Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has described how Russian forces were close to capturing or murdering him in the early hours of the invasion.
Zelenskiy has been widely praised for his response to the invasion in the 65 days since the first Russian troops entered Ukraine. He has spoken to the US Congress, the World Bank and the Grammy Awards; Boris Johnson is among the high-profile individuals eager to be seen in his company.
But his time as leader of a country under attack from a far more powerful neighbor could, according to interviews in Time magazine, have ended a few hours after the invasion began.
In a talk with journalist Simon Shuster, who spent fourteen days in the presidential complex in Kiev, Zelenskiy described how Russian troops were close to finding him and his family as they tried to capture the capital’s government district on day one of the conflict.
While many of his memories from the first few hours remained “fragmented,” Zelenskiy said the early morning of February 24 stood out.
After the bombing, he and his wife, Olena Zelenska, went to tell their 17-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son that they were preparing to flee their homes. “We woke them up,” Zelenskiy told Time. “It was loud. There were explosions over there.”
The Ukrainian military told Zelenskiy that Russian attack teams had parachuted into Kiev to kill or capture him and his family. “Before that night, we had only seen such things in the movies,” Andriy Yermak, his chief of staff, told the magazine.
Gun battles erupted around the government headquarters as night fell on the first day of the war, Shuster wrote. “Guards inside the building closed the lights and brought bulletproof vests and combat rifles to Zelenskiy and about a dozen of his aides.”
One of the few officials who knew how to use the weapons was Oleksiy Arestovych, a veteran of Ukraine’s military intelligence. “It was an absolute madhouse,” Arestovych told Time. “Automation for everyone.”
Russian troops made two attempts to storm the area while Zelensky’s family was still inside, according to Shuster.
The following night, after rejecting offers of a safer environment – including an evacuation of US and British forces that would enable him to form a government in exile – Zelenskiy walked outside the courtyard to record a now-famous video message on his phone. .
At that moment, Zelenskiy said he was really becoming aware of his role in the war. “You understand that they are watching,” he told the magazine. “You are a symbol. You must act as the head of state must act.”