways he had been raised to behave and the rules that now governed his movements, his contact with other human beings. They made no sense to him. (Location 2476)

You can solve an equation with a variable, with one variable. But here it’s only variables, including the politicians in our country. (Location 2485)

“I don’t want us to look like beggars,” Zelensky said when I asked him about this. “But you have to understand. We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us . . . I think that’s just about fairness.” (Location 2489)

“I would never want Ukraine to be a piece on the map, on the chessboard of big global players, so that someone could toss us around, use us as cover, as part of some bargain,” he said. “I want Ukraine to have agency.” (Location 2500)

# Part III

# Chapter 11 The Churchyard

For generations of people in Kyiv, the word Bucha evoked memories of summer in the countryside. (Location 2514)

The idea of Bucha becoming a battleground seemed preposterous to people in Kyiv, about as likely as a missile barrage over the Poconos. (Location 2521)

the monthlong occupation of Bucha began. A few thousand people remained in the town, many of them elderly, (Location 2533)

the first wave of Russian troops seemed to be more disciplined, better trained, and far less cruel than the detachments that followed. (Location 2540)

Even a trident, the state symbol of Ukraine, could be treated as a mark of extremism by the interrogators. (Location 2544)

By the second week of the invasion, the sight and the smell of death became unbearable, (Location 2552)

Russia had lost more troops in Ukraine in one month than the Soviet Union lost in ten years of war in Afghanistan. (Location 2570)

The Russians withdrew by early April from an area of northern Ukraine that was roughly the size of Denmark. (Location 2626)

“We are dealing with a state that turns the right of veto in the U.N. Security Council into a right to kill,” Zelensky said. If that does not change, he added, “the U.N. can simply be dissolved.” (Location 2636)

the visit to the grave site “turned his consciousness inside out,” (Location 2664)

Ukraine’s commitment to joining NATO had been written into its Constitution. In February 2019, a few weeks before the presidential elections, Petro Poroshenko had signed this amendment, (Location 2674)

Zelensky was adamant that the talks must move forward, even as the scale of Russian war crimes continued to emerge. (Location 2717)

As a compromise, the president agreed to curtail some parts of the negotiations. They had been progressing along three parallel tracks— legal, diplomatic, and military— with three groups of negotiators. Zelensky decided to cut off the military track and to take a brief pause in the other two. (Location 2721)

“For one day, they were in a daze,” he said. “Then their propaganda machine started working, and they began to say we had staged it all with help from the Americans.” (Location 2726)

Germany, the homeland of von der Leyen, where she had served as the minister of defense before being appointed the E.U.’ s most senior official. (Location 2746)

A large cluster of phone signals, all transmitting at the same time, would allow an enemy surveillance drone to pinpoint the location of the gathering. (Location 2753)

It was as though Zelensky was still clinging to the illusion he brought with him to the presidency. He seemed to believe that if he could only take Putin on a tour of Bucha, if he could bring him to the edge of that pit in the churchyard and let him peer down at the bodies, the war might stop. (Location 2795)

# Chapter 12 Trojan Horse

During the first full month of his tenure, Zelensky ordered the withdrawal of troops from three points along the front line in eastern Ukraine. They were told to pull back by one kilometer, clearing away mines and dismantling their fortifications. (Location 2813)

“The president really believed deep down that he could end the war. Maybe in the past people just weren’t listening,” Reznikov said of Zelensky’s thinking at the time. “Maybe there were hard feelings that needed to be discussed. That’s why we had this goal. Set a meeting. Face-to-face.” (Location 2837)

The mediators in the talks were Germany and France, and Zelensky was not sure he could trust them to stay in his corner. (Location 2842)

Throughout that year, Germany rushed to finish an energy project with Russia that could cripple Ukraine’s economy. (Location 2845)

The Kremlin continued to deny the presence of Russian soldiers in the Donbas, and the Russian military treated their deployment, and their deaths, as closely guarded secrets. (Location 2877)

February 2015, a combined force of Russian troops and paramilitary units encircled thousands of Ukrainians in the city of Debaltseve, including many civilians, and bombarded them with artillery and multiple-rocket launchers. (Location 2903)

He wanted the Donbas to be a part of Ukraine that Russia could control. “It’s a typical Trojan horse,” one of Putin’s close associates told me. (Location 2915)

