Less than three years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was not yet the president of Ukraine but was famous for a TV show in which he played the role of the Ukrainian president. In the TV show, Servant of the People, he impersonated a history teacher who suddenly becomes popular and then wins the presidential elections. The populist discourse used in the show came to (real) life when in 2018 Zelensky created a political party bearing the same name as the TV show. We were talking about “celebrity populism” not long ago, and Zelensky appeared also in that article…
A more successful version of Beppe Grillo—another comedian turned politician, Zelensky is now leading his country during the Russian invasion that is shocking the world. From actor to president, from comedian to martial leader, Zelensky’s communication skills made the jump seem almost natural. Interestingly, the powerful speeches that made him a folk hero across the world, are written together with the screenwriters of Kvartal 95, the television production company owned by Zelensky that produced Servant of the People.
Olga Baysha argues that “by means of Holoborodko—his virtual double—Zelensky was able to deliver his populist election promises not in terms of just telling but performing.” Olga Baysha has been researching this game of mirrors between fiction and reality, and presents her new book “Democracy, Populism, and Neoliberalism in Ukraine: On the Fringes of the Virtual and the Real.”
Looking at the daily horrors of this war, it does not seem very relevant to know how Zelensky became the president of Ukraine. However, this articles helps us to understand why and how a comedian-turned-president is now the western world’s new hero, and what role populism played in this process.
Enjoy the read.
The presidential story of Volodymyr Zelensky started on April 30, 2019, when he inflicted a crushing defeat on then-incumbent President Poroshenko by receiving 73.2 percent of the popular vote in the second round of the presidential election. To many observers, Zelensky’s amazing ascent to power came as a shock: widely known as a comic actor ridiculing the political establishment of Ukraine, he was a complete newbie in professional politics. As many believe, the astonishing victory of the comedian and his party, later transformed into a parliamentary machine to churn out and rubber-stamp neoliberal reforms, cannot be explained apart from the success of his television series Servant of the People, which served as Zelensky’s informal election platform.
The first episode of the show Servant of the People was aired by 1+1, a popular television channel, in fall 2015; the final episode was released right before the presidential election, in the spring of 2019. The main character of the series is Vasil Petrovych Holoborodko, a history teacher who became popular after his emotional, obscenity-filled rant about Ukrainian politics appears on the Internet. Millions of those who watched Holoborodko’s “speech” collect the necessary sum of money to register him as a “people’s” presidential candidate. With 76 percent of the popular vote, he wins the presidency in a landslide. It takes 51 episodes for Holoborodko, to transform Ukraine into a prosperous country where politicians serve the interests of the citizens and where people from all over the world come to settle down in search of a better life.
The message delivered by Zelensky to Ukrainians through his show is clearly populist. The people of Ukraine are portrayed in it as an unproblematic totality devoid of internal splits, from which only oligarchs and corrupted politicians/officials are excluded. All political parties in Ukraine are shown to be the puppets of oligarchs. At the smallest oligarchic whim, day or night, parliamentarians gather in the parliamentary building to vote as instructed. Three parliamentary factions vote unanimously if three ruling oligarchs agree; if not, faction leaders announce the law to be “against the interests of the Ukrainian people” and threaten to leave the parliamentary coalition. Importantly, all characters in the show have clear references to real figures in Ukrainian politics. The parallels are not always direct, but the real situations are easily recognizable, which suggests an unequivocal conclusion: liars and fakers of all kinds manage Ukraine, both in the show and in real life, where the former simply mirrors the latter.
To define the situation in Ernesto Laclau’s terms, Servant of the People draws a solid antagonistic frontier separating “the people” and “the elites.” The latter are not part of the national body, but rather parasites sapping its strength. The equivalential chain of elements characterizing them includes stupidity, hypocrisy, venality, greed, unscrupulousness, gluttony, lust, etc.—nothing positive or redeeming, and there is no chance to work together with such people to manage Ukraine. The country becomes healthy only after getting rid of both oligarchs and their puppets. Some of them are imprisoned or flee the country; their property is confiscated. Others—450,000 bureaucrats—find themselves fired.
In the show, Holoborodko publicly admits that he has “staged a coup in the country.” “If I do something wrong,” he says, addressing corrupted “others,” “the people will tell me. But definitely not you.” In the clearest possible way, this excerpt illustrates the Manichean division of the Ukrainian social into two non-overlapping entities: “good us” (“the people”) vs. “bad them” (corrupted elites). By saying “we staged a coup,” Holoborodko acknowledges that imprisonments and property confiscations have been carried out in an extrajudicial manner—skipping the courts is seen as an unavoidable necessity, as all of the judges in the series turn out to be corrupted as well.
