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From Kryvyi Rih to Kyiv How Volodymyr Zelenskiy went from comedian to Ukraine's presidential front runner

Source: Meduza
Valentin Ogirenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In Ukraine’s current presidential elections, the first round of voting left actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy on top. In a sense, Zelenskiy has already held the Ukrainian government’s leading role — at least in Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People), a television series produced by his company, Studio Kvartal 95. Shortly before the election took place, Meduza correspondent Ilya Zhegulev visited Ukraine to find out how the enormously popular comedian decided to transfer his presidential image from a sitcom into the real world — and what Zelenskiy the politician has to offer besides his already evident skills in showmanship.

This kind of full house is a rarity in the 30,000-seat Dnipro-Arena. The soccer stadium in Dnipro, Ukraine, has only been this packed for rock concerts by the wildly popular band Okean Elzy, if that. Now, viewers are enjoying a performance by Kvartal 95, the most successful comedy show in Ukraine. Attendance is free, and less than a week remains until the country’s presidential election. Onstage, two men in smoking jackets play out a scene: an interview with a man who is taking a bus tour of Europe. The man on the right, who is playing the tourist, is describing a monument that particularly impressed him in central Munich: a bronze statue of a wild boar. The boar comes with a little tradition: if you rub a certain sensitive location on its body, you’ll get rich. “We called it “rubbing the bells,” the comedian explains. “The first people who went out to get rich quick were the women on the bus. And judging by the way they rubbed, it looked like I would be heading back with a busful of millionaires. One of them turned out to be a real saleswoman type. She didn’t calm down until she had rubbed so hard she had blisters.” The crowd laughs.

As the performance comes to an end, a young girl emerges onstage and sings the Ukrainian national anthem. The entire stadium sings along, and then Zelenskiy gives a speech. With a smile, he says there’s no need for propaganda — everyone in the stands is an intelligent person, and “you already know what you have to do on March 31”; that is, on election day. “There’s this feeling that you and I have been living for the last 28 years in some kind of dense forest,” he continues. “And it really is dark; there’s no light to be seen. And there are these people who are trying to catch us, trying to pull us out into the light, promising us something. But the feeling is that they’re leading you and me around this forest in a circle. So please, on the 31st, lift up your eyes, use your beautiful, bright eyes, your real Ukrainian eyes, and find the light.”

Thousands of telephones light up the stadium, and the Kvartal 95 team sings an original song to the tune of “Samsara” by the Russian rapper Basta. Now, they’re not playing for laughs: “Look how accustomed we’re getting to the buying and selling of the voices of the living and even the dead. Their names may be changing, but the samsara’s unending, you toss out the old and get the same old instead. We’ve had enough, they’re disgraces, we’re the ones going places, just say ‘no’ to their faces. We’ll walk through fire and lightning toward freedom unending that only silence erases.”

At midnight on January 1, 2019, the 1+1 TV channel, the second most popular in the country after Ukraina, Volodymyr Zelenskiy wished viewers a happy new year and told them that he had decided to run for president. Over the course of a two-and-a-half-month campaign, the new politician convinced even the most contemptuous skeptics that he was to be taken seriously and could really become Ukraine’s head of government. The extremely popular showman managed to convert his TV ratings into votes despite accusations of incompetence and inexperience. “As a talented person, Zelenskiy realized that his weakness was his strength, and he needed to be himself. Viewers fell in love with Zelenskiy as an actor in Vecherny Kvartal comedy sketches or as [Vasil] Holoborodko [the fictional Ukrainian president in Sluha Narodu],” the journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov told Meduza. Kiselyov was an influential TV commentator in Russia in the 1990s, and he now runs his own show on the Ukrainian channel Priamoi, which is considered to be one of current Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s most important media resources.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s New Year’s address
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The servant becomes the boss

Kyiv teacher Vasil Holoborodko, wearing a wife beater, is getting ready to go to school. He goes to the bathroom, but his entire family — his mother, his father, and his niece — starts knocking on the door and asking him to come out as soon as he can. Holoborodko opens the door and sees three people wearing suits in the entrance hall.

“Vasil Petrovych Holoborodko?”

“Yes.”

“Good morning, Mr. President,” says one of them, the prime minister of Ukraine.

Campaign posters featuring Volodymyr Zelenskiy first appeared in Kiyv in 2015. They were posted twenty-four hours before the city’s parliamentary elections, just in time for the “day of silence” (the day before elections is off-limits to campaigners in Ukraine, Russia, and a number of other countries). That day, the streets were dotted with tents supporting the “People’s President.” The tents housed “campaign officials,” promoters hired to hand out flyers with slogans like “I shine in the faces of my predecessors” and “Let ordinary people live like presidents, and let the president live like a teacher.” The flyers went on to inform the people about a new TV show, Sluha Narodu.

