Jessica Pisano is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the New School for Social Research. She is the author of “How Zelensky Changed Ukraine” in the Journal of Democracy and Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond.
There were lots of opportunities for a certain part of Ukrainian society to encounter Zelenskyy and to feel that they knew him. He was not an unknown quantity when he ran for president. So, I think that’s important for us to keep in mind. I would say the so-called Western World is still discovering who he is, but his loyalty, his integrity, his ideas or his group’s ideas about Ukrainian political nationhood have been in the works for a long time.
- Introduction – 0:49
- Early Career of Zelenskyy – 2:58
- What is Political Theater? – 10:30
- Zelenskyy Changes Politics in Ukraine – 17:26
- Zelenskyy as President – 22:43
- Future of Ukraine – 30:41
Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy? I remember reading about Zelenskyy when he was a candidate for President. They called him the comic President. It felt surreal when I heard he actually played the President of Ukraine in a TV Show. It was difficult to imagine how a comedian was prepared to lead a nation. So, I was shocked when Zelenskyy proved he was more than capable after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
So, who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy? After almost five months after Russia’s invasion, I still didn’t know until I read Jessica Pisano’s recent article in the Journal of Democracy. It’s called “How Zelensky Has Changed Ukraine.” Jessica’s article was able to explain to me why Zelenskyy’s candidacy resonated with Ukrainians and why he has stayed throughout the invasion. Jessica is an associate professor of politics at the New School for Social Research. Her recent book Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond is among the most important books on politics of this year.
This is a conversation on Ukraine I’ve wanted to have for a long time. We talk a lot about Zelenskyy, but this is really a conversation about Ukraine, its politics, and how they have changed. Like always you can find a full transcript at democracyparadox.com. You can also find Democracy Paradox now on Facebook. I just set up the page so I’d appreciate anybody on Facebook to like it so we can get it off the ground. Thanks again for all the support. This is my conversation with Jessica Pisano…
Jessica Pisano, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
So, I wanted to focus on your remarkable insights about Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I’ve read quite a bit about him just like everybody probably has recently and I found that your analysis, your discussion about him was one of the most insightful pieces that I’ve come across. It brought up some ideas that hadn’t even crossed my mind before. So, I was really impressed with the way that you kind of were able to take your research and just explain some of the importance of him within Ukraine. So, I want to start out with a simpler question though. Can you tell us the first time that you remember learning about Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
So, I have to sort of reach back into the 1990s to answer this question. As a graduate student, doing research in Russia and in Ukraine I watched a lot of television in the evening and that’s where I first came across as an Zelenskyy’s work as a comedy improv player. His group from his hometown started performing in 1996-1997. He and his troop treated themes related to Ukraine-Russia relations very early in his career. So, I was watching these improv shows partially because that’s where a lot of the interesting political commentary was happening at the time both in Russia and in Ukraine.
I think that with Zelenskyy starting in 2014, with Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, he and his troop studio, Kvartal 95, started performing sort of patriotic musical reviews. In those reviews they performed songs that very clearly articulated an idea of Ukrainian political nationhood that was very different from anything else that was happening on the national political stage. Ukrainian politicians who wanted to distinguish themselves from Soviet-era Russian aligned identity used Ukrainian ethnic identity in the Ukrainian language as a kind of natural antipode.
But what Zelenskyy did working mainly in the Russian language, because that was his native language as a Russified Ukrainian from Southeastern Ukraine, was to provide Russian speaking Ukrainians a way to think about patriotism that was territorial as opposed to ethnic. Starting in, I would say, around 2014 this theme sort of becomes very strong in their work. Then, of course, later on he does Servant of the People and so on and so forth which treats political themes much more explicitly. I think it’s important to note that for Ukrainians who watched these shows, those Ukrainians have known Zelenskyy for longer than Russians have known Putin.
