Zelenskyy's path from comedy to tragedy: Can he save Ukraine from Russian war invaders?

“All my life I tried to do all I could so that Ukrainians laughed. That was my mission. Now I will do all I can so that Ukrainians at least do not cry any more.”

That is how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy concluded his inaugural address on May 20, 2019.

He foresaw and foretold so much about his country – and ours – in “Servant of the People,” the television sitcom that spawned a real-life political party, platform and president. The prophesizing stopped before Russia started a brutal, unprovoked war on Ukraine. But by then Zelenskyy had also inspired real-life pride and patriotism.

There will be oceans of tears and death before the war is over, but there is still a chance for peace and justice in the end. A chance for Zelenskyy to stop the crying.

Zelenskyy didn't play himself on TV

Zelenskyy’s surreal path from sitcom star to wartime president to world leader is not really parallel to the character he played on “Servant of the People,” high school history teacher Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko.

In the show, available on Netflix with English subtitles, he’s a short, insecure divorced father who lives with his parents in a quiet neighborhood where birds sing and people argue over parking and whose turn it is to use the bathroom. Our antihero wakes up in his underwear, realizes he has overslept, worries he'll get fired over a wrinkled shirt, and is sitting on the toilet when there's a knock on the bathroom door. "Good morning, Mr. President," three men in suits intone.

And we’re off. “For the first time, a simple teacher from Kyiv has become Ukraine’s head of state,” a patronizing news announcer explains.

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Actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy shooting the TV show "Servant of the People" in Kyiv on March 6, 2019,  shortly before he won the Ukrainian presidential election.
Actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy shooting the TV show "Servant of the People" in Kyiv on March 6, 2019, shortly before he won the Ukrainian presidential election.

The real Zelenskyy, 44, is anything but simple. He is an actor, comedian and lawyer as well as a TV producer, executive and entrepreneur. He was not above shiny hot-pink bell bottoms on “Dancing with the Stars” (which he won), or being the voice of "Paddington" bear.

His crowning TV achievement, however, is “Servant of the People.” He helped conceive and produce it in addition to starring as the idealistic title character whose rant against corruption propels him to the presidency.

The Kyiv depicted in the show, which ran from 2015 to 2019, is a typical capital city of homes, high rises, highways, shopping malls, a vibrant riverfront, historic buildings, and a mansion the production used as the setting for the president’s inauguration. Are these places still standing, or are they bombed out piles of rubble? How about the crews and actors and everyone else involved with the show? Are they alive? Dead? Evacuated? It is disturbing to constantly wonder.

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The show's constant veering between sophisticated politics and crude comedy is also unsettling in the context of today's terrifying realities. Vasiliy’s parents and sister are portrayed for laughs (not many in my case) as opportunistic materialists, exploiting his sudden ascent to acquire new clothes, a remodeled home and fast money. At the same time, the scripts reflect an acute and cutting understanding of Ukrainian culture, politics and problems, from homegrown corruption to the constant menace posed by Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

In one episode, Vasiliy walks into a chamber and finds a couple dozen lawmakers shouting, hitting and pushing each other. “Putin has been deposed!” the new president finally yells. They immediately go silent and still. “I was kidding. I couldn’t stop you any other way,” he says.

A 'Former Guy' just like Trump

At another point, practicing tongue twisters to prepare for his inaugural speech, an aide offers “trotting Trump along the trail.” That would have been in November 2015, several months after Donald Trump did indeed hit the presidential campaign trail, so no mystery there. But a subplot about an ousted predecessor who locks himself in his office and won't leave is an eerie foreshadowing of Trump's attempts to stay in the Oval Office after losing the 2020 election.

“I demand a revote. They elected some douchebag,” shouts The Former Guy, in this case Ukraine's Sergei Pavlovich. "Change the Constitution!" he tells Prime Minister Yuri Ivanovich Chuiko. “Let’s do a vote recount! I want to count personally every ballot!” TFG calls Vasiliy’s 60% an error and insists: “It’s the nation that erred. I’ll give them a second chance. Let them vote again! Text message votes will save me! The country was stolen from me!”

TFG complains angrily that he even learned to speak Ukrainian. Then you should know this proverb, the prime minister begins, and The Former Guy explodes: “Don’t talk to me in that foreign gibberish!”

Hilarious, as Vasiliy says about his new lot in life.

From actor to strong wartime leader

Zelenskyy's real presidency has been deadly serious and haunted by Russia. You would not necessarily expect an actor, even one with a law degree, political savvy and experience playing a president on TV, to be a great wartime leader. But Zelenskyy stands out for the level of intensity he sustains, the grit he shows every day, his persistence in reminding other nations of Ukraine's needs, their obligations and the existential stakes, and his words that help his own people see beyond the war and wreckage and death to the future they can build.

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In just a couple of days this week, he held a meeting with Ukrainian leaders about postwar reconstruction plans, discussed those plans with the International Monetary Fund, and submitted a completed European Union questionnaire that put Ukraine on path to become an official candidate for EU membership soon (a status that comes with economic benefits and even some military protections).

That’s on top of nightly addresses to update his people and keep up their spirits. On Easter, he labeled the Russian shelling of Kharkiv “deliberate terror” and the next day said Russia’s invasion can only lead to Russian “self-demilitarization.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy  addresses the South Korean parliament via video link on April 11, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the South Korean parliament via video link on April 11, 2022.

Zelenskyy also did an emotional interview with CNN's Jake Tapper that aired Easter Sunday, and he posts revealing video clips on the toll of the war. Economist writer Oliver Carroll tweeted one, translated this way: “52 days. We work (shows speech), we love (family photo), we are thankful (gifted cockerel from destroyed borodyanka flat), we are proud (flag), we will be victorious.”

The whole world is watching: Russians' war crimes will be documented. And prosecuted.

In “Servant of the People,” Abraham Lincoln shows up in a dream to see how Vasiliy is doing ("Conscience in agony?") and whether he plans to accomplish anything beyond millions of YouTube views for his anti-corruption eruption.

“I came from a simple family. I didn’t believe in my powers, either, but I managed to abolish slavery. You could also free your people,” Lincoln tells the new president. They are not enslaved, Lincoln agrees, but reminds Vasiliy that millions work themselves to the bone to support Ukraine's greedy elites, with little to show for it in their own lives.

That’s how it started for Zelenskyy, a crusade born on a TV comedy about a country turning away from Russia, corruption, oligarchs and autocracy, straining toward Europe, democracy, economic progress and self-determination. The plan was always to rescue Ukraine. What he couldn’t know was that he’d be called on to save it from extinction.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia's war with Ukraine: Zelenskyy emerged as a world leader and hero