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As Russian threat looms, Ukraine’s government is no laughing matter

KYIV, Ukraine — Nations have chosen their leaders from among many fields, including the military and academia, but Ukraine’s government might be the first to draw heavily from television and film comedy.

Before turning to politics, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a TV actor and comic, and he has placed allies with similar histories in key positions throughout the government, including top advisers, legislators, administrators and even an intelligence chief.

At a time when Russia has built up forces on Ukraine’s border and fear of an invasion is running high, Zelenskyy has surrounded himself with people drawn from his comedy studio, Kvartal 95. Few have any experience in diplomacy or warfare.

“There is that risk of people not having the gravitas, and not having experience,” Orysia Lutsevych, director of the Ukraine studies program at Chatham House in London, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t want to be in the room when there are just a couple of guys who know how to produce videos. This is not a peaceful time. This is a time of war.”

Zelenskyy was elected as an outsider to Ukraine’s dysfunctional, often corrupt politics two years ago, and, trying to bypass its bitter feuds and opaque motives, he ushered in a government as unorthodox as he was. He appointed fellow comedy industry veterans, relying on personal loyalty rather than expertise or building coalitions in Ukraine’s fractious democracy, political analysts say.

Bihus, a Ukrainian investigative news site, has counted three dozen people with ties to Zelenskyy’s comedy studio and his family who are now in government, including in national security positions at the defense intelligence agency, which is tasked with monitoring the Russian buildup.

Zelenskyy has repeatedly rejected accusations of frivolity, and allies say his comedy background and wry humor are actually political assets.

Ukraine has been at war against Russia-backed separatists since 2014, long before Zelenskyy took office.

Today, Russia has amassed troops to the north, east and south. The United States has disclosed intelligence showing that Russia’s military has a war plan envisioning an invasion with as many as 175,000 troops that Ukraine’s military, despite U.S.-provided equipment and training, would have little ability to stop.

U.S. officials have said it is unclear whether President Vladimir Putin of Russia has decided to invade.

Russia has demanded that NATO pledge to refrain from any eastward expansion, that Ukraine cease deployments of NATO weaponry and that Kyiv bend to Russian terms for a settlement in the war in eastern Ukraine.

The buildup places Zelenskyy’s government in a crucible of diplomacy and military posturing, which has included U.S. and European military flights near Russia’s borders in the Black Sea and a video call between President Joe Biden and Putin.

Military analysts have described a range of scenarios for conflict, including a limited use of force by Russia. But a full invasion would become the largest military action in Europe since World War II, harden the continent’s East-West divide and kill an untold number of soldiers on both sides, as well as civilians in Ukraine.

It is hardly a lighthearted moment, and yet comedy was integral to Zelenskyy’s political ascent and persona, and his supporters defend its relevance in crisis.

On television, he played a schoolteacher whose tirade against corruption is filmed by his students, winds up online and goes viral, propelling him to the presidency.

In a campaign of life mimicking art, Zelenskyy named his political party after his TV show, “Servant of the People.” Actors, filmmakers and media executives led the party and followed him into power.

The chief of the presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, was a media lawyer and movie producer. The head of the domestic intelligence agency, Ivan Bakanov, had been director of Kvartal 95. A chief presidential adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was a screenwriter and producer whose major credits included a hit romantic comedy film, “Eight First Dates,” and a TV series, “The In-laws.”

Roman Hryshchuk headlined a comedy show called “Mama Busted Up” before winning a seat in Parliament with Zelenskyy’s party. Like the other comedians in power, he is unapologetic.

“Humor is a sign of intellect,” he said in an interview. “A sense of humor is a gift.”

In Ukraine’s international relations, “it’s really an advantage,” he added. “In diplomacy, humor is always an instrument. You can set the right tone with a joke.”

But the view that only comedians run the government is a “stereotype” promoted by opposition parties, Hryshchuk said, noting that many noncomedians also serve. To avoid playing into this criticism of Zelenskyy, he said he has not told a joke in public for two years — and in the interview, he sternly declined to do so.

“It would be used against us,” he said.

Zelenskyy has joked, sometimes at tense moments. In what was perceived as a threatening gesture in July, Putin wrote an essay describing Russia and Ukraine as essentially one nation, a text suggesting a justification for uniting the countries.

It described fraternal bonds. Zelenskyy replied, “like Cain and Abel.”

He also quipped of Putin’s roughly 5,000-word treatise delving into medieval history that the Russian president seemed to have a lot of time on his hands.

“They think differently,” Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former economics minister, said of comedy studio veterans. “They think in terms of dramaturgy. They think, ‘Who is the villain, who is the hero, what is the roller coaster of emotions?’”

Behind closed doors, Zelenskyy and his associates are typically serious in meetings, former aides and ministers said in interviews.

The comedy veterans joke, but no more than others in the room. “They are just of a better quality than when I try to make a joke,” said Mylovanov, whose specialty in economics is the theory of contracts.

Months before he would be elected to the office for real, Volodymyr Zelenskiy plays the president of Ukraine on set of the comedy "Servant of the People," in Kiev, Feb. 17, 2019. Zelenskiy has placed allies from his comedy career in key positions throughout the government, including top advisers, legislators, administrators and even an intelligence chief. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)
Months before he would be elected to the office for real, Volodymyr Zelenskiy plays the president of Ukraine on set of the comedy "Servant of the People," in Kiev, Feb. 17, 2019. Zelenskiy has placed allies from his comedy career in key positions throughout the government, including top advisers, legislators, administrators and even an intelligence chief. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

Serhiy Prytula, a comedian and host of the TV show “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” said the problem was not comedy, per se, but Zelenskyy’s reliance on loyalists.

“We all worked somewhere,” said Prytula, who has announced plans to found his own comedian-led political party to compete with Zelenskyy. “The question is: Are you, as a politician, willing to surround yourself with people who are not just loyal but have expertise?”

Beyond the general sense that Zelenskyy’s aides are out of their depth, critics have pointed to what they call worrying blunders in national security.

Yermak, the former media lawyer, ordered an ill-considered delay in a sensitive intelligence operation in 2020 that might have captured dozens of Russian mercenaries, according to Bellingcat, an open source investigation group. The delay scuttled the operation.

And critics point to a decision this year to earmark money raised through government borrowing not for military spending but for Zelenskyy’s signature domestic policy project, a road-building initiative called Big Construction and overseen by Kirill Tymoshenko, a former director of a video production company, Good Media.

Volodymyr Ariev, a member of the opposition European Solidarity party, joked that this allocation would now serve “to make the ride to Kyiv more comfortable for Russian tanks.”

As Ukraine braces for possible war with Russia, worry has mounted that the inexperience of Zelenskyy’s circle could have dire consequences, and not only for their own country. An amateurish misstep could become a pretext for war, which would significantly worsen the friction between Russia and the United States.

Dmytro Razumkov — who was ousted in October as the speaker of Parliament and replaced by a former comedian, Ruslan Stefanchuk — said Zelenskyy’s appointment of show-business figures betrayed a campaign promise to balance his government with technical experts. Stefanchuk is also a lawyer.

“We said, ‘In those areas where we don’t have expertise, people who do understand should step in,’” said Razumkov, who was an early supporter of Zelenskyy's but has pivoted to criticizing him for bringing in hapless ministers and aides.

Appointments to senior posts are now “based on loyalty to the president and his entourage,” Razumkov said. “It’s a comfortable way to work for the president but not for the country” at a time of military threat.

“We came for a comedy,” Razumkov said of Ukrainian politics under Zelenskyy, “and wound up watching a horror movie. It’s not funny at all.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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