The idea to make a show about an ordinary Ukrainian who become the country’s president to everyone’s surprise, including his own, came to Kvartal 95’s founders after the Euromaidan and the elections that followed, which introduced new legislators who had previously spent their time far from the political arena. The young opposition journalists Serhiy Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem became two of the most widely discussed examples of that phenomenon. Kvartal 95’s director of development, Irina Povedonostseva, recalled that the team had discussed a similar idea before the Maidan that involved a mayor rather than a president. The 2014 revolution broadened their horizons.

In Sluha Narodu, history teacher Vasil Holoborodko loses his patience in a conversation with a colleague and goes on a profanity-laden tirade about the current state of the nation. A video of the incident, shot secretly by a student, finds its way online and quickly goes viral. Millions of people express their agreement with Holoborodko, and his students convince him to run for president. In the next three seasons of the sitcom, Holoborodko leads as well as he can: he refuses presidential privileges and fights against the corruption that has sullied most of his fellow government officials. The new president falls into a series of absurd, dramatic plotlines and even lands in jail after his opponents falsify the results of the next election.

The series was an ideal match for the country’s popular worldview in the mid-2010s: Ukraine is run by thieving bureaucrats, and there’s nobody who cares more about the country than about their own profit apart from Holoborodko and his team. The journalists in the series also serve the oligarchs alone, and every single one of them is corrupt. Holoborodko is a dilettante, but he is honest, and he tries to lead the country toward a brighter future even though conflicts with other officials leave him with mixed results.

The show led ratings on 1 + 1, attracting the most viewers of any show in all age groups. More than 20 million people watched it in Ukraine, and more than 98 million more watched the series through its official YouTube channel. Zelenskiy even managed to sell the series abroad, first in Estonia and Kazakhstan and later to Netflix. The massive global service shows Sluha Narodu with subtitles and plans to dub the show into English. Fox also purchased the rights to the show’s concept.

Pobedonostseva recalled that after the first season, no one even thought to associate Holoborodko with Zelenskiy himself, let alone imagine that what was happening onscreen could happen in real life as well. At most, jokes circulated within the company: someone brought a loaf of bread to Zelenskiy’s office and greeted him, “Hello, Mr. President” to mark the end of a shoot that featured a nearly identical scene.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy plays the president of Ukraine during filming for Sluha Narodu. February 6, 2019
Yefrem Lukatsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA

When the team was preparing to shoot the second season of Sluha Narodu, they decided to repeat one of the show’s scenes in real life. Pobedonostseva suggested turning to crowdfunding to raise enough money for the show to continue. In the series, Holoborodko’s students use the same strategy to raise enough for their teacher to pay Ukraine’s candidacy tax. However, when the development director went to her boss at Kvartal 95 and told him about her idea, Zelenskiy responded, “Let’s not take money from people yet. It’s early — maybe it’ll come in handy later.”

Serhiy Shefir is one of the people closest to Zelenskiy. He is a member of the candidate’s political team and one of the creators of Sluha Narodu. Shefir said the series has made its mark on the consciousness of the creative team itself. “Nobody thought it would turn out like this. It didn’t even enter anyone’s mind that we would get into politics. Life is made of little coincidences. As creative people, we decided, let’s show people how a simple person can become president, how honest everything would be in our country.” Shefir added that after the series was released, members of the creative team spoke with actual Ukrainian politicians who praised them for their realism, offered support, and then “went back and kept doing their dirty deeds.” The team realized that there was real-world demand for the politician they had made for TV: “People still talk to us [about the character]. They say, wow, what a beauty. Hey, you’re an ordinary person too, maybe you could run and make something happen.”

In Transit

Vasil Holoborodko returns from his first press conference along with the prime minister of Ukraine. During the press conference, the president explained that his students raised money for him to pay the candidacy tax using crowdfunding.

“Yes, Vasil Petrovych, you shaved her [the journalist] well. It’s a good word — I’ll have to remember it. Crowdfunding. Believe this old political wolf: you’ll go far. Now let’s be honest, just between us. Where did you get the money?”

“I told you — crowdfunding!”

The prime minister smiles: “All right, if you don’t want to say it, you don’t have to.”

There are mildew stains on the white staircase leading to the tall Kyiv office building that houses Kvartal 95. By the entrance, there’s a concierge, not a guard. The lobby looks like it could be in any ordinary residential building, and children dash in and out of the elevator. Then, out of nowhere, you can see a pair of maids walking by with a hotel cart. This building has everything: apartments, offices, and a hotel. Kvartal 95 is on the 23rd floor. The roomy, contemporary office with a view of the city contains three desks, where the studio’s three founders usually sit to work. One of them is running for president. The other two support him.