Interestingly, in the spring of 2021, with his popularity in a nosedive, Zelensky imitated Holoborodko by using questionable methods of dealing with “the enemies of the people”—politicians and oligarchs (at least, some of them) who were sanctioned (deprived of their citizens’ rights) through a decision handed down by the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC). It is noteworthy that among the first to be sanctioned were two parliamentary deputies from the Opposition Platform — For Life (OPZZh), the main political rival of Zelensky’s party, as well as three oppositional television channels controlled by them.*
Going back to the TV show, one may object that Holoborodko’s actions in the show have nothing to do with Zelensky’s promises during his “real” election campaign, but the point is that in “reality” Zelensky “had spent little time articulating how, exactly, he was planning to execute his proposed reforms,” as Joshua Yaffa noted. His pre-election speeches and interviews were so infrequent they could be counted on one’s fingers. The only way the people of Ukraine could get an idea of how Zelensky was planning to fix the country’s many problems was by watching his show. After all, he was not only an actor, but also the co-owner of the studio producing it and co-author of the scripts, and for many observers it was quite clear before the election that voters would take Holoborodko’s promises as Zelensky’s. Zelensky’s election pledges were given to Ukrainians in “real” life; however, it is in the digital realm of the series that Zelensky-Holoborodko demonstrated how these pledges could be implemented. In other words, by means of Holoborodko—his virtual double—Zelensky was able to deliver his populist election promises not in terms of just telling but performing.
Zelensky’s political success cannot be explained without accounting for his play “through the interface” that separates “the virtual” and “the real.” The digital materiality of the series participated in discursive struggles characterizing the Ukrainian political field. An event of its own, Servant of the People dislocated the normality of the hegemonic political discourse according to which only professional politicians and rich people could win presidential elections, with their top priority in ruling the country being their own personal benefit. The story of Holoborodko-the-teacher (a poor, honest simpleton with a better understanding of history than contemporary political life) unequivocally invited viewers to imagine an alternative was possible: not only could common people, with no wealth or power, win the popular vote, but they could also use political power to serve the people rather than their own interests.
Interacting with Zelensky’s virtual-real creation, sympathetic viewers were interpellated into Zelensky’s performative machine, which disrupted the conventional flow of political business. The invitation extended to Ukrainians by the series—to dream about and act in the name of another Ukraine, ruled not by professional-and-corrupted politicians but by unprofessional-but-honest people—was accepted by millions; the number of votes cast in favour of Zelensky in April 2019 clearly testifies to this. On May 30, 2019, the collective fantasy generated by Zelensky’s dream machine materialized into the discursive-material assemblage of the presidential mace in Zelensky’s right hand and presidential collar around his neck—the symbols of Ukraine’s highest political power. His oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people with his right hand on the Bible; his first speech in the capacity of the President of Ukraine; his announcement of the dissolution of the parliament during the inauguration—to a great extent, these discursive-material manifestations of presidential power were made possible by the Servant of the People machine crushing up all frontiers between the imagined and the real, the artistic and the political, the digital and the tangible, and so forth.
Obviously, Zelensky’s success cannot be explained exclusively by the series. Zelensky’s victory became possible due to many different factors, the most important of which was the ongoing war in Donbas along with the deterioration of socioeconomic conditions. However, the recognition of other factors contributing to Zelensky’s success does not diminish the importance of his series, in which the most painful issues of “real” Ukraine were transformed into bits to be solved performatively in the realm of the digital. In this sense, Zelensky used the series as a virtual-real political program. It was “virtual” in the sense that it was presented through a fictional character living in the “intangible” digital world, but it was “real” because it influenced political developments on the ground by convincing people (not all, but many) that simplistic, Holoborodko-style political solutions could improve the situation in Ukraine.
*Opposition Platform — For Life is one of the 11 parties suspended by Zelensky on Sunday 20 March, and by far the most relevant of the lot. This development took place after the author wrote the article, but fits in the pattern she describes.
Olga Baysha is an Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia. She earned her MS in Journalism from Colorado State University and PhD in Communication from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Previously, she worked as a news reporter and editor in Kharkiv and Kyiv, Ukraine.