The Comedic Reality of Ukrainian Politics

Current Affairs International Issues

Image description: Marlinksy Palace is the official ceremonial residence of the Ukrainian president.

“Fake news”, the moniker applied to news stories of dubious accuracy and generally distributed with an eye to slander, has been a hot topic since Donald J. Trump was elected president of the US in 2016. The prevailing feeling has been that nefarious characters are exploiting a simple fact about our digital age: that content production is radically  . Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can do it and make it look real. The internet has taken on a Wild West aspect, where people interested in undermining others can trouble the lines between reality and fiction without risk of punishment.

This sounds threatening, but like most generalisations it hides the complex ways in which digital media has entangled reality and fiction, with the line dividing the two increasingly blurred. Look no further, for an example, than on 21st April 2019, when Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in a landslide. Mr. Zelensky had previously written and starred in a comedy which followed a history teacher who became president of Ukraine. The show satirised Ukrainian politics, presenting it as an irredeemably corrupt farce. In the first episode, the central character’s history class is ejected mid-lesson and told to build cabins and other items in service of a particular candidate in the upcoming general election. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for their teacher who embarks on a tirade against the corrupt establishment and how nothing is done to challenge the status quo. Cue an enterprising student who secretly records the teacher before uploading the whole thing to YouTube. One viral sensation later and we have ourselves a president.

The symmetry of Mr. Zelensky’s actual election with his character’s, the meta-narrative of political critique his work presents, in general the way real life crisscrosses with the art he helped create, is enough to make your head spin. We find that, in fact, the most ridiculous part of the story is the only part that isn’t “fake news”. There was no viral video, there was no history teacher, but there was a comedy series, and an outsider was elected president. First we should congratulate the Ukrainian people on appearing to have a magnificent sense of humour. Beyond that, though, things start to get serious. Mr Zerensky himself certainly is, in any case. He graduated in Law from one of the country’s most prestigious universities and is the son of an engineer and a renowned professor of cybernetics and computer science. The production company he started, Kvartal 95, is responsible for the television program that helped catapult him to fame. He is dedicated and clever.

The symmetry of Mr. Zelensky’s actual election with his character’s is enough to make your head spin.

It is not his credentials which have persuaded the Ukrainian people to vote for him, however, but the way in which he has used his humour to speak honestly about the deep, systemic challenges facing contemporary Ukraine. Tragedy and comedy have a long, closely intertwined history. After 9/11, for example, The Onion’s issue dedicated to the event was one of the biggest hits they’d ever had. This connection between comedy and turmoil is also seen in the suicides of comics Robin Williams, John Belushi, Chris Farli and Richard Jeni among many others. It seems that, in a complicated way, there is a catharsis in being able to laugh at something, but such catharsis requires dissonant or uncomfortable subject matter. The silent movie star Charlie Chaplin purportedly said that in order to truly laugh, you have to take your pain and play with it. This, I think, is what has won Mr. Zelensky the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people. By satirising corruption in politics, he has put his fingers on their pain, teased it out – articulated it for them. He has given it a shape and a name, and he has played with it. This sounds oddly invasive, but that is precisely the triumph of it – it cuts deep, with the delicate empathy that is the hallmark of all great comedy. I’m reminded of Fleabag’s capacity to wrangle with familial relationships. Through it, everyone laughs and is brought together.

This empathy-based, I imagine, on no small amount of outrage at the reality of corruption in Ukrainian politics – has put Mr. Zerensky in his place and earned him a great deal of slack with the population, but it is not enough to run a country. In the first episode of his television series, mysterious old men in tuxedos sip champagne overlooking the capital city. They discuss who to put in power next, deciding to give the choice up to the Ukrainian people as part of their great, corrupt game of power brokerage. The hijinks the ministers of government get up to (at one point, the fictional threat of a meteorite is used by government officials to disperse legitimate protests, much to the consternation of the everyman-turned-president) are equally caricatured versions of reality. If he is going to run help Ukraine, Mr. Zerensky will need to show a subtler understanding of the people and issues that trouble his country.

The Atlantic Council recently reported that on average, Ukrainian MPs keep $700,000 at home because they are afraid to use banks. Across industry sectors, the capital Kiev soaks up massive amounts of investment leaving little for the wider population. These problems pale in comparison to Mr. Zelensky’s chief task, however: the management of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, who annexed a large portion of Ukraine in 2014. In November last year, lawmakers in Kiev voted overwhelmingly to institute martial law in coastal states following the capture of some Ukrainian ships by the Russian navy. Tensions are simmering, and from Moscow, Vladimir Putin will likely be watching closely. That’s no joke.

Image credit: Francisco Anzola