Both have donated one and a half million hryvnia ($56,000) to the candidate’s presidential campaign, the maximum amount a private individual can give. Zelenskiy also donated, as did his friends and friends of friends. In total, the campaign made approximately $3.7 million. For Kvartal 95, that’s a serious sum, approximately one fifth of the company’s yearly earnings.

Zelenskiy spent his childhood in one of the most economically depressed cities in Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih. Most of his team is from there too. Ivan Bakanov, the CEO of Kvartal 95 and Zelenskiy’s campaign manager, went to school with the presidential candidate. In his interview with Meduza, Bakanov sketched a map of the neighborhood called the 95th quarter, or kvartal, that made up the center of Kryvyi Rih. There’s a circular plaza in the middle with streets extending outward. “This quarter was the intersection of all the roads, and from there, you could get to any other place in the city,” he said.

Bakanov reminisced about the young bands of “runners” that plagued Kryvyi Rih and nowhere else. “They would go from neighborhood to neighborhood, young people from eight years old to 18. They’d run into the neighborhood and unleash various dangerous weapons: armature, improvised explosives filled with nails, homemade firearms they called shotguns.” The “runners” destroyed everything in their path and beat anyone they could get their hands on. The other problem, Bakanov said, was drugs: Zelenskiy’s campaign manager lost many of his friends to them.

The difficulties of growing up in Kryvyi Rih didn’t break Zelenskiy: he managed to survive and make it into an institute where he trained to become a lawyer. In his very first year, he started playing in KVN, a sketch comedy contest format that is still wildly popular throughout the former Soviet Union. The 17-year-old was noticed, and more experienced KVNers invited him to perform with the then-famous Zaporizhia – Kryvyi Rih – Transit team. There, he met two Transit writers, the Shefir brothers. Now, Boris and Serhiy are his primary business partners and his closest friends. They’re almost never apart: not only do Zelenskiy and the Shefirs share a single office among the three of them; even their homes are next to each other. “We have a gate between our properties, and there’s a fence just so that the dogs don’t run away. And we have a common area where we can grill shashliks,” Serhiy Shefir said.

In 1995, the Shefir brothers moved to Moscow and started writing jokes for KVN teams for a living. The job wasn’t quite lucrative: Serhiy Shefir said that in the ten years the brothers worked for KVN, they only made enough for a one-room apartment in the Mytishchi neighborhood outside Moscow proper. Later on, Zelenskiy joined them. In 1997, he became the captain of the 95th Quarter team, which included younger members from Zaporizhia – Kryvyi Rih – Transit. However, in 2003, 95th Quarter broke off from KVN. Their reasons were creative: the club had requested that Zelenskiy remove some riskier jokes from the team’s show. The artists also made extremely little through KVN, while the enterprise itself and to host Alexander Maslyakov. “The most we could make for a single concert was $580 for 20 people,” Zelenskiy later recalled.

Around the same time, the Ukrainian businessman Andriy Kharlamov made the KVNers a proposal: he asked whether they would like to return to their home country and start a creative agency in Kyiv. Zelenskiy and his friends said yes, but they didn’t do much better in Ukraine than they had in Moscow: it was difficult to organize shows without ties to KVN itself, and payments for corporate parties in Ukraine turned out to be much more modest than what the group had been able to charge in Russia.

When they finally found success, it happened almost by accident. At the end of 2002, the Shefir brothers decided to put together a New Year’s concert for Kvartal 95 on their own. They rented a venue and started selling tickets. Zelenskiy convinced Olexandr Rodnianskiy, then the co-owner of 1 + 1, to tape the concert and, if he liked it, to put it on air. Kyiv’s October Palace ended up full to the brim, and even more importantly, Rodniansky liked the performance and offered to collaborate. That’s how Kvartal 95 ended up on Ukrainian television, and the team’s show almost immediately began breaking ratings records. Its income from live concerts rose as well.

After Rodnianskiy moved to the Russian capital to take a different job, Zelenskiy and his group found a new buyer: the Ukrainian TV channel Inter offered to let them make a comedy series called Vecherny Kvartal. It became the most popular entertainment show in the country. By the end of 2010, Inter owner Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy had named Zelenskiy the channel’s CEO. Boris and Serhiy Shefir joined him in a new office, and from there, the trio created all of Inter’s entertainment content.

In 2012, Forbes Ukraine put Studio Kvartal 95’s income at $15 million, but the group still had to work hard for serious press coverage. “When we came to Inter, they told us, ‘You’re nothing. You don’t know how to do anything, and you don’t know television,’” Shefir said, gesturing clearly to current critics who say Zelenskiy has no government experience. “We raised Inter from sixth place to first,” he continued, “And then we left. When they replaced us with professionals, the company fell to sixth place again. We came back, made it first, and they told us the same thing again: that’s it you’ve made us first, goodbye.”

