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How A Jewish Comedian Became Ukraine’s President And The Center Of Trump’s Impeachment Inquiry

Editor’s note: On September 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump. That announcement followed reports that Trump allegedly pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Zelensky, a Jewish former comedian, has an unorthodox political background: Playing the Ukrainian president on TV in the hit show “Servant of the People.” The Forward examines that performance in this piece, originally published on April 22, 2019.

On April 21, Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidency, defeating incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a staggering margin. Unlike any other first-time president in the country’s history, Zelensky’s performance in office can be evaluated before he even enters the job — thanks to a role he played on television.

For three seasons, the 41-year-old Jewish comedian starred as President Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko on his show “Servant of the People.” When Zelensky, who has no prior political experience, launched his bid for president last year, he named his party after the popular series and ran with a populist, anti-corruption platform that largely matched that of his character.

In a way Zelinsky auditioned for Ukraine’s top job through his sitcom, making Holoborodko an even more unlikely candidate than his creator. Holbodorodko was a poor, divorced high school teacher who lived with his parents when a video of him giving an expletive-laden rant on Ukraine’s crooked politics went viral, gaining him the minimum amount in contributions needed to run for office. And while Zelensky appeared amid a flurry of confetti at his campaign headquarters to celebrate his triumph, Holoborodko learned he had won the presidency while at home in his underwear, after spending his morning squabbling over the bathroom and badgering his mother and niece to iron his shirt.

It’s easy to see why “Servant of the People” may have played a role in winning Zelensky the presidency. In the show, Holoborodko campaigns against government corruption, complacency and waste. He defies three shadowy political funders, a sort of Greek chorus in the show whose faces are always obscured by caviar dishes and fern leaves, by winning in a free election they thought they’d rigged.

The early episodes of the show, which track Holodboroko’s transition into power, are hilariously frank about the excesses of the presidency and the head of state’s alienation from the Ukrainian populace. In the pilot episode, the prime minister ushers Holoborodko into a room where models hold out cases of Patek Phillipe watches and he selects a suit from one of the top designers there for the occasion. (Karl Lagerfeld comes out on top; Calvin Klein and Jean-Paul Gaultier, also present, are told to take a walk.) Holoborodko then poses against a green screen with actors dressed as miners and doctors.

In the next episode Holoborodko meets his expansive retinue, which includes massage therapists for each segment of his body, both a psychologist and her psychologist, and an ostrich keeper.

But through this parade of extravagance — or at least its first season, currently available on Netflix — Holoborodko attempts to retain integrity, an effort that often involves acknowledging his status as a political novice bound to have some missteps.

Those missteps often occur as Holoborodko attempts to stay true to his pledge of honesty. In his first press conference, Holoborodko fumbles with notes someone else wrote for him and that he hadn’t reviewed as he searches for an answer to a question. Rather than appear awkward or commit to something he doesn’t believe, he makes a deal with reporters to do research and return to them with informed answers. And in his third-episode address to the nation, after a consultation with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln — yes, really — and a flashback to teaching a class in which his pupils urged him to use his own words, he eschews prepared remarks and speaks from the heart:

“I won’t make any promises. First it’s dishonest and second, I’m not good at these things, for the time being. But I’ll figure it out. I do know one thing: One should act in a way that doesn’t evoke shame when looking into children’s eyes, nor their parents’, nor your eyes, of course. This is what I promise to you, the people of Ukraine.”

It’s still too early to tell how Zelensky will fare as a politician now that his life will imitate his art. But if the comedian sticks to the principles of his own creation — staying honest and seeking the guidance of great thinkers and of his own people — the country could do a lot worse. And if he does follow through, our own TV president might take a lesson.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. Contact him at grisar@forward.com

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