He felt a kinship with the people in these regions. Like them, he hailed from the industrial east of the country, and some of his strongest results in the presidential race had come from the parts of the Donbas that were still under Ukrainian control. (Location 2977)

my position in life is to be a human being above all. And I cannot send them there. How? How many of them will die? Hundreds of thousands, and then an all-out war will start, an all-out war in Ukraine, and then across Europe.” (Location 3002)

Zelensky, to the surprise of some of his aides, decided to break the language barrier. (Location 3007)

Putin seemed irritable and impatient with Zelensky, having arrived in Paris with all the baggage of his past negotiations with Ukraine. (Location 3016)

“My president did not understand what was at issue,” Reznikov told me. He could not overcome Putin’s fixation on the promises Ukraine had made under its previous leadership, (Location 3029)

“He probably thought there would be more humanity in him,” Pobedonostseva told me. “We’re all inclined to project our own qualities onto other people. But some people are different. There are those with whom it’s just not possible to make a connection.” (Location 3039)

The fundamental problem with the Kremlin’s position was that it was based on a lie. Putin had always denied the deployment of Russian forces in the Donbas. (Location 3055)

The Ukrainian parliament made it official in the middle of July, when it voted to block the elections that Ukraine and Russia were negotiating over. (Location 3076)

Reznikov knew right away what this would mean for the peace talks with Russia. “It blew apart the Kremlin’s expectations,” he told me. After five months of talks, the Russian negotiators would need to explain to their boss in the Kremlin why things had fallen apart. (Location 3087)

# Chapter 13 The Dark Prince

their economies were tightly intertwined. Ukraine relied on supplies of Russian oil and gas, and the elites in both countries were bound by business interests, family, and corruption. (Location 3107)

Only five years after Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and started the war in eastern Ukraine, his friend became the leader of the opposition in the Ukrainian parliament. (Location 3132)

the risk of infection with this disease seemed to trigger an advanced spell of hypochondria in Putin. He retreated to his vast estate on Lake Valdai, (Location 3140)

In the first ten months of the pandemic, the virus would claim more Ukrainian lives than the war in the Donbas had taken in five years. (Location 3166)

they knew almost nothing about the work she had done over the previous year. Her biggest project as First Lady, modeled in part on the work of Michelle Obama, tried to improve the quality of school lunches. (Location 3192)

Putin, always a spy and never a soldier, preferred as a rule to achieve his ends through subterfuge before turning to violence. (Location 3215)

Instead of going through the justice system, the president tapped one of his most senior allies, Oleksiy Danilov, to help shut the channels down. Danilov, as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, signed off on a series of sanctions against the channels’ ownership, a novel form of political attack. (Location 3222)

The danger from Medvedchuk and his television channels felt existential to Zelensky. “I consider them devils,” he told me. “Their narratives seek to disarm Ukraine of its statehood.” (Location 3232)

The European Union warned him that the fight against Russian propaganda should not “come at the expense of freedom of media.” But the Biden administration, which had taken office only two weeks earlier, applauded Zelensky. “We support Ukraine’s efforts to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity through sanctions,” the U.S. embassy in Kyiv said in a statement. Officials at the Department of State told me they were impressed with how decisively Zelensky had acted against Russia’s “malign influence” in Ukraine. (Location 3253)

On February 19, 2021, his government announced the confiscation of the Medvedchuk family’s assets. Among the most important, it said, was a pipeline that brings Russian oil to Europe through Ukraine. This was the main source of Medvedchuk’s fortune. (Location 3261)

a sign of Russia’s response came two days later, at seven a.m. on February 21. In a little-noticed statement on its website, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it was sending three thousand paratroopers to the border with Ukraine for “large-scale exercises.” (Location 3264)

# Chapter 14 Welcome to Ragnarok

When they hit the ground, instead of exploding, they popped open to release a web of nearly invisible wires. Anyone who came along and touched one of the strands— a soldier, an animal, a child— would cause the mine to detonate, spraying a hail of shrapnel in every direction.* (Location 3276)

With that first shot, the Russian snipers had set a trap, and they waited for other soldiers to come running through the field. (Location 3286)

Here was the top military officer in the country, declaring that a foreign power was ready to invade from three directions, and the legislature could barely summon the patience to listen to him. (Location 3313)