Zelenskiy’s team received that last goodbye in 2012, after the Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash bought Inter from Khoroshkovskiy. The team returned to 1 + 1, where its work on Ukranian national television had first begun.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks in Brovary, Kyiv Oblast. March 29, 2019
Stepan Franko / EPA / Scanpix / LETA
Viewers and voters. Brovary, March 29, 2019
Valentin Ogirenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

After 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, Kvartal 95 cut off all ties with Russia. At the time, Zelenskiy’s team had regularly performed in Russia and was working on two short television series to be sold to Russian channels. It was also selling new seasons of the series Svaty for a healthy profit. Svaty was Kvartal’s most expensive season: they sold 12 episodes to VGTRK for three million dollars, or $250,000 per episode, when no one in Ukraine would buy an episode for more than $100,000.

Leaving the Russian market was an even bigger hit for Kvartal 95 where full-length films were concerned. The film I, You, He, She, which came out at the end of 2018, broke the sales record for all Ukrainian films that had hit theaters since the country gained independence, raking in $2.6 million dollars. The romantic comedy Love in the Big City (2009) and its sequel, Love in the Big City 2 (2010) earned almost $20 million in Russia alone.

Despite it all, Shefir told Meduza that the company’s revenue only decreased by 30 percent after Crimea. The studio began working more actively in the Ukrainian market and orienting itself increasingly toward the West. Half of its revenue in the post-Crimean era has come from content sales to 1 + 1, which has occupied first or second place in national ratings (it currently has a consistent hold on second). Kvartal 95 controls the channel’s primetime programming.

By 2009, Ihor Kolomoyskiy had taken the helm at 1 + 1 as a result of several business deals. Some Ukrainian news outlets and most Russian ones have reported that Kolomoyskiy is connected to Zelenskiy’s presidential campaign. He is not listed as one of the candidate’s official sponsors, but his channel had undoubtedly played a decisive role in the appearance of a new politician on the scene.

Kryviy vs. Priamiy

Holoborodko’s son Dima sits on the couch and stares attentively at the television. His aunt calls him to breakfast, but he doesn’t respond.

“Come on, Dimon, brush your teeth and take a bath, hurry. Aunt Sveta is about to throw together something for breakfast. Do you want pelmeni? Dimon! Why are you all frozen up?”

“Dad’s about to come on!”

“Oh God, you poor kid. Back then you only got to see your dad on Saturdays, and now you only get to see him on TV.”

According to one recent survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 74% of Ukrainian residents trust TV as their primary source of information. In Russia, that number is slightly lower (71%), but Ukrainian television differs fundamentally from its Russian counterpart. “The government has lost control over information and the consumption of information in Ukraine,” says Olexandr Kharebin, formerly the deputy head of the National Television and Radio Company of Ukraine and currently a political consultant.

Before the Euromaidan began, the state of Ukrainian television was, in fact, somewhat similar to that of Russian TV. The six largest broadcasters were owned by supporters of the government’s leader. The entrepreneur Rinat Akhmetov, a friend of then-President Viktor Yanukovich, spoke openly in favor of the embattled politician. Inter was (and still is) controlled by Dmytro Firtash, who was close with the president’s chief of staff. Three other channels (ICTV, Novy, and STB, then the most popular channel in the country) belonged to the billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. Pinchuk was also on good terms with the country’s leadership. The state-owned First National Channel occupied 17th place in the Nielsen ratings of the time. 1 + 1 was already owned by Kolomoyskiy, but he was also loyal to the government back then. The channel was among the most watched in Ukraine and regularly occupied third or fourth place in national ratings depending on the metrics used.

In 2014, Petro Poroshenko took the president’s seat. Then, under pressure from both the European Union and popular demands, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a law establishing a much more loosely controlled state-owned television channel to replace First National. The government lost the power to appoint the channel’s director to a politically diverse council of parliamentarians and other social figures. However, it retained its power to freeze the channel’s funding, resulting in a further drop in ratings.

Now, the same small group of people — Firtash, Pinchuk, Akhmetov, and Kolomoyskiy — continue to control Ukrainian TV, but not one of them supports the country’s current president. Petro Poroshenko himself owns only Channel Five, which has the 29th-largest audience in the country. The channel played an important role in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution but no longer holds the significance it once did. There are a few other pro-presidential channels, however, and the most loyal among them is Priamiy. It officially belongs to Volodymyr Makeenko, the former deputy head of the Party of Regions, which held a majority in the Rada under Yanukovich. However, unofficially, the channel is said to have strong ties with Poroshenko himself. Other channels with similar connections are tied to Viktor Medvedchuk, an influential Yanukovich-era politician. “In the past five years,” Olexandr Kharebin explained, “a group of channels like 112, News 1, and Nash has begun to form. These channels were founded by people in Yanukovich’s circle, and their finances dropped out when those people escaped the country. They were pretty scary, anti-Ukrainian channels, and nobody could shut them down. Now, what people are saying is that they’re all part of Medvedchuk’s sphere of influence, and they’ve maintained their loyalty to the current president.”