So, I heard a podcast. I think it was The Daily. They were talking about a Ukrainian couple that had actually met each other at a comedy routine where Zelenskyy was performing and that was the first time that it really struck me that he wasn’t just some comic. He wasn’t just somebody that kind of just appeared on television the way that in the United States we have so many different media personalities that become famous, because they finally get the audience they’ve been pursuing for a long time. It feels like he’s had that kind of audience and that kind of resonance with the Ukrainian people for a very long time. He didn’t just come out of nowhere when he was the lead on Servant of the People.
Absolutely. In 2003 he broke with the Russian based improv comedy league that he was part of in a moment that really, I think, demonstrated loyalty as a personal value. Because he was asked to stay on as a writer, but that would’ve meant that his teammates would not have stayed on with him. So, rather than advancing his own personal career at the expense of his group, he decided to start his own production company.
So, starting then Ukrainians who watched this type of television and who used Russian in their daily language, because most of Zelenskyy’s work was in the Russian language until recently, you know, knew him from watching television. Studio Kvartal 95 would go on tour. They would travel throughout Ukraine. They would go to vacation destinations like in Turkey where Ukrainians would be on vacation, attend these shows, and then these shows were televised. So, there were lots of opportunities for a certain part of Ukrainian society to encounter Zelenskyy and to feel that they knew him. He was not an unknown quantity when he ran for president. So, I think that’s important for us to keep in mind. I would say the so-called Western World is still discovering who he is.
But his loyalty, his integrity, his ideas, or his group’s ideas about Ukrainian political nationhood have been in the works for a long time. I kind of like to think about this as the pre-political work that Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and president, talked about as kind of preceding the change that happens in electoral politics.
The other thing though that I got from your article and your book was just how insightful Zelenskyy and his comic team were about explaining the realities of Ukrainian politics in a way that resonated with people. And there might not be a better scene for that than in Servant of the People when he’s surreptitiously recorded during a rant in his office. Can you just kind of explain the scene for people who maybe haven’t watched the actual television show and why it is that that resonated with the Ukrainian audience in particular?
Sure. So, first of all, this show is subtitled and available on Netflix. It’s probably one of the most accessible ways to engage with Zelenskyy’s work as a performer. Most of his other work has not been subtitled. So, the scene to which you’re referring is one of the opening scenes in this series where Zelenskyy is acting in the role of a high school history teacher named Vasily Goloborodko. Now I want to note as a sort of side note that the name of the history teacher is the name of a living Ukrainian poet from the Donbas who writes in Ukrainian and whose work was banned in the Soviet Union. He has a different patronymic, but there’s a clear reference here.
So, in the TV series, a supervisor has just barged into Zelenksy’s character’s history class to instruct the students to go set up for a coming election. Zelenksy’s character is frustrated that it’s the history class and not the math class that’s considered expendable. That he and his students are being made to participate in a charade of choice at the ballot box. So, part of his tirade is about the idea that Ukrainians are constantly having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Now we should note that the series was filmed in the Russian language. So, it’s targeted at the Ukrainian people that used that language and probably was exposed to this kind of pressure and practice.
We also should note that the scene can take place in a school, because like in the United States schools often serve as polling places. So, this is what the students were doing, they were setting up. I think this is something that’s important to keep in mind about the current war. When Russian missiles target schools, they’re destroying not only the infrastructure of education, they’re also destroying the infrastructure of democratic elections.
So, what’s remarkable is the fact that this scene really sets the stage to explain the type of politics that they’re dealing with. The fact that everyday people are being brought in to what you describe as political theater. There’s an interesting line in your book, Staging Democracy, where you explain what that is. You write, “Political theater can at once change what the state is and expand its reach in contemporary capitalism.” Can you just take a moment and explain what political theater is and why it describes the politics of a country like Ukraine?
So, political theater, as I use the term, refers to performances of democracy as staged by ruling political parties that are usually friendly to the Kremlin. So, these can be staged demonstrations or paid or pressured participation in elections. In the scene that we just described in Zelenskyy’s sitcom the students are just setting up for the election. They’re not doing anything so-called corrupt. They’re not manipulating the election. They’re just engaged. But it’s a clear reference to the constellation of practices in which students are often involved by their superiors.