Joe Biden called Zelensky that week to pledge the “unwavering support” of the U.S. in any confrontation with the Kremlin. (Location 3336)

The younger ones had grown up watching Zelensky’s comedies, and some could not suppress a chuckle at the sound of his husky voice. (Location 3356)

Zelensky looked confused. “Our guys are over there, right?” he said to Khomchak. “They’ll hear I came all this way and didn’t come to see them. They’ll be upset.” (Location 3377)

it seemed more likely that Zelensky understood the risks when he spun around and continued hiking through the brush. Khomchak, like the rest of us, had little choice but to go along. (Location 3380)

like Khomchak, he questioned the wisdom of sending men to die for these muddy dugouts. (Location 3401)

The cause of death was rendered clinically: “perforating gunshot wound to the left leg that was incompatible with life.” (Location 3408)

That morning, after we woke up near the garrison, the president showed up in the mess hall for breakfast in his running clothes, fresh from a jog through the war zone. (Location 3413)

he was not convinced that Russia’s maneuvers amounted to anything more than a bluff. (Location 3455)

“Russia either gets the influence it wants by peaceful means, or it gets it by force,” said Oleh Voloshyn, (Location 3509)

“You have to understand,” he later told me. “There are hawks around Putin who want this crisis. They are ready to invade. (Location 3513)

Putin also made clear that he was done talking directly to the Ukrainians. (Location 3528)

“He still is concerned that we, in fact, are looking to take him down,” Biden said after the meeting. (Location 3536)

Putin had given up on Medvedchuk’s plan for remaking Ukraine through television, corruption, and politics. (Location 3547)

# Chapter 15 Shoot to Kill

None of Zelensky’s decisions, certainly none in the personnel department, would have a greater impact on Ukraine’s defense than his decision to appoint Zaluzhny. (Location 3557)

Zaluzhny was a bold and ambitious commander, but he was also a bit of a goofball, better known for clowning around with his troops than disciplining them. (Location 3559)

The questions from Zelensky and his team had little to do with his work in the military or his dream of commanding the troops in eastern Ukraine. They were asking bigger, more ambitious questions, touching on the nature of leadership and trust. (Location 3569)

“A lot of people will be shocked by that,” Zaluzhny said. “And that’ll come down hard on me and my wife.” (Location 3583)

As ever, he trusted his gut when it came to hiring decisions more than he listened to the measured advice and analytics of his aides. (Location 3585)

Troops from the U.S., Canada, and several of their NATO allies took part in the parade. (Location 3598)

during the first Independence Day of his tenure, Zelensky had made a point of banning heavy weapons from the streets of Kyiv. The tradition of military parades, he said, “is very pompous and definitely not cheap.” Instead he ordered a round of bonuses to be paid to Ukrainian servicemen that year and, on the day of the celebrations, he presided over a “March of Dignity,” featuring teachers and nurses walking in formation. (Location 3602)

By August, Zelensky and his team concluded that the Kremlin would only respond to the language of strength and military power. So Zelensky decided to put that power on display. (Location 3611)

Soon after taking up his post, he gave officers on the ground the freedom to return fire “with any available weapons” if they came under attack. (Location 3619)

The drone’s inventor— incidentally, the son-in-law of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan— traveled to Kyiv to sign the deal on September 29. (Location 3629)

During a brief war in 2020, the armed forces of Azerbaijan had used their fleet of Bayraktars to crush the army of Armenia, a Russian ally, in little over a month. (Location 3631)

Although Russia could outgun Ukraine in other forms of military tech, it had no analogue to the Bayraktar in its arsenal. (Much later, in the midst of the invasion, Putin would need to ask the Iranians to sell him attack drones.) (Location 3633)

The U.S. claimed the invasion would start in January 2022 with a certainty of between 75 and 80 percent. (Location 3649)

“They were telling us that we would be conquered in four to five days, that there would be concentration camps,” Danilov told me. “And the entire political leadership would be killed.” (Location 3653)

In classified briefings, the Americans also referred to a high-level source inside Russia. The source, they said, had provided the U.S. with details of Putin’s plan to invade. (Location 3663)