If the zealous critiques Ukrainian oppositioners direct at Priamiy is to be believed, the channel is comparable to Russian state TV. “It’s a murderer of a channel. It started out well, it set high journalistic standards, but when the time came, it started inviting Poroshenko bots and no one else to be on-air guests, and it started flooding the airwaves with dirt, garbage. In short, it’s a hellish hell,” said former National Television and Radio Company deputy head Olexandr Kharebin. Priamiy’s competition at Kvartal 95 gave the Ukrainian public an even more memorable critique of the channel in a sketch featuring a parody channel, Kryvyi. In the spoof, Zelenskiy’s own team plays a group of commentators who call Zelenskiy a pussy, a shithead, and a liar. “Is it true that Zelenskiy is really a puppet for Kolomoyskiy, who is a puppet for Akhmetov, who is a puppet for Firtash, who is a puppet for Zelenskiy, who has somehow managed to jump ship?” the program’s ‘host’ asks to laughter from the audience.

The pro-presidential channels’ viewership is an order of magnitude smaller than that of the ‘big five.’ In fact, the viewership of all those channels combined is smaller than that of 1 + 1 alone. That gap stems from the fact that what the president has on his side is a group of news channels with updates, interviews, and talk shows in a format reminiscent of Russia’s Rossiya-24. Poroshenko’s opponents, on the other hand, are armed with general interest channels that span not only political news but also films, original series, and entertainment programs. The most influential among them in terms of its effect on voters, 1 + 1, belongs to Kolomoyskiy. It currently occupies second place in national ratings, but its rival in that respect, the Ukraina channel, doesn’t quite count: it’s politically neutral and airs TV shows only.

“Our president is also a businessman, and he’s convinced that he can be the best diplomat and the best military leader and the best National Bank director. Since he also owns a TV channel [Channel Five], he’s also convinced that he’s the best TV guy,” 1 + 1 Media CEO Olexandr Tkachenko told Meduza. According to Tkachenko, when Kolomoyskiy’s 1 + 1 supported Poroshenko after the 2014 presidential elections, the new president recognized the importance of that resource and has tried to get it back several times since. “They wanted to find a way to take away our license. To pull that off, they tried multiple times to send over their comrades on top of a bunch of other dirty tricks — withholding screening licenses and that kind of thing,” he said.

Ihor Kolomoyskiy, then the governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, stands in his office. March 24, 2014
Valentin Ogirenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Kolomoyskiy had formerly funded volunteer militias that fought against pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s southeast. He once called Vladimir Putin a “short schizophrenic.” In 2014 and 2015, Kolomoyskiy, who was then considered one of Ukraine’s heroes in the Euromaidan era and the Donbass war, took over the governorship of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Before long, however, an intense political showdown between Poroshenko and Kolomoyskiy surrounding the latter’s stakes in state-controlled oil companies led to the governor’s resignation. Kolomoyskiy was also accused of concealing assets as the owner of PrivatBank, the largest private bank in the country. PrivatBank was ultimately nationalized. In early 2018, the international company Kroll confirmed in an audit that the bank had been subject to massive, coordinated fraudulent activities that led to $5.5 billion in losses. Kolomoyskiy called the results of the investigation delirious.

Kolomoyskiy believes that the singular end goal of that entire story was to acquire 1 + 1, which is now Zelensky’s most important resource. In 2016, rumors spread of negotiations between Poroshenko and Kolomoyskiy regarding the channel’s ownership. 1 + 1’s Tkachenko did not deny those reports but refused to comment on them.

In the end, Poroshenko was unable to get Ukrainian television’s second-largest button under his thumb before the 2019 presidential campaign. The programs Zelenskiy runs with Kvartal 95 received the channel’s best primetime spots on Fridays and Saturdays, and those slots benefit from accompanying news reels. Most recently, the channel highlighted a new film that accuses Poroshenko of being involved in the death of his brother Mykhailo; officially, the elder Poroshenko was said to have died in a car accident. The president sued 1 + 1 in response to the film. “But Ukrainian free speech makes it impossible to shut down the channel through an administrative route,” Kharebin said. “There are ways [to apply pressure], but the law will always be on the side of free speech. No matter how perverted that speech is, the law supports it, at least on paper.” However, Kharebin added that after the Euromaidan, courts began applying the law against journalists as well, speculating that judges feared retribution if the regime were to change again.

