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Volodymyr Zelensky Is Not a Comedian—and That’s No Joke

Way before this terrible war, I used to groan when people referred to the president of Ukraine as a “comedian turned politician.” Comedian indeed!

Servant of the People is among the world’s great satires, and Volodymyr Zelensky, who both writes and acts, is the most appealing “little guy” since Charlie Chaplin.

The show ran on Ukrainian TV for three seasons before Zelensky got into politics. By the time I saw it on Netflix, he was already Ukraine’s president. But in the United States he was primarily known—if known at all—as the recipient of the “perfect phone call.” That’s the call where President Trump threatened not to restore Ukrainian military aid (he had already delayed shipments) unless President Zelensky agreed to announce an investigation of Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

Servant of the People opens with three oligarchs who normally choose Ukraine’s president deciding to give themselves a little excitement. This year, they’ll each groom and bet on a different candidate. That way no matter whose horse wins, they’ll still run the country.

Meanwhile, unassuming high school history teacher Vassily Golborodko is caught on camera delivering a semi-obscene screed against government corruption. It goes viral. Without telling him, his students crowdfund the registration fees to put their teacher on the presidential ballot. Confusion among the oligarchs allows the little guy to slip in.

And little he is.

Vladimir Putin, five foot seven, carefully avoids being photographed standing next to other heads of state—except for Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s also five foot seven. With equal calculation, Volodymyr Zelensky (five foot six) shows the protagonist he plays opening Ukraine’s parliament looking like the birthday boy who has to sit on telephone books to blow out the candles.

Accidental President Goloborodko may be short and naive—but he’s constitutionally unable to repeat the bullshit in the scripts he’s handed. He doesn’t know quite how government works, but he knows what’s right.

To choose a cabinet, he interviews a string of office seekers and despairs of finding a qualified Ukrainian. “If he’s honest, he’s a fool: if he’s smart, he’s a thief.” In desperation, he rounds up a cabinet from among the misfits he met as a kid when they played practical jokes together at Young Leninist Summer Camp.

You probably don’t know exactly what makes “Young Leninist Summer Camp” a laugh line. Neither do I. But Ukrainians, part of the Soviet Union until 1991, certainly do. Putin says that there is no nation of Ukraine. It’s true that Ukrainians, both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking, were still shaping a modern identity. Zelensky grew up in a Russian-speaking home; in his role as President Goloborodko, he speaks Ukrainian. A terrific way to weld a common identity is through in-jokes. Audiences crack up at allusions to things they all recognize but have never heard mentioned aloud. “Oh right,” we say. But to work, the allusions have to be exactly right.

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