Citing legal restrictions and other red tape, the Americans told him it wasn’t possible. But Reznikov sensed there was a deeper reason. He called it “the Afghan syndrome.” (Location 3696)

Images of Taliban fighters strolling through U.S. bases and arming themselves with U.S.-supplied weapons marked a low point for U.S. policy in the region. (Location 3700)

As the lead Russian envoy put it, “NATO needs to pack up its stuff and get back to where it was in 1997.” (Location 3711)

By the end of January, the U.S. took steps to guard the eastern flank of NATO in anticipation of the Russian attack, (Location 3729)

# Chapter 16 The Blizzard

Basic maneuvers meant to simulate a Russian attack had exposed deep flaws in Ukraine’s defenses, (Location 3740)

the exercises were a cover story, intended to hide Ukraine’s preparations for war. (Location 3748)

The president agreed to help fill those gaps as long as they could do so quietly, without provoking the Russians or scaring the public. (Location 3759)

they convinced the U.S. and its allies to send Ukraine a large cache of weapons that had been stored in Bulgaria and intended for the army in Afghanistan. (Location 3760)

the West sent around $ 1.5 billion in military aid in the run-up to the invasion, helping to give Ukraine a fighting chance. (Location 3765)

The Armed Forces of Ukraine could not mobilize for a Russian invasion without alarming investors and piling more strain on the economy. (Location 3774)

The most important loophole was Blizzard-2022, which gave the military an excuse to move forces into position. (Location 3779)

No less valuable to Ukraine’s defense was the psychological effect the drills had on the soldiers involved. (Location 3784)

“I was afraid that we would lose the element of surprise,” Zaluzhny told me. (Location 3792)

“I knew that I only had one shot,” Zaluzhny said. “It was my only chance and, while we were getting ready, I kept it close to the chest.” (Location 3795)

Instead of sending the real details of his strategy to Milley, Zaluzhny decided to show him a fake one. “I couldn’t come up with a better idea.” He would later feel bad about deceiving his most important ally. (Location 3807)

the Munich Security Conference, the favored venue for members of NATO to discuss the threats they saw in the world, and to invite their adversaries for some spirited debate about the dangers they saw in each other. (Location 3817)

He warned the West in Munich that he was tired of NATO expansion, and the war in Georgia showed that he was willing to challenge it with military force. (Location 3836)

The Ukrainians suggested, for a start, a set of sanctions strong enough to make Putin reconsider his decision to invade. (Location 3854)

The U.S. could not impose sanctions, she said, because the punishment could only come after the crime. (Location 3858)

Zelensky asked her: “What will that give you? If I acknowledge it here in this conversation, will you impose sanctions?” Reznikov recalls the president asking this several times throughout the meeting, but he never got a clear reply. (Location 3859)

On the sidelines of the Munich conference, several Western leaders urged Zelensky not to return home that day, and instead to begin the process of forming a government in exile. (Location 3872)

“He was comforting me,” Kuleba later told me. “It’s like when you see someone who has cancer, the last stage of cancer, (Location 3918)

He understood the war was about to begin, and he asked for Biden’s advice, not as a diplomat but as a father. Would it make sense for Kuleba to evacuate his children? Or was it his duty as a government official to lead by example and keep his family in Kyiv? Biden placed a hand on his shoulder and answered, “Be a good father.” (Location 3921)

Millions of people would flee. The economy would collapse. The country would be hollowed out, with no one left to defend it from the enemy. Those were the fears that drove Zelensky in the days before the bombs began to fall. (Location 3932)

He wanted to try one last time to speak to Putin. But the call was ignored, said Yermak, who was by his side. “There was no answer on the other end.” (Location 3955)

we don’t want war. Not a cold war or a hot war or a hybrid war. But, if we are under attack, if someone tries to take our country, our freedom, our lives and the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves.” If the Russians invade, Zelensky told them, “you will see our faces, not our backs.” (Location 3965)

# Part IV

# Chapter 17 Battle of the Donbas

the map had been published in 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, (Location 3981)

Their maps, he explained, were from a different era, just like their strategy and their mentality. (Location 3989)

the defense of Kyiv shattered Russia’s image as a military powerhouse, an image that had shaped the balance of power in Europe for generations. (Location 3999)

the turning point in any fight comes when the victim hits back and draws the blood of the attacker. (Location 4000)