President Klitschko

Holoborodko’s inauguration. He puts his hand on the Bible and begins giving a prewritten speech in Ukrainian. He hesitates, remembering that his students advised him to give an honest inauguration address in his own words. Holoborodko looks away from the paper in front of him and switches to Russian.

“You know, I’m a simple history teacher. It’s an interesting story — a history teacher made history. Funny, isn’t it? At this point, I’m supposed to promise you a whole bunch of things. But I’m not going to. First of all, it’s dishonest, and second of all, I don’t understand any of this stuff at all. But that’s just now. I’ll figure it out. But I do know one thing. I have to act in a way that leaves me unashamed to look my children in the eyes. And my parents. And all of you, of course. Ost se ukrayintsi, ya vam obitsyayu.”

Credits roll, and a song begins: “If you want to choose him, you have to know him. His father, his mother, who are his brothers? So he doesn’t end up being another fool, a bandit, a thief — a servant of the people is what we need.”

Pan to the real Zelenskiy: “I want to bring professional, orderly people into power. I would very much like to change the timbre of the political establishment as much as possible. But I’m running for a single term. Because we have politicians who come into power thinking about what’s going to happen five years later. I’m not going to think about my approval rating, so, thank God, I’m free in that respect. I want to leave a clear, honest legacy for history. I want my kids to live in this country, walk around without bodyguards, and say, “We know, thanks. Our daddy was all right.” The Ukrainian presidential candidate said all of this in a press conference for international journalists.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy stands in front of demonstrators protesting his candidacy before a performance in Lviv. February 8, 2019
Mikola Tis / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
A Zelenskiy ad: “Spring will come, and we’ll lock them up. The president is a servant of the people.”
Sergey Kamshylin / Shutterstock.com

Holoborodko’s transformation into the candidate Zelenskiy was a gradual one. Though the sitcom included harsh sketches that occasionally drew criticism from government officials, Zelenskiy himself did not make political statements until the beginning of 2019. The first to see the comedian’s serious side were viewers of Kvartal 95’s YouTube channel on November 23, 2017. On that day, Zelenskiy responded to the prohibition of the sitcom Svaty, or In-Laws, in Ukraine, which was itself a response to the show’s inclusion of the Russian actor Fyodor Dobronravov. Dobronravov had publicly supported Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and traveled to the peninsula without the Ukrainian government’s permission, landing him on a list of “individuals who present a threat to national security.” Svaty’s blacklisting angered Zelenskiy, who addressed his followers in a video clip: “If anybody out there doesn’t like the work svaty, and you feel better about the word kumy, I understand that. But first, get over you kumovstvo [nepotism], and then you can fight our Svaty. You’re fighting something that brings people together. The show is filmed on our dime, made by our people. What the devil are you doing over there? Who are you? What have you done?”

Just two weeks after Zelenskiy’s clip was released, Studio Kvartal 95 CEO Ivan Bakanov officially registered the Sluha Narodu political party. The party still appears to exist only on paper even as Bakanov himself has come to lead a full-blown presidential campaign under Sluha Narodu’s name. Serhiy Shefir said the team’s decision to get into politics was made in the spring of 2018 in the smoking room of Kvartal’s office.

Strangely enough, the idea of running for president came from the Poroshenko government itself. One of the president’s political consultants, Ihor Hryniv, began including Zelenskiy in his polls in 2016 alongside ‘actual’ politicians. Even then, it was clear that Zelenskiy had a shot at power. “You just reach a point in life when you can’t stand what’s happening in your country,” Shefir said. “And you just want to make something change.”

Zelenskiy’s campaign differed dramatically from those of his opponents. There were no campaign ads, press conferences, or public rallies. While other candidates met with voters, cycled through talk shows, argued with each other, and criticized the state of the nation, Zelenskiy didn’t even change his performance schedule or cancel his TV shoots. And why not — the job he already had did a perfectly good job of increasing his poll numbers, and it made more money than it lost. When on tour, Zelenskiy’s team gives both paid and free performances.

Zelenskiy also didn’t criticize his opponents himself; he left that work to Vecherny Kvartal sketches. In fact, the country’s most successful presidential candidate appears not to be quite prepared for the usual political routine: the town hall meetings he has held have not gone well. “He gets lost, he’s slow to react,” said Olexandr Martynenko, the CEO of the news agency Interfax-Ukraina. In a meeting with a group of economists organized by one of Ukraine’s business associations, Zelenskiy had difficulty finding the right words, and his opponents picked apart his answers to make quotes reminiscent of Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko, one of Zelenskiy’s own favorite targets. “He’s in over his head. It’s obvious that he’s no economist, no politician, no political scientist, no cultural scholar,” Martynenko continued. “And he doesn’t hide the fact that he doesn’t get any of it, that he doesn’t know anything, that he’s not a professional. And the people think, well, who cares, we’ve already seen the professionals.”

