Zelensky’s career as a showman reveals Ukrainians’ shared sense of moral values, frustration with politicians’ corruption and national solidarity in the face of Russia’s politics of division. I’ll explain below.
Zelensky emphasized shared values
Trained as a lawyer, Zelensky made his name in the Russian-speaking world through competitive improvisational comedy, on a team from the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in southeastern Ukraine. Zelensky was known for his loyalty: For more than two decades, he worked with the same group. When an offer came in the early 2000s to work for an improv troupe in Moscow, Zelensky turned it down. Such a move, he said, “would have been a betrayal.”
As professional actors performing on Ukrainian national television, Zelensky’s troupe focused on values that Ukrainians across the political spectrum could agree on. That included, above all, love for their country, and perseverance; its logo is a young Cossack — a rebranded reference to modern Ukraine — trying mightily to do a pullup.
The troupe emphasized a belief in the state’s responsibility to build honest people, and people’s responsibility to work on themselves. They performed a ballad illustrating that national idea, “And do you remember?” The song paraphrased biblical ideas, including “It’s not worth looking for fault other than in yourself,” and urged personal responsibility with the phrase, “No one will build this country but you.”
Zelensky was best known for two things. First, he performed biting portrayals of politicians, including billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, with whom Zelensky had business dealings. Second, he did sympathetic character sketches of people struggling with everyday realities. Whether playing a hospitalized psychiatric patient pressured to vote for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych or an apartment dweller waving a shotgun to threaten a postal worker delivering the electricity bill, Zelensky invited the audience to laugh not at the people he portrayed, but at the absurdity of the world as seen through their eyes.
Zelensky responded to Ukrainians fed up with corruption
When Zelensky talks, he sounds like a populist. In his debate in Olympic Stadium with sitting president Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky angrily confronted Poroshenko with a litany of questions that millions of Ukrainians would like to ask their politicians: “How do you sleep at night? … Have you ever tried to live on a 1,500 hryven ($60) pension for even a month?!”
Kicking off that debate, Zelensky announced, “I came here to break this system.” That system was not Ukraine’s institutions and laws, but the network of oligarchic power that under Yanukovych and Poroshenko ruled Ukraine, binding economic and political interests and making public office available for private gain.
His troupe’s musical number “I stay silent and smoke” used a leitmotif in a description of the Ukrainian government’s sustained abuses of its citizens. It asks: “How to go on? Smoke.” Zelensky would remain onstage at the end to address the nation’s politicians: “We warn you: Our smoking is hazardous to your health.”
But Zelensky is not like right-wing European populists who encourage nationalism. When Zelensky appeals to Ukrainians frustrated with the use of public office for private gain, he means everyone: not only his supporters, and not only ethnic Ukrainians.
Zelensky’s troupe grew in popularity during Yanukovych’s second term (2010-2014) as president. Those where the years when Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for Yanukovych. They were also the years when state corruption intensified, leading large parts of the country to protest on Kyiv’s Maidan in the fall and winter of 2013. In the following months, Yanukovych fled Ukraine, Russia seized Crimea, and Russian troops and separatists provoked a war in the east. Zelensky and his troupe talked and sang about it all.
Zelensky pushed back against Russia
Zelensky’s troupe skewered not only the corruption of Ukraine’s own politicians, but also Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine. Notwithstanding some commentators’ speculation about possible ties with the Kremlin, Zelensky has long made his own political views about Ukraine-Russia relationships clear.
In the early 2000s, Russia-Ukraine relationships were an explicit theme in his troupe’s performances. In a number showcasing Zelensky’s physical comedy, “Born to Dance,” a young Zelensky illustrated Russian behavior toward Ukraine using a sexual gesture. On a Moscow stage, he affably taunted the audience about Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea.
Kvartal 95’s recent musical number “My Girl” presented an allegory of the war in Ukraine’s regions of the Donbas, the coal-rich basin of the Donets River where Russian forces and Ukrainian separatists have fought the Ukrainian army for five years, forcing more than 1.5 million people to flee their homes and leading to over 13,000 deaths. The song told the story of a couple of strange guys who show up in a young man’s village and try to steal the affection of the young woman he loves.
The song articulated an inclusive vision of Ukrainian identity, with terms of endearment covering Ukrainian territory from the nationalist west (“my Banderovka”) to the Russian-speaking Donbas (“my little miner”). During this part of the song, the audience would roar in approval.
The song also mocked Vladimir Putin, describing him as “a strange little type with a judo wrestler’s gait.” The troupe ended the number with a mic drop and an unequivocal message to the world: “Our advice: When freaky types come to you, don’t let them into the house. Take them down at the door.”
What Zelensky will accomplish as president, how his values translate into politics and how he will parry Ukraine’s vexed geopolitical position remain to be seen. What is clear is that Ukrainians saw Zelensky as offering a kind of moral leadership, sincerity and interest in their lives at a time in Ukraine’s history when their elected officials had lost their trust.
Jessica Pisano is associate professor of politics at the New School for Social Research in New York.