A rehearsal for war: Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s journey from comics to symbol of courage | Volodymyr Zelensky
HUgh Bonneville was as surprised as anyone this week to learn the breadth of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s talents. “Until today,” he tweeted, “I had no idea who provided the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukraine.” But there’s a lot about Zelenskiy’s showbiz career that has been understated. When Zelenskiy was elected in April 2019, at the age of 41, Russian commentator Sergei Parkhomenko said: “He is weak, he has no religion, he has no nationality. This was a criticism, even if all these reasons were precisely Why people had voted for Zelensky. He is not intimidating. He does not come from a political background. He is a Russian speaker from the center of the country. But above all, for Ukrainians, he was recognizable and funny. This nice guy from the Servant of the People TV series. You know, the one where the geeky history teacher becomes president overnight. Paddington’s voice guy.
Outside of the Russian-speaking world, you wouldn’t have known any of this. You probably wouldn’t even have heard of the TV show, even though it was eventually picked up by Netflix. (It’s now available on YouTube with English subtitles.) Beyond Ukraine, until last week, he was simply referred to as a “comedian turned president.” The initial coverage of his landslide victory – in which he won 73.2% of the vote – was paltry. What were the Ukrainians thinking? Who is this guy anyway? He’s barely Ronald Reagan. What joke.
But the word “comedy” is misleading. It suggests someone who is a) not serious and b) a solo artist. Zelenskiy is neither of these elements. He was never a stand-up. The tradition of “monologue comedy” is relatively new in post-Soviet countries. (Perhaps the only known post-Soviet stand-up outside of Russia or Ukraine is St. Petersburg-based Igor Meerson, who performs in Russian and English and has backed Eddie Izzard on tour. ) presidential life, his career may have been in entertainment, but he took it very seriously. He’s a workaholic, he’s always wanted to do business and he’s a team player. It’s the qualities – forged in the sequin oven of post-Soviet showbiz life – that give him the edge.
It’s the “team spirit” aspect that is really interesting – and perhaps difficult to grasp immediately from a Western point of view. If we think of the American or European model of success in showbiz – and in particular in comedy – artists often start out in collectives (Saturday Night Live, Armando Iannucci’s The Day Today), but they rarely stay together. Instead, they typically use the collective as a springboard for a solo performing career. Zelenskiy, however, has always been part of something bigger than himself.
He began in 1995, as a teenager, as an improviser in KVN competitions in his region. KVN (Club Vesyolykh i Nakhodchivykh, or Club of the Funny and Inventive) is a beloved institution known throughout the former Soviet Union, which has become one of the longest-running shows on Russian television. (His social media feeds have been inactive since February 27.) He was born from the 60s TV show Vesleykh Voprosov (An Evening of Fun Questions), in which performers competed to find the funniest answers, in the style of Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Taken off the air in the early 1970s after falling under censorship, it was revived in 1986 during the era of glasnost and perestroika.
Zelenskiy was an avid competitive improviser and became a member of the Ukrainian Kvartal 95 team of around 10 players, touring the recently dissolved USSR, winning KVN competitions and perfecting their Russian sketches. It wasn’t until much later that they started doing more sketches in Ukrainian: Zelenskiy’s story represents the fluidity and divisions between Russian and Ukrainian cultural audiences. He is and is not “one of us”.
In 2003, Kvartal 95 was established as an independent production company, making television shows and films for Ukrainian and Russian-speaking audiences. The project received a boost when Zelenskiy won Dancing With the Stars in Ukraine in 2006, along with her professional partner, Alena Shoptenko. She is still one of the 196 people he follows on Instagram. (He has 13.4 million subscribers.) Highlights included a jive to Blue Suede Shoes, with Zelenskiy giving him Elvis’ pink satin full bodysuit, a pencil mustache for a tango to Big Spender, a rumba blindfolded to Sting’s The Shape of My Heart and an eccentric American slicker dressed as Charlie Chaplin. His performances were energetic and full – and he was in great shape. It was — and is — clearly important to him: Until he became president, he regularly posted videos on social media of the gym, swimming or jogging in New York.
His on-screen work grew. In 2008, he played Igor, a Russian dentist living in New York, in Love in the Big City. Igor is one of three suddenly powerless friends, who must then find their way back to true love to regain their manhood. (It’s easy to react disparagingly to this, but the film earned $9 million at the box office and it’s fair to say Steve Carell’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin doesn’t sound too different in tone. .)
