'I want to remain human': Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the price of war and the future of Ukraine

War has a way of robbing you of your humanity, leaving you bitter and hollow. As the leader of a country whose people face a barrage of death and misery every day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is acutely aware of his own struggle to maintain his humanity.

Can Ukrainians ever forgive Russia? 'They took too many people, too many lives,' Zelenskyy says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he doesn't know what kind of relationship his country might have with Russia after the war ends. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/The Associated Press)

War has a way of robbing you of your humanity, leaving you bitter and hollow.

As the leader of a country whose people face a barrage of death and misery every day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is acutely aware of his own struggle to maintain his humanity.

"I don't allow myself to get used to it," he said.

"I live with the idea that I'm not ready to get used to suffering, to get used to war."

Firefighters work to put out a fire in an energy infrastructure facility damaged by a Russian missile strike in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on Oct. 18. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Reuters)

In his interview this week with Canadian journalists (my CBC News colleagues Briar Stewart and Radio-Canada's Marie-Eve Bédard, and CTV's Paul Workman), the former comedian and actor turned world leader delivered a tour-de-force performance.

Eloquent, forceful and gusty, but also gracious and at times relaxed, Zelenskyy called out Iran for selling "kamikaze" drones to Russia — the kind being used to wreck Ukraine's electricity grid. He called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Europe to stop handling Moscow with kid gloves over the occupation of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.

He also offered some remarkable moments of reflection — glimpses of the man behind the office and the depth of the anger and resentment his people might carry into an eventual peace with Russia.

During an interview interrupted by reports of missile and drone strikes, and the thud of anti-aircraft rockets launching, Zelenskyy said he finds the energy to keep going after more than seven months of war in his determination to not to lose himself — to not become consumed by the war.

WATCH: Interview with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

'We're like relatives': Zelenskyy on Ukraine's relationship with Canada

11 months ago
Duration 4:44
In his first sit-down interview with Canadian media since Russia's invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country's relationship with Canada is more than a partnership.

"I want to remain human, just an ordinary human, regardless of the fact that I'm a president," he said, adding that he tries, (whenever his security detail allows it) to get outside and even drive, to enjoy some vestiges of a normal life.

In an interview with an American magazine before the war, he described the presidential palace as a gilded cage. Since the onset of major hostilities, it has become a fortress ringed by sandbags, its neatly manicured lawns split by trenches.

'The society will not forgive them'

Zelenskyy said that when he does find space to relax, he tries to learn what's going on in the wider world. That, he said, inevitably leads to thoughts about what life might be like after the war.

He said he's not sure what sort of relationship his people and country will have with Russia after the war.

"They took too many people, too many lives," Zelenskyy said. "The society will not forgive them."

Much will be settled on the battlefield and much will depend, he said, on whether Ukraine's territory is restored.

Tatiana Alexeyevna mourns over the coffin of her son Col. Oleksiy Telizhenko during his funeral in Bucha, near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. In March, Col. Oleksiy was abducted by Russian soldiers from his home in Bucha. Six months later, his body was found with signs of torture buried in a forest not far from his village. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

Ukraine's future, and its prospects for a stable relationship with its Russian neighbours, depend "on the price paid for the return of our lands," Zelenskyy said.

But he also acknowledged he wonders how — after all the death and destruction, all the poisonous rhetoric coming from the Kremlin, its vows to wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth — Ukrainians can ever forget, or forgive.

"It will be the choice of our society whether to talk to them, or not to talk at all, and for how many years, tens of years or more," he said. "How much it will take, after this war, until these societies will start communicating again.

"But no one knows that."

There's one thing about Ukraine's post-war political path he feels confident of now, he said: his fellow citizens' determination to turn toward Europe, rather than back toward Moscow.

WATCH: Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanks Canada for its support

Zelenskyy urges Russians and world to stand up to Putin

11 months ago
Duration 9:07
In a rare sit-down interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talks to Canadian journalists in Kyiv about the increase in attacks on the capital, the prospect of peace with Russia and Canada's contribution to the war effort.

"The people will get security, the people will get European civilization, the people will get peace, protection, borders, salaries," he said. "Investors won't be scared but will invest money in a country that's not at war. That's what those people will get. It's not us, it's all of us."

When Russian President Vladimir Putin began his war, he attempted to justify the invasion in part by claiming Ukraine subjected its ethnic Russian citizens to discriminatory treatment.

Ukraine has laws to deal with collaborators. But as Ukrainian forces liberate more territory, Zelenskyy is faced with the question of whether reconciliation is possible with those Ukrainian citizens who supported the occupation. 

"If some of them want to stay a citizen of the Russian federation, well, no problem," he said. "Nobody's going to persecute that person. This person may just go to the Russian federation and live there. That's as simple as that."

For Ukraine and Zelenskyy, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation seem to be hazy, distant notions at this point.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.