The key part of political theater is that it’s very efficient and cheap because it uses existing hierarchies. Like the hierarchy that involves a school director, a teacher and students where students have other reasons to do what the teacher might ask them to do. So, if part of what they’re being asked to do is to go out on the town square and demonstrate for the president, they’ll do it, because their grades are at stake. So, this type of manipulation in political theater isn’t generally observable at the ballot box, because it’s really woven into everyday life. This has to do with the reach of the state, because people are getting pulled onto the stage by people that they know such as their boss at work, their kids’ teacher, or the village mayor.
So, the staging of democracy brings the state back in at the local level even if people might think that the state is weak otherwise. So, when we’re talking about elections in Ukraine before Russia’s full-scale war, people often use the word corruption to describe political theater. But I don’t think the concept corruption fully captures what’s going on and that’s why I wrote the book.
So, in your book and your article you also describe political theater as being important within a country like Russia. It’s shocking to think about the fact that you’ve got a democratic nation like Ukraine in an autocratic nation like Russia who have such close similarities. In the book you write, “Political theater and its underlying political economy cut across regime types.” How does political theater also describe autocratic regimes that don’t have democratic elections?
So, in the context of Russia, political theater is really the main way that the Kremlin governs. We see currently a turn toward more use of violence and sort of traditionally autocratic, repressive measures. But the main way in which the current government has been constantly reelected is by using these same tools. The difference in Russia, of course, is that elections aren’t competitive and there’s only one stage and just one play. Increasingly, it’s getting very difficult for people to leave the theater if they don’t want to participate.
So, in Ukraine Kremlin leaning political parties would use political theater to mobilize their constituencies even as elections remained competitive. But in both countries, the mechanisms that pulled people onto the stage were really very similar. They’re all about local state and economic elites using economic leverage they have over people to persuade them or pressure them to vote or behave in certain ways. If we look at Russia at the start of Russia’s full scale war against Ukraine, I heard the same thing over and over again from people in Russia. ‘I’m against the war, but if I speak out, I’ll lose my job. And if I lose my job, that won’t change the situation. So, I’ll stay silent.’ Even despite the presence of a strongly articulated state ideology, an economic logic prevails in people’s everyday actions.
It’s fascinating, because some of the criticism about Ukraine is oftentimes drawn from the idea that there’s some similarities with Russia. And sometimes the similarities that you’re describing about dramaturgy within elections is seen as a reason to just assume that Ukraine’s not democratic. In some ways, there are aspects of it that are undemocratic, but you’re actually saying that this phenomenon isn’t really about democracy and authoritarianism. I mean, it’s almost like a separate phenomenon entirely that then interacts with our political systems in different ways. It’s just a fascinating perspective to be able to take on politics that can cut across, not just between Russian and Ukraine, but other places as well.
I think that’s a fair and even great way to put it. I think also that it’s important to keep in mind that in the context of Ukraine, the political parties that tended to use political theater were political parties that had a close relationship with the Kremlin. So, even while this type of dramaturgy can be used in democratic systems, its origins appear to be in some way anchored in what many people regard as some form of authoritarian systems. So, it’s disruptive. Political theater disrupts democracy. It was used in Ukraine over many electoral cycles by different politicians. I’m not sure that we should think about it as a phenomenon that’s proper to Ukraine or that would be present in Ukraine absent Russian influence.
That’s fair. But at the same time, in the book, you do make some implications that we can see aspects of it even within the United States. And while maybe we could argue that there’s some Russian influence in the United States due to the 2016 elections, I don’t think that we would say that it’s a pervasive influence within the United States. I mean, it’d be a very minor one in the grand scheme of things within American political traditions. Yet we’re still seeing some aspects of it.
I think what’s key to remember here is that the tools of political theater are portable. They can be used anytime politicians manage to politicize state bureaucracies. So, the announced plan by the 45th president, should he be reelected as president, to fully politicize the federal bureaucracy… That is to say, to use tests of loyalty to determine whether civil servants can continue to serve is an example of this. The politicization of the state in this way and the mobilization of people using economic incentives at the local level can happen anywhere that people have something to lose such as where social safety nets can be politicized and where there’s some degree of precarity. So, I think this is one reason why we need to be on guard against the possibility of its use.
