A rehearsal for war: Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s path from comic to symbol of courage

As the president of Ukraine, his defiance has made him a hero across the world. Could his success as a politician lie in his years as an entertainer?

Hugh Bonneville was as surprised as anyone this week to learn of the extent of the talents of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “Until today,” he tweeted, “I had no idea who provided the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukraine.” But there is plenty about Zelenskiy’s showbiz career that has been underestimated. When Zelenskiy was elected in April 2019, at the age of 41, the Russian commentator Sergey Parkhomenko said: “He is weak, he does not have a religion, he does not have a nationality.” This was all meant as a criticism, but some of what he said spoke to why people had voted for Zelenskiy (who was born into a Jewish family during the Soviet era, when religious observance was discouraged). He is not intimidating. He does not come from a political background. He is a Russian speaker from the centre of the country. But, most of all, to Ukrainians, he was recognisable and he was funny. That nice guy off that TV show Servant of the People. You know, the one where the geeky history teacher becomes the president overnight. The Paddington voice guy.

Outside Ukraine and its near neighbours, you wouldn’t have known any of this. You probably wouldn’t even have heard of the TV show, even though it was eventually snapped up by Netflix. (It is now available on YouTube with English subtitles.) Beyond Ukraine, until last week, he was simply referred to as “a comedian who became president”. Initial coverage of his landslide victory – in which he won 73.2% of the vote – was derisory. What were the Ukrainians thinking? Who is this guy anyway? He is hardly Ronald Reagan. What a joke.

Zelenskiy, centre, in Servant of the People.
Zelenskiy, centre, in Servant of the People. Photograph: Kvartal 95

But the word “comedian” is misleading. It suggests someone who is a) not serious and b) a solo performer. Zelenskiy is neither of these things. He has never been a standup. The tradition of “monologue comedy” is fairly new in post-Soviet countries. (Perhaps the only post-Soviet standup known outside Russia or Ukraine is St Petersburg-based Igor Meerson, who performs in Russian and English and has supported Eddie Izzard on tour.) Also, as is now obvious from the viral videos of Zelenskiy’s pre-presidential life, his career may have been in entertainment, but he took it extremely seriously. He is a workaholic, he has always meant business and he is a team player. These are the qualities – forged in the sequined furnace of post-Soviet showbiz life – that give him the edge.

It is the “team player” aspect that is really interesting – and perhaps difficult to grasp immediately from a western perspective. If you think about the US or European model of showbiz success – and especially in comedy – performers often start in collectives (Saturday Night Live, Armando Iannucci’s The Day Today lineup), but they rarely stay together. Instead, they usually use the collective as a springboard for a career as a solo performer. Zelenskiy, however, has always been part of something bigger than himself.

He started out in 1995, as a teenager, as an improviser in KVN competitions in his area. KVN (Klub Vesyolykh i Nakhodchivykh, or Club of the Funny and Inventive) is a beloved institution known throughout the former Soviet Union, which went on to become one of the longest-running shows on Russian television. (Its social media feeds have been inactive since 27 February.) It grew out of the 60s TV show Vecher Vesleykh Voprosov (An Evening of Funny Questions), in which performers would compete to come up with the funniest answers, in the style of Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Taken off air in the early 70s after it fell foul of the censors, it was revived in 1986 during the era of glasnost and perestroika.

Zelenskiy was a keen competitive improviser and became part of Ukraine’s Kvartal 95 team of about 10 players, touring the then recently dissolved USSR, winning KVN competitions and honing their Russian-language sketches. It was only much later that they started to do more sketches in Ukrainian: Zelenskiy’s story represents the fluidity and divides between Russian and Ukrainian cultural audiences. He is and isn’t “one of ours”.

With Alena Shoptenko on Dancing With the Stars in 2006.
With Alena Shoptenko on Dancing With the Stars in 2006. Photograph: YouTube

In 2003, Kvartal 95 was established as an independent production company, making TV shows and films for Ukrainian and Russian-speaking audiences. The project got a boost when Zelenskiy won Ukraine’s Dancing With the Stars in 2006, performing with his professional partner, Alena Shoptenko. She is still one of the 196 people he follows on Instagram. (He has 13.4 million followers.) Highlights included a jive to Blue Suede Shoes, with Zelenskiy giving it the full pink-satin-jumpsuited Elvis, a pencil moustache for a tango to Big Spender, a blindfolded rumba to Sting’s The Shape of My Heart and a quirky American smooth dressed as Charlie Chaplin. His performances were energetic and all-in – and he was super-fit. This was – and is – clearly important to him: until he became president, he would regularly post videos on social media from the gym, or swimming, or jogging in New York.

His 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 friends suddenly struck impotent, who must then find the path to true love in order to regain their virility. (It is easy to react disparagingly to this, but the film made $9m at the box office and it is fair to say that Steve Carell’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin is not too dissimilar in tone.)