But that’s not how everybody thinks. Arseni Finbeg, who runs a Kyiv-based travel company, saw Zelenskiy speak during a closed-door meeting for alumni of the Aspen Ukraine business school. Finberg was in disbelief. “Someone asked [Zelensky], ‘If you win, who will you appoint to lead our security agencies?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll hold a nationwide contest, we’ll appoint judges, and then, after that, we’ll choose people to lead these agencies.’ But everything would fall apart by then!” the entrepreneur said. “When he was asked whether he’d put [the Sluha Narodu party] up for parliament, he said he’d decide after the presidential elections.” Finberg said he got the sense that “the man has no understanding of who’s responsible for what, what the president answers for and what the parliament answers for.” He explained, “Even when people asked him the simplest questions about who he would appoint, he couldn’t give a single answer.”

In the show Sluha Narodu, the president solves that problem the easy way: he begins by declaring a contest for important government posts, but when that fails, he invites his own former classmates to be his ministers. The other members of the Kvartal 95 team don’t dispute the fact that Zelenskiy would not take power alone. “I’d love to [stay at Kvartal], but it wouldn’t work,” Serhiy Shefir admitted. “It wouldn’t be honest toward him [Zelenskiy]. He needs people. People he trusts.” Zelenskiy’s business partner said he would “be wherever I’m needed” and isn’t interested in taking an official post in the president’s team.

Apart from the Shefir brothers, Ivan Bakanov is also a potential candidate for a top executive post. Zelenskiy’s campaign manager went to school with him in Kryvyi Rih. In an interview with Meduza, Bakanov agreed that he could become the general prosecutor of Ukraine. “In one of his interviews, Zelenskiy said, ‘I’d have to live with him for a while — I don’t know how else you can decide to hire someone.’ That approach says something about his sense of responsibility for the people he considers his,” Kharebin mused. “So the central question that will determine Zelenskiy’s future and the future of Ukraine will be who gets onto ‘the president’s team’ and how. Volodymyr’s intuition, his experience, and the people he trusts should help him make that decision. After all, you can’t live 500 lives to appoint 500 people.”

Zelenskiy’s opponents call him a dilettante who, on top of everything else, doesn’t know any professional government leaders, leaving him to listen to whatever his ‘patron Kolomoyskiy’ recommends. That said, the candidate does have a team, and it’s not just his KVN buddies.

The comedian’s consultants

Holoborodko is in his office. He and an aide are looking through resumes to fill key government positions.

“Vasili Petrovich, I’ve put together a few forms, this one looks like a good option. It’ll save us some time.”

“And what’s the good here? Dropped out of high school, no work experience.”

“What’s the last name?”

“Uh, Abuladze.”

“Abuladze, Ninashvili, Gaguladze.”

“So are you just collecting Georgians or what? You’d think that only the Georgians are really honest and respectable in this country. Do we have any alternatives?”

“We do. The Baltics… And here’s a really ideal one. Everything really came together here. Arvydas Kapiani. His mom’s from the Baltics, and his dad’s a Georgian.”

Aivaras Abromavičius meets me dressed in a stylish black turtleneck. He is in the Leonard business center’s office — it’s a glass and concrete building in the very center of Kyiv. When I bring up Kolomoyskiy, he smiles and shows me a news clip from Rossiya-24. “Ihor Kolomoyskiy called Ukraine’s Minister of Economy Aivaras Abromavičius ‘an incompetent monkey’” — the host tries to continue, but she can’t keep from laughing. Putting away his phone, Abromavičius laughs too. “That was when they made me the chair of the commission for Ukrnafta’s gas sales. And Ukrnafta, a state-owned company, sells to Kolomoyskiy’s company, Kremenchugskiy’s NPZ, not at market gas prices, but with a 15% discount. Why it’s a discount and not an added cost, I don’t know. So when the cost of gas was $100 a barrel, an extra $200 million went to Kolomoyskiy’s company.”

At the time, Abromavičius said he would stop issuing the discounts, earning him the nickname that sent the Russian TV anchor into a fit of laughter. Now, the former minister is a consultant for Zelenskiy, and he appears alongside the candidate in all his meetings with entrepreneurs and interested parties from the West.