So, I want to bring Zelenskyy back into the conversation. In the article you wrote, “Paradoxically, Zelenskyy, master of onstage communication, took theater out of Ukrainian electoral politics.” Now, I don’t want to jump all the way to the moment when he gets elected to president, but you implied that he was already doing that when he was just a comedian. He was doing that through his television show, Servant of the People. How is it that he was able to use comedy in a way to be able to break down the sense of drama within Ukrainian politics?
That’s a great question. So, there are a couple of elements here. The first is that Zelenskyy ran a basically internet-based campaign for president. So, although I’m sure if we look, we could find examples of people receiving something, by and large his campaign did not rely upon pressure or economic incentives to get people to turn out in my understanding. So that’s the first thing. So, he took the dramaturgy out of Ukrainian electoral politics in the sense that he didn’t try to compel people onto his stage to vote for him. People have showed up to vote for him, because they were really tired of the status quo and they wanted something new and Zelenskyy offered that possibility.
But secondly, I would also say that in moving his campaign to the internet Zelenskyy changed the place where politics happens. So, in changing the location of politics, he engaged a whole different set of people and brought a lot of people into the political process who might have thought about it differently in other contexts.
So, it’s easy to think of Ukrainian politics as being very bifurcated before we get to the war. And a lot of the research that you did was done in the east of Ukraine and particularly among people who supported the Party of Regions. So, I think that there’s an assumption that with the bifurcated nature of Ukrainian politics before the war that politics was very different between those who supported the Party of Regions and those who supported a more Western leaning type of politics. But during the debate when Zelenskyy was facing off with the current president Poroshenko, he had a famous line. He said in the debate, “Mr. Poroshenko, I am not your opponent. I am your verdict.”
So, I think when he says that he’s not just referring to somebody who’d be like a Yanukovych type president who was very corrupt and left office after the Revolution of Dignity. I mean, he seems to be referring to almost the entire political class within Ukraine. Am I understanding that right?
I think so. In that debate, Zelenskyy also said, ‘I came here to break this system,’ and I think that he positioned himself as an anti-systemic candidate, as a person outside the regular practice of politics in Ukraine, as a person outside of political machines and political theater. So, while I think that I agree with that interpretation, I think it’s worth noting that this sort of supposed divide between Eastern and Western Ukraine, this trope, I think, confuses and confused ethnic identity with opportunities for the conduct of political theater.
Western Ukraine, which in elections prior to Russia’s invasions, tended to favor candidates who were sort of so-called Western leaning, who typically spoke Ukrainian, who were pro-EU and so on and so forth. Whereas people in the East and South of Ukraine often supported candidates who seem to be leaning toward the Kremlin. A lot of times that was interpreted as an identity-based divide. But I think what happened in Ukrainian politics after 2014, sort of gives lie to that interpretation.
I think that a lot of what was happening in the East and South of Ukraine prior to Russia’s invasions was that the opportunities to bring people onto this stage were simply much more numerous in Party of Region’s territories. There were company towns. People worked in industry, in large scale agriculture, a lot of educational institutions, and large hospitals. The opportunities were present in those regions of Ukraine for pressuring people. So, I don’t know that we can interpret Ukrainian’s behavior at the ballot box prior to 2014 in the regions that composed the East and South of Ukraine as ideological support for Russian-leaning candidates. I think there were other things going on there like economic things.
Frankly, it’s one of the reasons why the Kremlin was surprised that they were not greeted with flowers. Because this interpretation of the East and South of Ukraine as somehow supporting Russia, in Russia was seen as identity based. But I think a lot of this had to do with pressure and Ukrainians in the East and South of Ukraine as Zelenskyy knows and communicated were as patriotic as anywhere else in Ukraine.