The Ukrainian armed forces lacked the means to stop him at the time. So the city’s defense fell to paramilitary units that formed after that winter’s revolution. The strongest ones had backing from Ukrainian oligarchs and financiers, who sponsored these volunteer forces as a way to defend their own cities and enterprises from going the way of Crimea. (Location 4007)

the Azov Battalion, a fighting force that drew many of its early members from Ukraine’s far-right and neo-Nazi underground. The battalion took its name from the Azov Sea, and their successful defense of Mariupol in 2014 earned them the status of heroes across the country. The Ukrainian National Guard soon absorbed the Azov Battalion into its ranks, turning it into a fully fledged regiment within the armed forces, with thousands of troops and several military bases. (Location 4010)

In the middle of March, a Russian jet dropped a heavy bomb on the Mariupol drama theater, where thousands of civilians had taken shelter. As many as six hundred of them were killed, (Location 4018)

In the second week of April— more than a month into the siege— Ukrainian officers reported that a noxious gas had seeped into Azovstal, burning the eyes and airways of the troops trapped inside. (Location 4027)

They had diesel generators and enough fuel to run Starlink Internet terminals, (Location 4032)

“Very often people ask who is Zelensky’s speechwriter,” said his adviser on communications, Dasha Zarivna. “The main one is him,” (Location 4083)

“The scariest thing is to lose the people you have around you,” he said back then, a few months before he was elected, “the ones that keep you grounded, that tell you when you’re wrong.” (Location 4100)

Now he was so accustomed to the official language of the state that he had trouble remembering Russian words. (Location 4125)

Joseph Stalin had once referred to artillery as the god of modern warfare, and in the Donbas it became the engine of the Russian strategy. (Location 4171)

# Chapter 18 Aboveground

The U.S. objective, in other words, was not merely to help Ukraine survive this war but to destroy Russia’s ability to fight another one. (Location 4185)

The summit at Ramstein offered a long-term solution. Ukraine would need to break its dependence on Soviet hardware and adapt to the use of NATO weaponry. (Location 4204)

With his decision to invade, Vladimir Putin had unleashed the very forces he intended to stop. (Location 4217)

Within a week of the conference in Ramstein, the U.S. announced that it was sending vast amounts of intelligence to the Ukrainians. (Location 4222)

In early May, the New York Times reported that the flow of U.S. intelligence had helped Ukraine kill as many as twelve Russian generals in targeted strikes. (Location 4225)

The panhandlers and buskers came back to the sidewalks, as did the street chanters from the cult of Falun Gong, who invited passersby to meditate with them across from city hall. (Location 4245)

At that point in the war, Ukraine had no way to stop the type of hypersonic missiles that Russia fired at targets in Kyiv and other cities. (Location 4264)

They were facing an invader with a nuclear arsenal. They had decided not to run. What was the point of hiding? (Location 4269)

the “filtration camps” that Russia had been using to detain and interrogate civilians in eastern and southern Ukraine. (Location 4284)

“Those who have remained in Russia,” he wrote, “live with all the rights of hostages . . . The silence of a hostage with a terrorist’s gun to his head does not make him an accomplice to the terrorist.” (Location 4296)

in the opening hours of the invasion, he had disabled his ankle monitor and escaped from house arrest. (Location 4322)

On April 14, the Ukrainian Navy launched two torpedoes at the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. (Location 4342)

Intelligence from American satellites proved instrumental in these attacks, which laid bare a structural flaw in the Russian military. It still relied on the rigid hierarchies of the Soviet Union, which gave junior officers little authority to make decisions on their own. (Location 4346)

Throughout the spring, Zelensky averaged one speech per day, addressing venues as diverse as the parliament of South Korea, the World Bank, and the Grammy Awards. Each one was crafted with his audience in mind. (Location 4354)

“We are not just surviving anymore,” his adviser Oleksiy Arestovych told me a few days after the sinking of the Moskva. “We are winning, and the president feels a powerful drive from this new role. He’s swimming in it, giving orders like Napoleon before a battle. I think it’s woken something up inside him,” he said. “Some inner strength.” (Location 4358)