Zelenskiy aide and former Ukrainian Minister of Economy Aivaras Abromavičius
Vidmantas Balkūnas / Scanpix / LETA

Another important Zelenskiy consultant can also hardly be called Kolomoyskiy’s man. He is former finance minister Olexandr Danilyuk, who worked on the nationalization of PrivatBank. Danilyuk and Abromavičius were both government ministers under Poroshenko. They both pinned their hopes for reform on him, and both ended up disappointed. Abromavičius remembers the last election when he went to the polls with his family. “My wife, her parents are Ukrainian citizens, we dressed our kids in blue T-shirts with ‘Poroshenko’ written on them. We went to vote and then went off to celebrate. We had a lot of hope. My main beef with Poroshenko is that he gave people hope, and then he killed that hope himself.”

Abromavičius tried to grapple with corruption by preventing abuse in the area of government that he controlled, but he soon began receiving signals that he would do better to get out of the way. Abromavičius told me that when he was denied access to bodyguards as a current minster and essentially invited to leave, he decided to resign.

Danilyuk started trying to bring in reforms as part of the Yanukovich government. He founded a Reform Center like the one Kakha Bendukidze had created in Georgia. Danilyuk counts Bendukidze and Mikhail Saakashvili among his friends. However, unlike his Georgian counterparts, Danilyuk did not have the authority to bring economic reforms to life. When Poroshenko arrived on the scene, Danilyuk hoped that everything would change. He started out working in the president’s administration and then took the helm at Ukraine’s Finance Ministry. The former minister told me that after a time, both the president and the prime minister started putting pressure on him on the assumption that he would leave his post himself. He didn’t, even when criminal charges were brought against him. “I wanted them to be the ones to fire me, and they fired me on the very same day that we passed a law creating an anticorruption court. Five days beforehand, I sent each and every deputy a personal letter saying that if they did not pass the law, they would have to cut four billion dollars from their budgets. We were hoping to get into the microfinance market, but the international community asked us to get rid of corruption first,” Danilyuk said.

The former finance minister said that, for him, Zelenskiy is someone people will probably vote for because he the old establishment does not accept him at all: “They just hate him. That’s what his phenomenon is about. People say that he doesn’t know international affairs, doesn’t know how the government works, doesn’t know what to do with the war. That’s an important thing to note, but only for a narrow circle of people. For the rest of us, that expertise has been discredited. Poroshenko understands economics marvelously. He knows international relations very well, and he’s good at giving speeches. But he’s lost his authority. There’s no value in expertise. The people are tired as fuck of these experts.”

Danilyuk and Abromavičius are prepared to compensate for Zelenskiy’s lack of preparation in all those areas and to prepare him for meetings with Ukraine’s international partners. Some of those meetings have already taken place, and the former ministers felt that there mere presence forced other governments’ leaders to take Zelenskiy seriously. This is how he met U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, Under Secretary of State David Hale, an IMF delegation, and the French ambassador. “Everyone wants to know who this guy is. There were serious doubts, but they’ve disappeared. We supported [Zelenskiy] with consulting sessions, plus with our own presence,” said the journalist and Verkhovna Rada deputy Serhiy Leshchenko. He also joined the comedian’s team in the fall of 2018.

All of Zelenskiy’s consultants work with him with no guarantee of receiving a government position, and they do not receive a salary. Even Dmytro Razumkov, who founded the Ukrainian Politconsulting Group and has become an unofficial spokesman for Zelenskiy’s campaign headquarters, said that he has been working as an unpaid volunteer since October of 2018. The candidate’s aides may well have the option of becoming paid employees. Zelenskiy has already named Danilyuk as a possible future foreign affairs minister. There are rumors that Abromavičius can already count on a post as high as the prime minister’s, though Zelenskiy has tried to keep his team secret. He has promised to make it public before runoff voting begins.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy votes during Ukraine’s presidential election. March 31, 2019
Anna Marchenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

It’s not just the experts who work for no pay. Zelenskiy’s campaign has managed to attract 570,000 people; that’s how many people expressed their willingness to volunteer as election observers for the comedian. Zelenskiy has also used the Internet to mobilize experts in a variety of topics who helped him fill out his previously flimsy platform, turning it into a thick book for the use of the candidate’s team.

Some of the most unexpected ideas from that thick folio ended up in the third season of Sluha Narodu. Serhiy Shefir told me, “It’s no coincidence that concrete roads showed up in the screenplay. We’ve had enough of fixing asphalt, especially when we have so many cement factories. We’ll be looking at concrete roads — you don’t need gas for them or anything. There’s ballast, there’s sand, there’s cement. And we won’t be patching up asphalt all the time anymore.” As Zelenskiy’s friend says this, his eyes light up. A screenplay created in a single room by three comedians who, it seems, still know how to improvise, is moving closer and closer to becoming reality.

Ilya Zhegulev, Kyiv – Moscow

Translation by Hilah Kohen

Italicized quotes from Sluha Narodu