The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Soviet game shows explain the popularity of Ukraine’s new president

The cultural appeal of an unlikely winner.

President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky leaves after meeting with leaders of some parliament factions in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 4, 2019. (Stepan Franko/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The election of Volodymyr Zelensky as the next president of Ukraine presents journalists and commentators with a challenge. Zelensky emerged as a viable candidate seemingly out of nowhere, with zero political experience. His background is in television and film, and, astonishingly to those familiar with the history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Zelensky will be Ukraine’s first Jewish president.

In search of an explanation for his popularity with voters, journalists have pointed to Zelensky’s starring role in a TV series called “Servant of the People,” in which he plays a history teacher who becomes president after his anti-elite rant goes viral; indeed, Zelensky’s new political party adopted the show’s name as its own. With little else to draw on, commentators have resorted to comparing him to other populist protest candidates with backgrounds in television who have won surprise victories, such as Donald Trump, or attributing his election to various dark forces that could be behind him, including Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

But as the independent Russian-language news site Meduza has pointed out, none of these scripts fits Zelensky terribly well, nor do they adequately explain his popularity with Ukrainian voters, which cuts across geographic and linguistic divides.

There is, however, one central aspect of Zelensky’s background that most English-language commentators have ignored, and that offers another way to understand the sources of his appeal: His show business career began as a competitor on a Soviet and now post-Soviet television game show, “KVN,” that promoted the idea that the intelligentsia was better equipped to rule than existing political leaders. Zelensky’s origins on “KVN” may help explain his popularity, even if it probably cannot offer a glimpse into the future of his presidency.

While it might be surprising to Americans, for whom the words “TV game show” conjure up images of “The Price is Right,” game shows were a prestigious genre in the former Soviet Union, associated with younger audiences and greater freedom to innovate within the constraints impressed upon the Soviet media.

“KVN,” an acronym for Klub Veselykh i Nakhodchivykh, or “Club of the Merry and Resourceful,” is a wildly popular improv comedy competition show created in 1961, during a moment of rapid political change and enthusiasm for the revitalization of socialism after Joseph Stalin’s death. Featuring teams of students from elite technical institutes, “KVN” was designed to showcase those students’ wit and ingenuity, presenting them as future leaders who could renew the Soviet project. Moreover, the youth and intellectual accomplishments of “KVN” contestants put them in direct contrast to the aging Communist Party elite.

In comedic games and skits broadcast across the country from the 1960s through the early 1970s, the show’s elite technocratic players were encouraged to imagine themselves in power, taking on playful tasks such as building a student city on the moon or running the Ministry of Higher Education for a day. Their youthful satire often had political overtones, and frequently led to rebukes from Soviet Central Television’s political leadership. Equally significant was the visibility on the show of Jewish players and, behind the scenes, comedy writers, many of whom were from Odessa, the original home of a culture of Jewish humor and bravado that “KVN” helped promote across the Soviet Union.

"KVN” was canceled in 1972 for a variety of reasons, including illegal profit-seeking among the show’s producers and the anti-Semitism of Central Television’s director at the time. But another show featuring young intellectuals, “What? Where? When?," was created in 1977 to fill the void.

When Mikhail Gorbachev implemented his fateful programs of structural reform and ended censorship in the late 1980s, “KVN” returned to the air and, along with “What? Where? When?," took up political topics openly. Both shows played a central role in popularizing glasnost and perestroika. After 1991, the breakup of the U.S.S.R. spurred the proliferation of national versions of these television games, but both players and producers maintained close ties across geographic boundaries. As a famous “KVN” player, Zelensky also appeared on Ukraine’s post-Soviet version of “What? Where? When?” in 2011.

From the beginning, but especially since the end of the Soviet Union, the influence of these “intellectual games” has gone far beyond the television screen, becoming a forum for aspiring young elites in technical fields, business and law to demonstrate their intellectual prowess. Professional “KVN” teams now tour and compete regularly, and prominent players of both games earn money performing at business conferences and running corporate training programs. In these private, corporate settings, Russian and Ukrainian elites routinely play these games.

On television, however, these shows still present the post-Soviet intelligentsia as distinct from — and, implicitly, morally and intellectually superior to — the current ruling elite.

The significance of Zelensky’s election was, therefore, immediately clear to some in the intellectual games community. As Ilya Ber, a producer, player and official in the world of amateur “What? Where? When?," wrote on Facebook, Zelensky is “the first person who played in official, public games of ‘What? Where? When?’ to become the president of an independent state.”

Thus, while Zelensky’s path from TV to the presidency does connect him to Trump, each man also reflects the different kind of candidate desired by alienated voters in each country. If Trump’s election reflected some Americans’ attraction to the supposed effectiveness and masculine authority of wealthy corporate executives, as cultivated on the show “The Apprentice,” Zelensky’s may reflect Ukrainians’ desire to see leaders who are competent and youthful, telegenic but also highly educated, rather than wealthy and thuggish.

Given Zelensky’s modest, ironic charm in television interviews, and his status as an ethnic and religious minority, however assimilated, the more accurate parallel to draw may be between Zelensky and former president Barack Obama, rather than Trump. But unlike Obama, Zelensky is not entirely a darling of the educated elite, some of whom have dismissed him as a clown.

That post-Soviet intellectual game-show players now have one of their own in power doesn’t say anything definitive about Zelensky’s presidency. Despite its emphasis on fair play and meritocracy, “KVN” always had a profoundly opaque and subjective scoring system plagued by rumors of corruption and manipulation. By the late 1960s, supposedly improvised skits were often scripted, purchased from professional writers by increasingly professionalized teams that traveled in luxury at the expense of local supporters. “KVN” offered a way to talk about fair play without necessarily being fair.

The show's humor has also never appealed to everyone, especially in the much more open and pluralistic media environment of post-Soviet Ukraine. Rather than hinting and winking, Zelensky’s more recent comedy show can jest very broadly — quick wits not required. The results are often funny but sometimes also tasteless or anti-Semitic.

The question, then, is whether Zelensky’s presidency can live up to the lofty ideals such as honesty, fair play and meritocracy promoted by Soviet television’s intellectual games and their post-Soviet successors, or whether his presidency will founder amid the same corruption that threatens to discredit any honest game. Alexander Maslyakov, the longtime host of Soviet and then post-Soviet Russian “KVN,” helped launch Zelensky’s career in the 1990s. But in a recent interview with RT, he distanced himself and “KVN” from Zelensky’s new political career. “Now it’s life,” Maslyakov insisted, “the game has ended.”