Privately, away from his advisers, Zelensky tried to discipline himself to be humbler about his chances of winning the war. “The higher a person climbs up that mountain,” he told me, “the more painful it is to fall.” (Location 4364)

the First Ladies of Poland, Lithuania, and Israel stayed in close touch with Olena, as did the spouses of other foreign leaders who had rushed to Ukraine’s defense. They spoke on the phone as often as possible. “This club is really helping me right now,” (Location 4385)

“We’re all living people,” he said. “Probably there are such moments in every family over of the years. But I never felt that there is something wrong in our relationship.” Then, turning the tables, he asked his wife: “Are you ever sad with me?” “With you— never,” she answered. “Without you, it’s always very sad.” (Location 4414)

# Chapter 19 Return of Politics

in private he and his aides had begun to consider the political threats of the future. (Location 4453)

Davyd Arakhamia, the president’s close friend and the leader of his party’s faction in parliament, estimated that Ukraine would have two million active or retired military personnel by the end of the war, equal to about 15 percent of the economically active population. (Location 4541)

Despair set in most easily among the onlookers and the doom-scrollers, while those who found a form of service, whether by filling sandbags or cooking meals for soldiers at a checkpoint, could use it as a way to stabilize the mind and fend off the pull of madness and depression. (Location 4567)

“We have a particular distrust for terms that include the word psycho,” she said. The term psychotherapy often evokes images of state-run asylums in Ukraine, places that are designed to isolate the ill from society. A lot of that stigma, Zelenska told me, has its roots in the Soviet Union, where generations of Ukrainians were raised to deal with trauma by hiding it away. The attitude, she said, was: “Deal with it, get over it, and if you complain, you’re weak.” (Location 4572)

To stop the advance of Russian forces from Crimea, the Ukrainians had mined the narrow isthmus that connects Crimea to the mainland. They had also planted explosives around a bridge that leads north from Crimea over the Chonhar Strait. Yet on the morning of February 24, when the invasion began, none of these bombs were detonated. (Location 4600)

His own bodyguard secretly recorded Kuchma in his office on Bankova Street, discussing how and when Gongadze should be silenced. (Location 4625)

After winning the race, the president-elect tried to co-opt Musaieva, offering her a job as his press secretary. Her refusal took the form of a question. If she accepted the offer, she asked Zelensky, “then who would watch over you?” (Location 4639)

“Don’t be too generous to him,” Gongadze told me. “You don’t know what he will become.” (Location 4665)

# Chapter 20 Independence Day

For months, Noskov told me, the office of the president urged the commander to avoid speaking on the record to the press. Only in the summer they relented, and Noskov asked me to come for an interview at a hotel in central Kyiv. (Location 4679)

Nearly all its warships had been based in Crimea, and the Russians seized them in 2014 along with the rest of the peninsula. What remained was a creaking fleet of patrol boats and helicopters (Location 4700)

the reforms underway in the military. Their aim, he explained, was to help Ukrainian forces react to surprises on the battlefield, communicating and supporting each other rather than just waiting for orders from the top. (Location 4705)

officers on the ground need to have the freedom and the confidence to make decisions for themselves. (Location 4709)

the resistance from the generals in Kyiv was fierce. All of the older cadres had grown up within the Soviet military, and they saw the changes as a threat to their authority and the discipline within their ranks. (Location 4710)

The Javelins, an American weapon with a price tag of roughly a quarter million dollars per shot, (Location 4720)

Zaluzhny made it clear that politicians and generals make awkward partners. They rarely understand each other, and they get along best when they stay out of each other’s way. (Location 4733)

as the initial state of panic in Kyiv wore off and the Russians went into retreat, Zelensky grew more confident. He formed his own military priorities, and they were not always aligned with those of the general. Soon the rift between the two men widened, and they began to clash. (Location 4743)

“The satellites allow us to see what the enemy is hiding,” Oleksiy Reznikov, the defense minister, told me. “The HIMARS allow us to destroy it.” (Location 4751)

General Milley acted as a mediator in these discussions, urging Biden to approve the deliveries as fast as possible while also asking the Ukrainians to be patient. (Location 4758)

The rockets flew in both directions, and as Russian losses mounted in the east, their commanders took their anger out on innocent civilians. (Location 4771)

She still worried that some false move could embarrass the country and hurt its standing in the world, but the fear of embarrassing herself had passed. “The war broke it,” she told me. “I’m not afraid for myself anymore.” (Location 4778)

