Staff Writer: Carolyn Doremus
Since the February 24th Russian invasion of Ukraine, people living across the globe have become much more aware of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and if they weren’t knowledgeable about the history between the two countries already, have been provided with more information through the news coverage. One name in particular that of course has become more commonly seen across the world is that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is the sixth president of Ukraine. His response to Biden’s offer for transportation out of Ukraine when the violence began went viral when he told the US President that “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” Now regarded as a hero for the Ukrainian people as well as one internationally, President Zelenskyy has become a household name – and his increased fame has also brought attention to his unorthodox career and what led him into the political scene in the first place.
It’s no secret that Zelensky started out his career as a comedian; news outlets highlighted this fact when introducing him at the beginning of the Russian invasion. While entertainers gaining political influence is no rarity in today’s world, the background of Zelenskyy’s entertainment career in light of his current position is intriguing because of the parallels. In 1997 Zelenskyy founded the comedy group Kvartal 95, which performed around much of Eastern Europe and in former Soviet countries. Six years later Kvartal 95 began to produce TV shows on Ukrainian television, in which Zelenskyy began his acting career in. Some of the movies that the studio produced that he starred in include Love in the Big City, Office Romance, Our Time, and 8 First Dates.
Then, in February 2014, the Maidan Revolution took place in Ukraine, in which then President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown due to his ongoing collaboration with Russian leaders and refusal to sign agreements with the EU. Tensions rose when protesters took to the streets to stand up to the violation of human rights taking place in the country, as well as the pandering of the then Ukrainian government to Russian oligarchs and the general abuse of power. The clashes between protesters and police led to hundreds of deaths, and this revolution began the Donbas War. The new government that was implemented in Ukraine signed the EU association agreement which marked a turning point in the efforts of the Ukrainian people to become fully independent from Russia.
During this time, Zelenskyy became more politically active, speaking out against the decision of the Ukranian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists, even after Kvartal 95 donated money to the Ukrainian army prompting Russian politicians to call for a ban of Zelenskyy’s works in Russia. Then, in 2015, Kvartal 95 released the television series Servant of the People, starring Zelenskyy as a former history teacher who won a presidential election after a viral video of him speaking out against government corruption endeared him to the people. It ran for three seasons and even had a film adaptation in 2016.
This leads into Zelenskyy’s presidential campaign in 2018 – Kvartal 95 registered a new political party with the same name as the show: Servant of the People. His actual campaign was brief, as he only officially announced his candidacy four months before the election. It mostly took place virtually, through social media and through comedy routines in which Zelenskyy spoke out against corruption and the establishment, much like his history teacher character counterpart. His campaign was built on his goals of wanting to “bring professional, decent people to power” and to “change the mood and timbre of the political establishment.” In April 2019, Zelensky beat incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in a landslide victory, winning 73% of the people’s vote.
Did his role in Servant of the People inspire Zelenskyy to run for office? Or did the show inspire people to vote for him? Maybe a bit of both, but one thing that the series did seem to do for certain is paint a picture for progression within Ukraine’s government and leadership. Ukrainian citizens saw potential and became inspired by the general message from the show, which caused further action to be taken to make that ideal future a reality. Not only does this turn of events prove how influential pop culture can be within real world events, but it goes to show how a message of hope and the push for positive change can promote people to fight for what they believe in, and in this case, for a better future for their children and for their country.
Servant of the People is now available to stream on Netflix. If you’re on campus Friday, April 8th, the History Club is putting on a fundraiser for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine by streaming the first few episodes of the show (see the image below for more details). If you aren’t able to make it, I recommend looking into donating to the Red Cross efforts in Ukraine or to Razom for Ukraine, as not only will you be providing aid to a country in need, but you will also be helping the fight for democracy.