Two sequels followed. In Office Romance: Our Time (2011), he plays Anatoly, a financial analyst with a difficult boss. While trying to get promoted, he ends up falling in love with her, after many shenanigans involving a cable car, a motorcycle, and other, uh, physical comedy vehicles. Rzhevsky Versus Napoleon (2012), a kind of Carry On Napoleon starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (he waived his fees) and Ksenia Sobchak (the daughter of the former mayor of Saint Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak and who would be the goddaughter of Putin), was one of Zelenskiy’s less successful box office outings and it’s really weird to come back now. Zelensky plays a triumphant Napoleon when he takes Moscow and marches on Saint Petersburg. (Putin isn’t known as a huge movie buff, but one has to wonder if he’s seen this movie.)
His comedy style is in the realm of Steve Martin or, yes, Steve Carell: over-the-top characters, heavy on punchlines and puns, but always on the bright side of charm. The movies themselves are classic post-Soviet comedies; they would likely read as naïve, old-fashioned, or at least a little politically incorrect to Western audiences.
His skits with Kvartal 95 are similar to Saturday Night Live: random skits depicting remakes of scenes from Shakespeare, poking fun at influencers or dressing up men as babushki (old women). Some of their best stuff is visual. The Beyoncé-style video that was widely shared this week is a prime example. Four men frolic in crop tops and leather leggings, attempting sexy acrobatic moves while singing the praises of Ukrainian delights: “Borscht! Salo [pig fat]!” Zelenskiy licks his lips looking at the camera: “Tzybulya [onion]There are penis jokes galore (think Benny Hill rather than Monty Python, though the latter has been cited as an inspiration for Zelenskiy) and a common feature of future president characters is an awkward erection. Maybe awkward is the wrong word if you’ve seen the skit where he plays Hava Nagila hands-free, pants around his ankles, playing the piano.
But the journey from lewd comedy to president wouldn’t have happened without a TV hit: Servant of the People. The Kvartal 95 team owns this show, which ran for three seasons between 2015 and 2019, with Zelenskiy as creator, producer and star. The last of the 51 episodes aired on March 28, 2019; Zelenskiy won the April 21, 2019 elections. A year earlier, Kvartal 95 had registered Servant of the People as the name of a new political party.
In the series, Zelenskiy plays Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a hapless history teacher who is accidentally thrust into the presidency when a video of him berating the government goes viral. The rant that propelled Holoborodko to victory has become a centerpiece of Russian-language comedy, much like Ricky Gervais’ robot dance in The Office, but peppered with beeps (every other word is a swear word). The linguistic content of Servant of the People is interesting. It’s in Russian and Holoborodko is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. But some characters speak Ukrainian. The famous rant, however, is in Russian – and it’s a masterclass in how swearing is its own language (a belief strongly held by Russian speakers). Under the beeps you can distinguish “okhuyenniye” and “pokhuy” (“damn”) “suka” (literally “bitch”, usually used as “for shit’s sake”), “pederasty” (literally “pederasts” , meaning “bastards”) and “pizdets” (asshole). The rant ends: “I wish every teacher lived like the president. And the president – that jerk – lived like a teacher. I tell you as what a history teacher that I am, even if you don’t care. Pederasty!”
Millions of people have seen this clip since 2015 and associate Zelenskiy with it — in a good way. There’s an ironic parallel to the actual viral videos coming out of Ukraine right now, which are peppered with the same words. As Ido Vock wrote in the New Statesman, a Russian friend told him this week, “Why are we fighting people who swear like us? Zelenskiy and Holoborodko represent an ordinary guy who is out of breath and can really, properly swear.
The obvious asset now, however, is Zelenskiy’s status as a team player. In his address to the Russian people last week, he asked them to question official propaganda. Why would he support a war that targets cities he knows and loves? “To shoot who? Bomb what? … Lugansk? My best friend’s mom’s house? The place where his father is buried?
The best friend he talks about is Yevgeni Koshevoy, aka “Lysy” (Baldy – you can see him dancing in Beyoncé’s video), whose family is indeed from Lugansk. The couple have worked together for 18 years and shared the stage in the spring of 2014 when the Kvartal 95 troupe performed in front of soldiers on the front line when war broke out in Donbass. Koshevoy once said of that time, “People told us they were smiling at our jokes – smiling for the first time in weeks – that night.” He also testified to Zelenskiy’s work ethic: “Once he got terribly ill with salmonella from a rotten egg, but he still came out on stage to give a concert – we carried him on scene.” David Baddiel tweeted this week: “One thing about Voldymyr – I don’t think he’s going to look back on his time (which I hope will continue for many more years to come) and think he hasn’t not completely drunk from the cup of life.” The show must go on.