It was the first time in memory that any president of the United States received the First Lady of another country in the Oval Office. (Location 4787)

She had spent half her life writing her husband’s scripts. Now she would need to deliver a speech while channeling his new persona, (Location 4791)

it’s true that America supports Ukraine because of our shared values, but that support starts to weaken when they don’t see results.” (Location 4811)

At the end of summer, as President Zelensky and his team grew impatient for the start of a major counteroffensive, these covert strikes became more daring and dramatic. They reached deeper into Russian territory, while official denials of responsibility from Kyiv became halfhearted, routinely accompanied by a wink and a mischievous smile. (Location 4881)

On August 22, two days before the holiday, the U.S. Department of State urged Americans to evacuate Ukraine by any means available, citing an increased risk of Russian attacks against civilian targets. (Location 4935)

One of the reporters raised a hand and asked about the threat of a missile strike at the place where we were standing. “I think everyone fears death,” Zelensky said with nonchalance. “No one wants to die. But no one is afraid of Russia, and that is the most important signal.” (Location 4950)

# Chapter 21 Counterstrike

President Putin tried at first to ignore the disaster. While his troops abandoned their weapons and fled, he celebrated Moscow’s birthday on September 10 at the unveiling of a giant Ferris wheel in a city park. That same weekend, the wheel’s engine broke down, leaving a few dozen riders dangling in the air— a pitch-perfect image of Russian dysfunction. (Location 4991)

on September 21, within two weeks of the Russian defenses collapsing around Kharkiv, he broke that promise by calling up three hundred thousand additional troops in Russia’s first mobilization of military forces since World War II. (Location 4997)

In total, Ukrainian agents carried out more than a dozen attacks on Russian-backed officials in these regions, with car bombings among the favored methods used. (Location 5006)

This time we were the winners, and we didn’t shoot the Russians in the back. We told them to surrender, and many of them did, a decent number.” (Location 5019)

in Syria, where Surovikin commanded the Russian air campaign in 2017. On his orders, bombers and fighter jets systematically attacked civilian areas in order to break their resistance to the Kremlin’s allied regime in Damascus. In appreciation, Putin pinned the coveted Hero of Russia medal on Surovikin’s chest that December, while the Russian state media began referring to him admiringly as “General Armageddon.” (Location 5032)

“We will not be broken by shelling,” he said. “For us the sound of enemy rockets in our skies is not as scary as hearing the enemy’s anthem on our land. We are not afraid of the dark. The darkest times for us are not without light, but without freedom.” (Location 5048)

General Zaluzhny, by contrast, was kept out of sight, prohibited from traveling to the front lines or freely interacting with his troops in public. His aide, Colonel Noskov, also came under pressure. The president’s office urged Zaluzhny to fire him, and Ukraine’s counterintelligence service subjected Noskov to an interrogation and a polygraph test. (Location 5100)

For the image makers on Bankova Street, “the scariest thing is that the young people are for Zaluzhny. The best and brightest are for him.” (Location 5119)

“The worst could come when the war is behind us,” Tyra told me. “Mark my words. There will be a massive shitstorm over whether the war could have been prevented, whether we lost too many men.” (Location 5122)

# Chapter 22 Liberation

Already the residents of tall apartment towers had begun placing supplies of food and water in the elevators for anyone trapped inside during a blackout. (Location 5183)

They would later inform him that, high above his head on the square, too high for any of us to notice at the time, an enemy reconnaissance drone kept watch, feeding images back to the Russian troops on the other side of the river. (Location 5260)

he said, it would make no sense to negotiate with an enemy that talks of peace while bombing civilians. “We don’t believe Russia,” Zelensky said. “They are tricking all the world. That’s why we are going forward.” (Location 5292)

Given the choice, Zelensky later told me, he would always prefer to be welcomed as the equal of his soldiers, not their potentate, and the lack of pageantry did not strike him as a sign of disrespect. It encouraged the troops to speak freely about the horrors they had seen and the struggles Kherson had yet to face. (Location 5307)

In the first month of the invasion, Zelensky had signed a law imposing strict punishment for aiding the occupiers, with the worst offenders facing life imprisonment for treason, (Location 5313)

