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It is well known that Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a television personality before he became President of Ukraine. He played the lead character in the Ukrainian television series Servant of the Nation

It is not uncommon for television and movie personalities to successfully move into Politics, some examples being Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, Jayalalitha, Jaya Bachchan, Hema Malini etc; but different political cultures have different rules which influence such elevation of an actor to a politician.

In the Ukranian political culture, how influential was the role of his TV career in getting him elected? Did he have any other contributions to the politics of Ukraine, which also played a significant role in getting him elected?

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    For a bit od context, Zelenskyy's political party is called "Servant of the People", and was founded by members of the production company for the TV show. Mar 6, 2022 at 15:40

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There are 2 takes on this. There is the cynical/conspiratorial take and there is a what-we-do-know-for-a-fact take.

I'll start with the latter and maybe give some voice to the former, although I am personally skeptical of the cynics' claims.

Zelensky's Comedy

Volodymyr Zelensky has had a long and successful career as a comedic actor, writer and producer. He was a co-founder of the production company "Kvartal 95." Kvartal 95 has produced the most iconic Russian-langue comedy, "Svati" ("the in-laws" in Russian), of the post-USSR years. Zvalensky himself was credited as the head producer of the series.

Kvartal 95 has produced a number of other series, and produces regular comedy shows. I am not sure with what regularity.

The comedy genre of Kvartal 95 can be most generally described as "dark comedy." Many of the skits feature adult themes and family drama as subject matter of comedy. Roughly that's a mix of subjects one would expect from "Family Guy" or "Saturday Night Life." A fraction of the skits also feature political satire, but also in the SNL style (rather than the Daily Show style).

As an actor, this made Zelensky a household name, but a name attached to the beclowned characters he portrayed.

This put him in the same light as Al Franken, of the SNL fame. It did not expose his executive abilities or his leadership abilities to the public. It gave him an image of a very good "clown." This is still an accusation which is frequently leveled against him by his political opponents and Ukraine's enemies in Russia.

Sluga Naroda

Starting in 2016, Zelensky starred in, what ended up being a 3 (2.5 really) season series "Sluga Naroda." "Sluga Naroda" is usually translated as "Servant of The People," but that's a word-for-word translation. A more literal translation is probably "A Public Servant" because the expression is designed to be self-humbling rather than self-aggrandizing.

While the main characters of the series remain the same throughout, each season featured a self-contained arc and each season was in a different genre.

  • Season 1 was an over-the-top comedy mixed with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" vibes.
  • Season 2 had a more serious plot of exposing various parliamentary maneuvers intermixed with comedy. It solidified the image of Zelensky as a capable parliamentarian.
  • Season 3 had only 3 episodes. It was an abstract view on how a country could become successful by overcoming challenges of fractionalizm and corruption. It was told from a view point of a history class studying the "present" as that history class' past.

Zelensky entering the race

Zelensky did not enter the presidential race until after the series "Sluga Naroda" ended. After this 2.5 year long change in his image, there was probably little doubt that he was fit to run for president. Although I don't know how common was the opinion that he was fit to serve as president.

But he did win the presidency after entering the race, so there was that.

The Cynical View

  • The (somewhat common) cynical view is that Sluga Naroda itself was 2.5-year long presidential campaign rather than an entertainment show. The view is clearly too cynical because, at the very least, it is both a good TV series and a political campaign in disguise. It is good TV.
  • The show aired on the TV channel owned by Zelensky's personal friend Kolomoyskyi, who is a controversial Ukrainian oligarch. But Kvartal 95 aired all of its shows on the same TV channel since 2012. So it was hardly a political bribe.
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    Wouldn't the cynical view be that Ukrainian voters weren't smart enough to figure out the difference between a good TV president and a person who's actually fit to be president? It's kind of like watching Trump do a good job on The Apprentice and then assuming he's a great people manager in real life. Oct 24, 2023 at 18:09
  • @JonathanReez that would be a specific accusation that goes under the generalization that the show was a political campaign in disguise, which I listed as my 1st bullet point.
    – wrod
    Oct 25, 2023 at 1:32
  • Yes but one could also put some blame on the voters being gullible enough to fall for the ruse. Oct 25, 2023 at 2:45
  • @JonathanReez I don't see a ruse. Voting for someone who created an educational series about how their country's political system works, and who made it entertaining, seems like something voters might do in just about about any other democracy.
    – wrod
    Oct 25, 2023 at 8:58
  • yes it’s a condemnation of democracy in general, where producing a good TV show is seen as proof of being a good country manager, even though the two are not necessarily correlated skills. Oct 25, 2023 at 13:08

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