In 2015, Volodymyr Zelensky was at the height of a successful career as an entertainer. Though trained as a lawyer at the Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics in Eastern Ukraine, the then 37 year old Zelensky was a successful comedian and public personality. As the star of the popular TV show, Servant of the People, he played a local history teacher who inadvertently becomes the president of Ukraine following a viral video rant about corruption.
No one watching comedic President Zelensky then could have possibly imagined the real-life plot twist that would follow. In an incredible act of life imitating art, in April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky once again stood on stage in front of a cheering crowd, but this time as the actual president of Ukraine.
He won in a landslide election against incumbent president Petro Poroshenko on a platform of systemic change and progress using an almost exclusively virtual campaign. Speaking from his headquarters on election night, he affirmed the exuberance and hope of his supporters: “I can say as a citizen of Ukraine to all countries of the post-Soviet Union: Look at us — everything is possible.”
This same message shaped the theme of President Zelensky’s remarks at his historic address from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford University on September 2. The first Ukrainian president to ever visit California, President Zelensky, First Lady Olena Zelenska and their delegation joined a group of FSI faculty members led by FSI Director Michael McFaul at an outdoor event held in the Encina Courtyard.
In his remarks, Zelensky drew inspiration from Steve Jobs’ famous "How to Live Before You Die" commencement address given at Stanford in 2005.
"This is one of the most famous speeches ever given at Stanford,” he said. “It's about believing in dreams and overcoming the impossible. This is the same as my story. I am just a common guy from a common family from a common industrial town in Eastern Ukraine. Yet here I am today at Stanford, because everything is possible."
He continued, “It is the same for Ukraine. Many people look at us and think that it will be impossible to achieve the goals we hope for. But we know that our critics are wrong. The people of our country love democracy and freedom and will not let threats take those things away. We know that anything is possible."
Looking to the future, Zelensky outlined the steps his administration is undertaking to bring increased digitization to Ukraine. These efforts include launching fully electronic passports, moving business and legal services online and expanding the scope of e-goverance. The hope is that this meld of new technology will help curb corruption while simultaneously creating more equitable opportunities and better access to public services for more Ukranians.
Speaking on the ambitious scope of these plans, the president acknowledged, “There will be resistance to the changes and innovations that we are going to make.” Nonetheless, he remains committed to the work ahead of strengthening democratic institutions in Ukraine and building on the progress that has already been made. “We do not have a ‘Ukrainian Dream,’ yet,” he said. “But we have a ‘Ukrainian Goal’ and a ‘Ukrainian Mission’ to make the future we want for our country.” An edited recording of his remarks is below.
Keeping with Stanford tradition, Zelensky took questions from the audience after his prepared remarks. A variety of students and Stanford community members from Russia, Burma, Belarus and beyond had the opportunity to engage the president on a range of issues including U.S.-Ukraine relations, armament sales abroad and concerns over Russian aggression in Crimea and influence Eastern Ukraine. Of particular meaning was Zelensky’s affirmation and support for the democratic movement in Belarus led by Svaitlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom FSI hosted earlier this summer at a faculty roundtable.
Students and faculty alike were appreciative of the president’s candor and good nature in addressing difficult topics.
Following the formal remarks, President Zelensky and First Lady Zelenska had an opportunity to meet with Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne in the Memorial Church Courtyard. Prior to leaving, the First Lady also sat down with leaders and students from Stanford's Office of Accessible Education (OAE), an area of interest she would like to support and better develop in Ukraine.
For FSI, the president’s visit was another affirmation of the special connection between Ukraine and the Stanford community. Since 2016, the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law has hosted the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program, which provides a 10-month academic training fellowship in support of mid-career practitioners working actively as policy-makers, legal professionals, entrepreneurs and leaders of civil society organizations in Ukraine.
Speaking to this shared history in his opening introductions, FSI Director Michael McFaul emphasized the crucial need for ongoing support and intellectual investment into Ukraine. “The fight for democracy and independence in Ukraine is one of the most important causes in the world today,” he affirmed. “Not just for Ukrainians, but for all who cherish the ideals of democracy, liberty and sovereignty.”
To President Zelesnky, McFaul extended a future invitation: “You are always welcome back, either as president or in retirement as a professor.”
“With the classes you offer, I will think about it,” Zelensky replied with a smile.