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As the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, one of the few people who gave its citizens something to smile about was Serhiy Syvokho, a young Ukrainian comic. Raised in the grimy steel city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, he became a star performer in the Club of the Cheerful and Quick-witted, a television improv show that was a cross between Whose Line Is it Anyway? and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. As a glasnost-era alternative comic, Syvokho was among the first to poke fun at the Communist establishment – yet his legacy in post-Soviet history goes well beyond his gags.
For among the many youngsters who listened to him was an 11-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky, whose own comedy career was inspired by Syvokho. Zelensky would star in the Club of the Cheerful and Quick-witted himself, honing the oratorical skill that has served him so well as Ukraine’s wartime president.
Even if Russian tanks had never rolled into Ukraine last February, the story of how Zelensky became the first ever comedian-turned-head of state would be worth a biography. His rise is itself a Kafka-esque comment on Ukraine’s dysfunctional post-Soviet politics, which perhaps cried out for someone with a keen sense of the absurd.
It is no surprise, then, that a British publisher has rushed out an English-language version of this new biography of Zelensky by Serhii Rudenko, a Ukrainian political commentator. Expect to see it prominently placed on Tory MPs’ bookshelves during TV interviews, given their championing of Zelensky as a Ukrainian Churchill.
Whether they will actually read it is another matter. Firstly, it is an insider’s account, clearly written more with Ukrainians in mind than an international audience. Secondly, it makes no effort to polish Zelensky’s well-buffed halo, pointing out that, prior to the war, very few Ukrainians regarded their leader as St Volodymyr of Kyiv.
True, as a charismatic, anti-establishment outsider, Zelensky was never likely to live up to his electoral promise when it came to the messy business of government. The book gives a cursory account of his remarkable rise to power, which began when he starred in Servant of the People, a satirical political comedy, in which he played Vasiliy Goloborodko, a scatty schoolteacher who becomes an accidental political star after a pupil posts a video online of him ranting against corruption. The video goes viral, leading to Goloborodko becoming president.
Inspired by his fictional counterpart, Zelensky then formed his own real-life Servant of the People political party in 2017. Two years later, he won a 73 per cent majority in Ukraine’s presidential elections – a landslide even greater than the fictional Goloborodko’s 67 per cent. It proved just how despairing Ukrainians had become with their incumbent political establishment, an array of colourful gangsters and Soviet-era dullards. “I have tried to do everything possible to make Ukrainians smile,” a victorious Zelensky declared. “Now I will do everything possible so that Ukrainians at least do not cry.”
Rudenko questions whether Zelensky has flagged in his reformist zeal. Despite his pledge to end cronyism, he packed his government with old pals from his days at Kvartal 95, the television production firm behind Servant of the People. While most were refreshingly young, they were arguably no better qualified for government than a scriptwriting team from The West Wing or The Daily Show. Kvartal 95 boss Ivan Bakanov, for example, went from producing sitcoms to heading Ukraine’s SBU security service – hardly ideal for a country in a quarrel with the Kremlin.
Less than a year in, writes Rudenko, Bakanov was also the only one left from Zelensky’s original “dream team”, as the new president sacked those who challenged him. Among the casualties was his new prosecutor-general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, brought in to clean up Ukraine’s corrupt justice system. Ryaboshapka later claimed that he had been pressurised to investigate Zelensky’s opponents, telling Rudenko that Zelensky “failed completely to understand how the criminal justice system works”.
The scandals mount. Eleven elected “servants” were themselves accused of bribery, though later cleared. Serhiy Syvokho, Zelensky’s old comedy idol, was appointed as a peacemaking envoy to his troubled Donetsk homeland, convinced he could make both sides see sense, only to have to flee after nearly getting into a fist fight. Zelensky was also apparently blind to his own failings, showing little interest in learning the basics of how government works, much less how it could be improved. “Zelensky’s main problem was not just his incompetence, but also the fact that he did not recognise this,” Rudenko writes.
Rudenko also points out that not everybody likes Zelensky’s cruder political humour. He recalls the furore the comic caused in 2016 (prior to entering politics) when criticising the previous Kyiv government’s desperation for international loans. “Ukraine is like an actress in a German porn film ready to take it in any quantity from any side,” Zelensky declared.
True, some of these gripes may sound petty. That, though, may say less about Zelensky’s government and more about this biography, parts of which are hard to follow even for avid British Ukraine-watchers – and I speak having spent most of the past three months reporting there. Too many characters are introduced without backstories, and it’s hard to distinguish valid criticisms of Zelensky’s regime from political point-scoring.
That is a harsh judgment on a book that may never have been intended for international readership. But for those who want to learn more about Zelensky and the country that made him, it may be best to wait until other, more considered biographies come along. As with Churchill, there will surely be plenty.
Zelensky by Serhii Rudenko (tr Alla Perminova and Michael M Naydan) is published by Polity at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books