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The Jewish Comedian Who Went From Playing the President on Ukrainian TV to Running for President of Ukraine

In Ukraine, a simulacrum of reality TV-show politics that put Donald Trump’s version to shame

Vladislav Davidzon
January 04, 2019
Kvartal95; Wikimedia
Volodymyr Zelenskiy Kvartal95; Wikimedia
Kvartal95; Wikimedia
Volodymyr Zelenskiy Kvartal95; Wikimedia

On New Year’s Eve, Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy confirmed the rumors and proclaimed his candidacy for the presidency of Ukraine. The 40-year-old actor and comedian is of Jewish descent, slim, youthful and possessed of a fantastically growly voice. His announcement roiled the upcoming Ukrainian presidential race and, capitalizing on his popularity among Ukrainians who are used to watching Zelenskiy play the president on television, immediately catapulted the young actor into the top three contenders for the real office.

Zelenskiy’s political comedy, Servant of the People, is somewhat akin to a Ukrainian version of the West Wing. It is a popular fantasia of a nonprofessional politician with a stout heart who is uncorrupted by the system and upholds the righteous values of the people. On the show, Zelenskiy is the morally pure savior figure who arrives from outside the defiled system of mainstream politics to rescue a benighted country from its worst impulses. Servant of the People is filmed mostly in Russian rather than Ukrainian and centers on the character, Vasily Holoborodko. He is a school teacher who is propelled to fame for his populist tirades and whose political campaign is crowd-sourced into reality, thus bringing to power an improbable figure who lives outside of Kiev and takes mass transportation to work. Holoborodko is raspy voiced, eloquent and perpetually perturbed by the nonsense and corruption taking place around him. His venting is the venting of the Ukrainians watching at home.

The writing veers between the clever and the farcical. The honest and graft-immune everyman president often finds himself in absurd situations, which are all the more hilarious if one actively follows Ukrainian politics. The show is propelled forward by an ever accelerating absurdist plotline based on witty riffs off of actual Ukrainian political scandals and schemes.

Holoborodko is presented as being totally immune to the coercion of the trio of oligarchic puppet masters who control Ukraine (these include Jewish puppet masters such as Menchuk who is patterned after the billionaire Viktor Pinchuk and Royzman, a clever composite of Jewish oligarchs Ihor Kolomoyskyi and Vadim Rabinovich). The main antagonist is Mamatov (a parody of the Donetsk born Tatar industrialist Rinat Akhmetov).

As I have written for Tablet before, the real oligarch Kolomoisky is so wickedly funny that he could have gone into comedy himself.

In true postmodernist fashion, it is often difficult to discern where Kolomoisky’s own louche and irreverent worldview begins and the show’s satire ends. Which may be the point. Zelenskiy’s announcement of his candidacy over Kolomoisky’s television station (1+1) aired immediately before President Poroshenko’s annual New Year’s address, which is typically considered to be the prerogative of sitting heads of state in the post-Soviet world. Zelenskiy’s television company Kvartal 95 is in fact wholly associated with 1+1 and has been a great hit for Kolomoyski’s television holding company. (Full disclosure: In 2014-15 I myself was the Paris correspondent, and headed up the French division of the now-defunct English language television network Ukraine Today, whose parent company was the 1+1 Media Group. Kolomoyski lost interest in funding the station after being run out of Ukraine by President Poroshenko in 2015 after his ill-advised gambit of having his armed men occupy government buildings at gunpoint.) Zelenskiy argues that the relationship is purely a business one and that no one owns him.

Kolomoyskyi is himself an ironist of the highest caliber and also a bit of a semiprofessional troll, who is known to distract his opponents in business and politics with ribald streams of hectoring humor. As the British-Polish academic Michał Murawski, of University College London, shrewdly pointed out to me: “The entire political message (and political aesthetic) of the show seems quite remarkably consistent with Kolomoyskyi’s own positions and general vibe. Despite two seasons of “nobody’s person” politics-of-sincerity posturing, Holoborodko (or rather Zelenskiy himself) is, in fact, and quite simply, “Kolomoyskyi’s person.”

Ukrainian elections are famously some of the most expensive in the world, and Kolomoyski, (I have a rock solid principle of mentioning the James Bond style shark tank that he kept in his office in Dnipro every time that I write about him) is widely assumed by political observers to be bankrolling the Zelenskiy campaign. For many cynical (or reality-chastened) observers, Zelenskiy the comedy actor who has crafted a television persona of the totally sincere and honest interloper in politics is being used by one oligarch to settle accounts with others.