Such questions were no longer foreign to Zelensky. They had been on his mind for months, and he had developed ways to structure his thoughts around dilemmas that might, in normal times, have overwhelmed him. (Location 5345)

It was reason winning out, wisdom winning out against speed and ambition.” (Location 5349)

such books of history and biography had long been among his travel companions. Since the invasion started, he had read about the life of Winston Churchill, (Location 5363)

“I’ve raised the example of Charlie Chaplin,” Zelensky said, “how he used the weapon of information during the Second World War to fight against fascism. (Location 5368)

He wanted to change the way Ukrainians understood their role in the world, their future, and the traumas of their past. For most of his life, he said, “I didn’t have any hate inside me at all.” He believed in the human ability to self-correct, to punish the wicked and protect the good. (Location 5372)

Zelensky understood the Russians would be hard to defeat not only because of their arsenal but because of the force of Putin’s lies. (Location 5384)

Zelensky saw it as his mission to break that spell, to subvert the narratives people consumed through Russian television. (Location 5388)

Wars are fought in the minds of men and women long before the shooting starts, and Zelensky, the showman turned president, operated on that plane. (Location 5390)

he recognized it as part of a pattern. First the Holodomor, then the Holocaust and World War II, then two generations of Soviet oppression. “These tragedies came one after the other,” he said. “One tremendous blow followed the next.” (Location 5400)

The aim of his presidency, Zelensky said, would be to end that cycle, to end the pattern of oppression he had failed to recognize as a younger man, and his plan relied on more than weapons. (Location 5409)

“We are dealing with a powerful state that is pathologically unwilling to let Ukraine go,” Zelensky said. “They see the democracy and freedom of Ukraine as a question of their own survival.” The only way to defeat an enemy like that— not just to win a temporary truce, but to win the war— is to make Ukrainians believe their freedom is worth the sacrifices of the war, and to convince the rest of the democratic world to pull Ukraine in the other direction, toward sovereignty, independence, and peace. (Location 5411)

# Epilogue

The White House sent a U.S. Air Force jet to pick Zelensky up in eastern Poland and, with an escort from a NATO spy plane and an F-15 Eagle fighter, delivered him to Joint Base Andrews. (Location 5436)

“We stand, we fight, and we will win because we are united— Ukraine, America and the entire free world.” (Location 5463)

wearing down the reluctance of those who still felt too afraid of Russia. (Location 5471)

One of the most important tests for him and his administration could come after a few more dramatic victories on the battlefield, or a prolonged stalemate along the front lines, when a critical mass of Ukrainians may decide that the war has stabilized enough for the authorities to lift all curfews, to give adult men back the right to travel freely, to allow parliament to resume its normal functions and, what I suspect will be particularly difficult for Zelensky, to end the Telemarathon and unmuzzle the media. (Location 5475)

Modesty, to be sure, has never been his strong suit, but he had enough sense to avoid such acts of self-aggrandizement. (Location 5488)

the president still kept his focus on what he did best: rallying support, raising morale, keeping Ukraine in the spotlight, and securing supplies of weapons and financial aid. (Location 5509)

Zelensky, in our conversations, never spoke about their sacrifice in jingoistic terms. He never reduced them to a monumental mass who had died for a purpose greater than them. He spoke of them as individuals, and the grief showed on his face. (Location 5531)

“That’s what motivates me,” he said. Not the applause and admiration, the fame that came with his position nor even the respect and adoration of millions in Ukraine. He had those things in his former life as a showman. Now he was after something different. He had set out to break a cycle of imperial oppression that began generations before he was born. That was his goal now, and he had long overcome his fear on the road to attaining it. (Location 5539)

# Acknowledgments


This book belongs by right to her and to our daughter. Together they sustained me during my absences from home in 2022, and through many long days at the writing table. (Location 5577)

# Notes On Sources

Sevgil Musaieva and her team at Ukrainska Pravda; (Location 5584)

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty; (Location 5585)

# Index

# Photo Section

The face paint was intended to protect the privacy of Zelensky’s son, Kyrylo, who was six at the time. (Location 6578)

Some of those with the closest historical ties and sympathies toward Moscow, such as the mayor of Kharkiv, right near the Russian border, turned out to be among the fiercest defenders of Ukraine. (Location 6681)