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Servant of the People: How Volodymyr Zelenskyy Went From Comedian to Ukraine’s Hero
It is not often that the arts play such an explicit role in politics, but Zelenskyy’s well-meaning satire of Ukrainian politics evidently struck a chord with the people, and continues to resonate through this incredibly difficult time in global politics.
10 March, 2022

Just over two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the latest development in an ongoing tension between the two countries. The result has been a show of support from a huge number of countries and people. This conflict has brought to the world’s stage a character with a life story stranger than fiction; Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the emboldened Ukrainian president who insisted on remaining in Kyiv during the conflict, despite offers of evacuation. 

On the Russian side, Vladimir Putin has spent decades carving the perfect persona for his style of leadership, a character very reflective of the war he is currently fighting. It seems he wishes to be the ultimate figure of power, instilling an eerie sense of fear onto the world’s stage. This makes it especially ironic that much of the world has rallied around Ukrainian president Zelenskyy, an actor/comedian who never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

After gaining a law degree in Kryvyi Rih, Volodymyr Zelenskyy went into comedy. He performed on circuits throughout post-Soviet countries before starring in a series of Russian/Ukrainian romcoms. In 2006 he won the first series of the Ukrainian iteration of Dancing With the Stars, more recently he voiced the titular character in the Ukrainian dub of Paddington and Paddington 2

However, the most poignant role Zelenskyy played is the one which unwittingly launched his political career. Between 2015 and 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote and produced Servant of the People, a hit political satire about a history teacher who unexpectedly finds himself the president of Ukraine after a rant about corruption is filmed by a student. The plot mirrors his own rise to power; he registered a political party, with the same name as his show, in 2018.

Servant of the People is a political comedy full of slapstick humour and physical comedy, and Zelenskyy’s real run for presidency was also chaotic; after registering his political party, but before announcing his candidacy, Zelenskyy was already a frontrunner in opinion polls. He announced his run for president less than four months before the election, but won a landslide victory. Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought to restore Ukraine’s faith in politicians, to be honest and reliable. Since the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, many countries have sought broadcasting rights for the ever-so-poignant Servant of the People, including Channel 4 in the UK. 

It is not often that the arts play such an explicit role in politics, but Zelenskyy’s well-meaning satire of Ukrainian politics evidently struck a chord with the people, and continues to resonate through this incredibly difficult time in global politics. We find ourselves here following an age-old pattern; the fool speaks truth to power (i.e. the jester can make cuttingly relevant jokes in court because the king doesn’t take him seriously). But now, Zelenskyy is speaking, and the world is listening.

Since the invasion began two-weeks ago, Zelenskyy’s daily video updates have been a source of information, as well as hope, to the people of Ukraine and the wider world. It’s really no surprise that a man familiar with acting and television delivers such impactful, thoughtful words day-in-day-out, and in harnessing this power he has become internationally renowned, in a very short space of time, a man almost universally admired. 

In essence, Zelenskyy understands both sides of politics, the space of the spectator, and the space of the leader. Acting gave him an opportunity to sit on both sides of the discourse; on a very human level, he undoubtedly came to learn what was needed in a politician, and how best those needs could be met. While the war in Ukraine wages on, the legacy Zelenskyy is actively creating serves to champion not only the people of his country, but also their creativity, humour and vision for the future. 

2nd year Classical Studies student at King's.

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