November 2019

Volodymyr Zelensky

How a Jewish TV Host, Comedian, and Actor Became the President of Ukraine

By Anna Romanenko

On New Year’s Eve, my family and I gathered at my parent’s home in Kyiv to celebrate as we entered the new 2019. 2018 turned out to be quite intense for me: I had finished my master’s degree and my brother got married. I was going to move to another country to continue my studies, so even before it started, I already had many personal plans for 2019.

For other Ukrainians, 2019 was also important, as the presidential elections were scheduled this year. In a difficult time for the country, that had begun in 2014, everyone was waiting for a new president, hoping to change the situation. Five minutes before the New Year, filling glasses with champagne, my family and I were in a good mood, ready to watch the president’s New Year’s greetings and celebrate. However, instead of the traditional greetings, there appeared on the screen the famous comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who congratulated the whole country, stressed the importance of change, and then announced that he would participate in the presidential election.

No one initially understood whether it was a New Year’s joke or whether Zelensky really had decided to become president. Deep in these thoughts, we completely missed when it struck midnight, and the rest of the night, instead of rejoicing in the New Year and congratulating friends and family, each of us were discussing what we had just heard and what should now be expected from the upcoming year.

I have known Volodymyr Zelensky since I was three. Literally. There were no TV shows or Ukrainian movies without him. He was the Ukrainian super-star! He was a TV host, comedian, and actor, even winning our version of Dancing with the Stars. His entertainment company produces almost 70 percent of all content (movies, TV series, cartoons, TV shows) available on TV. I really liked him, and my family always watched all the programs and movies with him.

A characteristic feature of his comedic performances was that he and his team were the first in our country to openly, and satirically, criticize and ridicule all Ukrainian politicians. For that, everyone (except politicians) loved him. He often played the role of the incumbent president in his sketches. And more recently, for three seasons he played a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine on Sluga Narodu (Servant of the Nation), the highest rated Ukrainian TV show. His on-screen hero, Vasyl Holoborodko, is an honest, intelligent president who acts in the interests of the state and stabilizes the country and, thanks to him, Ukraine becomes a leading country in Europe. It is interesting to note that the premiere of the final season took place after the first round of elections and a few weeks before the final vote. Now, when I watch his official presidential speeches on TV, I still get the feeling that I am watching another series with him, so similar are his present speeches with those used in the show.

The whole election campaign seemed like a joke for everyone…and probably for him as well. His political agitation was unusual. Unlike other candidates, he did not have political advertisements on TV, but then again, the TV constantly showed movies full of his participation. He did not meet with potential voters, but instead travelled with his comedy team to perform in concerts all across the country. He refused to come on the political talk shows, saying that his tour was pre-scheduled, unlike a political debate. He presented his team and program of actions via Facebook, selfies recorded on his phone, and he had a blog with sports training. Everyone talked about him, but none of the candidates took him seriously. However, half the citizens of the country did. After the first round, he was leading the vote count and so progressed to the second round.

Despite our love and enjoyment of Zelensky’s work, neither I nor anyone in my family voted for him. My father, for example, was strenuously opposed to him, which often caused quarrels with colleagues, some of whom he still is not talking with. As a lawyer and a political expert, my father did not understand the people who voted for Zelensky. The statements of the future president caused him indignation because of their illogical meanings, and a complete ignorance of the simplest laws of the country, its political structure, and the duties of the president. He advised Zelensky’s supporters, who voted for him solely because of his role as a strong-willed and intelligent president on the screen, to go and be treated by Hugh Laurie just because he was a convincing on-screen doctor!

When the election finally happened, the record turnout of people under the age of 30 who supported Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed his campaign was effective, but I, fitting in the demographic at 23, was not in their count. When all my friends, and most of the people of my age, were delighted with Zelensky, I tried to convince them not to be.

Nevertheless, it was impossible.

In order to maintain good relations with friends, we introduced a rule – not a word about politics. Thanks to that, I still have friends. They supported him, saying that he is nice and it would be fun to have a president with a sense of humour, who behaves like an ordinary citizen. At the time, for me, such a vote “for fun” was unacceptable. I was shocked by his communication with citizens, in which he used slang, abusive words, and acted as a showman, not a politician about to become president. Furthermore, I felt it was not wise to entrust the management of the state to a person only because of his personal qualities. Yes, Zelensky has a law degree, but he has never worked in his specialty. He deliberately avoided political questions because he did not know the answer to the simplest of them. For me, as a person with a degree in political science, it was ridiculous watching his absurd actions, while my peers admired his jokes and openness, and perceived him as “one of theirs.”

One of our biggest fears was that Zelensky, as president, could end Ukraine as an independent state. With 15% of Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, the war with whom has lasted since 2014, the president could not be a street man. Especially when, as a comedian, he entertained Putin and Russia’s high representatives at shows and concerts. Therefore, the Russians did not take him seriously either, and were glad that there would be a leader in Ukraine with whom they would be able to pursue a profitable policy and seize half the country’s territories.

Nevertheless, as we say in Ukraine: “Не так сталося,як гадалося.” (ne tak stalosya,yak hadalosya or “Not so happened as it seemed”)

Surprisingly, for all of his opponents and for me as well, Volodymyr Zelensky quickly moved to action. Since taking office in May, he has completely changed the parliament. He did not surrender to Russia, dismissed many officials who have done nothing useful in recent years, and began to forge relations with European countries. He also signed into law and repealed a number of decrees, which until now had not been seen in Ukraine.

He has already set several records. He became the youngest (he is 41) and most highly rated president in the 25 years of independence of Ukraine (about 75% of the voters supported him). Furthermore, he was born into a Jewish family. This fact turned Ukraine into the only country outside of Israel in which the president is a Jew. Even though he is not practicing, he does not hide his Jewish origins (but he doesn’t talk about it, either).

Some of his actions are strange for a conservative society: he has reconstructed the presidential administration in an open space format and held a “meeting at the market,” press conference at the Kyiv Food Market, where he talked with journalist for 14 hours. He even became famous overseas after a transcript of a telephone conversation between himself and The President of the United States became public. Surprisingly, Zelensky is coping well with the duty of protection of Ukrainian interests in the world and retaining the international image of the state.

Now, according to various sociological surveys in Ukraine, Mr. President has even more support from citizens because he is doing what he promised during the election. However, close friends of the President say that he is tired. He did not expect the amount of duties and, honestly, thought it would be more like on the show. He’s confessed to his friends that if someone had told him earlier how it is to actually be president, he would never have taken that step. Reportedly, he also misses his comedian career, which is why goes to almost all of his former team’s concerts.

A year ago, I would never believe that we would have Volodymyr Zelensky as President – that his portrait will hang in all government institutions alongside national symbols. Yes, he still has no political experience and some of his statements are still contradictory and illogical, but he has one feature that distinguishes him from all five of the previous presidents of Ukraine, and for which I personally respect him: His genuine desire for positive change in the state. And the fact that no matter what, he acts only in the interests of the state, even if they are contrary to his own. Therefore, he now personally exceeds my expectations. I hope that it will continue to be so. And if it does, come next election, I might join my friends and actually vote for him.

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