Two sequels followed. In Office Romance: Our Time (2011), he played Anatoly, a financial analyst with a difficult boss. In trying to get promoted, he ends up falling in love with her, after many shenanigans involving a cable car, a motorbike and other, er, vehicles for physical comedy. Rzhevsky Versus Napoleon (2012), a sort of Carry On Napoleon starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (he waived his fee) and Ksenia Sobchak (the daughter of the former St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak and rumoured to be Putin’s goddaughter), was one of Zelenskiy’s least successful box office outings and is positively bizarre to revisit now. Zelenskiy plays a triumphant Napoleon at the moment he has captured Moscow and is marching on St Petersburg. (Putin is not known as a big cinema fan, but you have to wonder whether he has seen this film.)

His comedy style is in the realm of Steve Martin or, yes, Steve Carell: over-the-top characters, heavy on punchlines and word play, but always on the right side of charming. The films themselves are classic post-Soviet comedy; they would probably read as naive, old-fashioned or at least a bit politically incorrect to western audiences.

His sketches with Kvartal 95 are similar to Saturday Night Live: hit-and-miss skits depicting remakes of Shakespeare scenes, mocking influencers or dressing men up as babushki (old women). Some of their best stuff is visual. The Beyoncé-style video that has been shared widely this week is a great example. Four men cavort in leather crop tops and leggings, attempting sexy acrobatic moves as they sing the praises of Ukrainian delicacies: “Borsch! Salo [pig fat]!” Zelenskiy licks his lips as he gazes into the camera: “Tzybulya [onion]!” There are penis jokes galore (think Benny Hill rather than Monty Python, although the latter has been quoted as an inspiration for Zelenskiy) and a common feature of the future president’s characters is an inconvenient erection. Maybe “inconvenient” is the wrong word if you have seen the sketch where he plays Hava Nagila hands-free, trousers around his ankles, playing the piano.

The poster for the Ukrainian version of Paddington 2.
The poster for the Ukrainian version of Paddington 2. Photograph: PR handout

But the journey from lewd comedy to president would not have happened without one telly success: 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 28 March 2019; Zelenskiy won the election on 21 April 2019. 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 propelled to the presidency when a video of him berating the government goes viral. The rant that propelled Holoborodko to victory has become a set piece of Russian-language comedy, rather like Ricky Gervais’ robot dance in The Office, but peppered with bleeps (every other word is a swear word). The language content of Servant of the People is interesting. It is in Russian and Holoborodko is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. But some characters speak Ukrainian. The famous rant, though, is in Russian – and it is a masterclass in how swearing is its own language (a belief strongly held by Russian speakers). Beneath the bleeps, you can make out “okhuyenniye” and “pokhuy” (“fucking”) “suka” (literally “bitch”, usually used as “for fuck’s sake”), “pederasty” (literally “pederasts”, meaning “bastards”) and “pizdets” (cunt). The rant ends: “I wish every teacher lived like the president. And the president – that cunt – lived like a teacher. I’m telling you that as the teacher of history that I am. Even though you don’t give a fuck. Pederasty!

Millions have seen this clip since 2015 and associate Zelenskiy with it – in a good way. There is an ironic parallel with the real-life viral videos coming out of Ukraine at the moment, which are peppered with the exact same words. As Ido Vock wrote in the New Statesman, a Russian friend said to him this week: “Why are we fighting people who swear like us?” Zelenskiy and Holoborodko represent an ordinary bloke who is at the end of his tether and can really, properly swear.

Zelenskiy performing with Kvartal 95 in March 2019.
Zelenskiy performing with Kvartal 95 in March 2019. Photograph: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty

The trump card evident now, though, is Zelenskiy’s status as a team player. In his speech 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? To bomb what? … Lugansk? The home of my best friend’s mother? The place where his father is buried?”

The best friend he is talking about is Yevgeni Koshevoy, known as “Lysy” (Baldy – you can see him dancing in the Beyoncé video), whose family are indeed from Lugansk. The pair have worked together for 18 years and shared the stage in the spring of 2014 when the Kvartal 95 troupe performed to soldiers on the frontline when the war began in Donbas. Koshevoy once said of this time: “People told us they were smiling at our jokes – smiling for the first time in weeks – that night.” He has also testified to Zelenskiy’s work ethic: “Once he got terribly sick with salmonella from a bad egg, but still came out on stage to perform a concert – we carried him to the stage.” David Baddiel tweeted this week: “One thing about Voldymyr – I don’t think he’s going to be looking back on his time (which I hope continues for many years yet) and thinking he didn’t drink fully from the cup of life.” The show must go on.

• This article was amended on 2 March 2022 to include clarification concerning Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Jewish family background, relating to Sergey Parkhomenko’s assertion that Zelenskiy “does not have a religion”.


Viv Groskop

The GuardianTramp

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