The Ukrainian people have been conditioned into political cynicism—or let’s call it sophistication—by a Byzantine political system of ever-shifting alliances ruled by parties led by oligarchs and charismatic characters. Characters who are made for television. They have similarly been trained by the many hours they spend watching oligarch owned television shows to know exactly which politician belongs to which oligarch. Even the most ordinary television viewers seems to intuitively grasp the literary stratagem that the smirking Kolomoyski is exploring with his television show about a show about a political novice entering politics through a television show funded by a caricature of an evil Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch.

The entire phenomenon is like a television show about a television show about a television show which suddenly transforms into freakish reality. Except for the fact that the auto-fictional demarcation line between fact and fiction is glaringly obvious to everyone. The postmodernist veil of the story falls away to reveal the romantic naturalism of a 19th-century English novel. “They are really bargaining on a crazy magical act of disbelief-suspension,” the academic, Murawski remarked with disbelief. “What’s quite extraordinary is the utterly relentless, tireless extent to which they ram home the incorruptible angle–despite it being total and transparently nonsense!”

As President Petro Poroshenko remains deeply unpopular, most polls indicate a majority of Ukrainian desire significant change after five difficult years of war, declining living standards and unconsummated reforms. Former Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s populist message is being well received and she continuously polls first. With the Ukrainian political class being mostly unreconstructed, and with a dearth of new faces in politics, Zelenskiy might outperform polls. Though he may also very well crash and burn like other great hopes have before him. The rockstar and lead singer of the band Okean Elzy Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who had been mulling a possible presidential bid is widely seen to have feet of clay and looks likely to have missed out on his opportunity by waiting too long to declare his candidacy. If he does not enter the race soon enough, Vakarchuk’s chances seem dashed and Zelenskiy already seems likely to be the standard bearer of the protest vote. The reform camp remains bifurcated into four squabbling factions and lacks unifying leadership.

Even if Zelenskiy does not become the president of Ukraine, he will almost certainly ride his television renown into Autumn’s parliamentary elections and to decently sized parliamentary representation at the head of his own party—and perhaps at the head of a unified reform bloc. Zelenskiy, Tymoshenko, and Poroshenko are the candidates who are most likely to make it into the second round off round of the presidential election according to all polling. Ukrainians have a strong tradition of throwing out incumbents: of the five presidents elected since the country declared independence only one was ever re-elected to a second term. The country also has a strong tradition of embracing non-professional politicians and the Ukrainian actor might very well be propelled into power by a Jewish Ukrainian oligarch in the most Seinfeldian way imaginable. If Zelenskiy makes it to the third spot out of the forty currently declared candidates, he will likely be positioned as the kingmaker who will tip his preferred candidate -or the on who offers him the biggest bribe- to electoral victory in the second round.

The second season of “Servant of The People” concludes with the most bizarre plot twist of all as the oligarchs Menchuk and Mahmetov hatch a fantastical scheme to demonstrate to the Ukrainian people that president Holoborodko is actually “Menchuk’s man.” The storyline includes a Dostoevskian nod to a body double who pretends to be Menchuk and mistakenly thinks that they have succeeded in executing him. Holoborodko (or is it Zeleyeinski?) wins by his wits at the end of the season finale and thus truly demonstrates that he is not actually owned by anyone. He really is “nobody’s person.” Or at least that is the signal the plot sends out to the viewers watching at home who may have been wondering at the relationship with Kolomoyski. The announcement of the “real” presidential candidacy over New Year’s Eve raised that artful piece of plotting from the Seinfeldian to the Umberto Eco level of meta-theater.

Still, potential alternative plot lines abound. Perhaps the youthful Zelenskiy really is an incorruptible avatar of change and the comedian will get the last laugh by swiftly moving to reform the system after having used Kolomoyski’s money and media assets to take power and after having outwitted the wily oligarch. Or perhaps Kolomoyski is actually himself secretly in cahoots with President Poroshenko, and thus playing the post-Soviet triple game of positioning a mirage “fake” real opposition in order to siphon votes away from the “real” fake populists such as Yulia Tymoshenko? If in fact, Tymoshenko is not actually “Kolomoyski’s person,” perhaps Kolomoyski is really “Poroshenko’s person?” If one also factors in the persistent rumors that Kolomoyski is also secretly funding Tymoshenko’s presidential campaign in order to cover his bets, the game becomes truly devious and begins to mirror the complex political realities that the show mocks, subverts and flirts with.

In a simulacrum of reality show politics that put Donald Trump’s version to shame, the third season of Servant of the People is slated to air in early March, in the weeks leading up to the first round of the presidential campaign which will take place on March 31. We are all awaiting the finale.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.