So, Zelenskyy gets elected president and he gets elected not just because he is an outsider, but because Ukrainians really trust him. I mean, they believe him. Maybe not all Ukrainians, but a large enough number that it was able to really create some momentum for his campaign and propel him to the presidency. Now, he’s in office for a little while before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and during that period I didn’t get the impression of him as being just the hero that he ended up becoming. For Ukrainians who actually lived under that government and actually paid much closer attention, how did they view the performance of Zelenskyy in that period between his election and Russia’s full-scale invasion?
Great question. So, again, it depends on who you ask and what issue area we’re looking at. I think it is important that we remember that Zelenskyy has been a wartime president since the day he was inaugurated. It’s true that President Zelenskyy was more popular before he was elected and has been more popular since Russia’s full-scale war than he was in the period in between. He and his team are phenomenally competent in communication, but there is less agreement about their accomplishments in governance.
That said, before Russia started targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, many Ukrainians were pretty happy with the progress that the Zelenskyy administration had made, say, modernizing Ukraine’s roads which are a potent symbol of corruption everywhere where they’re in bad repair. So, his record was certainly mixed in the period between his election and the war, but in fairness to any politician in office in 2020 and 2021, the pandemic did not make this an easy period to navigate.
So how has Zelenskyy’s leadership surprised Ukrainians after Russia’s full scale invasion?
So, I think some people especially those who were skeptical about Zelenskyy to begin with were surprised by the fact that he stayed and by his leadership since. But I think others who may have followed him for longer may not have been surprised. So, as I mentioned before, in his previous career, Zelenskyy made choices that demonstrated both his loyalty to his team and his profound patriotism. So, it’s worth noting that he finished his career as a showman in 2019 with most of the same people with whom he started his career back in the 1990s. So, these were people like Yevgeniy Koshevoy and Elena Kravets among others. So, he was really a team player and not someone who advanced himself for himself.
Secondly, especially after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, but also much earlier, Zelenskyy was addressing Russia-Ukraine relationships in his comedy. So, even though some Ukrainians and some people in the West were skeptical about his patriotism, because he spoke and performed in Russian, his attachments to Ukraine as expressed from the stage were really quite clear.
Now, Jessica, we started out where you admitted that you’ve been following him on and off since the late 90s. What was your reaction to all this? How did you react when you found out that he was running for president and that he even won in such a large landslide? The how did you react when you saw him behaving like such a hero? I mean, are you surprised or did you expect this to happen all along as you saw events unfold?
I was not surprised that he stayed. No. I don’t want to portray myself as some sort of great fan of Zelenskyy the president in the context of policy. Because there are many policy areas in which I might think differently. However, in the context of Russia’s full-scale war, I think that the personal qualities that he demonstrated before the war started in 2014 and since its expansion were to be expected. I also think it’s important that we keep in mind that something else could have happened with a different president, with a different kind of person. A lot more of Ukraine could be temporarily occupied right now.
So, I think historical contingency is important to keep in mind here. I think it’s one of the reasons why Ukrainians are really united right now. Even those who may not have appreciated Zelenskyy’s approach to governance, understand perfectly well what would await them if Russia were to achieve its ends and appreciate that Zelenskyy has stayed and been present the whole time.
Let’s run the counterfactual. I don’t want to do anything extreme like Yanukovych in office. I mean, I think we know what would happen if he was president right now. But what about Poroshenko? I mean, he was elected shortly after the Revolution of Dignity. But a lot of people weren’t happy with him. I already read the quote that Zelenskyy said about him, you know, that I’m not your opponent. I’m your verdict. Do you think things would’ve been dramatically different if Poroshenko had won that election, if Zelenskyy had just chosen not to run or even if he’d somehow lost?
That’s a difficult question. Okay. Two things. First that, you know, Poroshenko’s Presidency did seem like a continuation of the status quo for a lot of Ukrainians which is what Zelenskyy meant, I think, by I’m your verdict. That people were just not happy with the way things were going. Would things have been dramatically different? That’s a little hard to say without being able to see inside the minds of those running things in the Kremlin. It is perfectly clear that this war, the full-scale war, was not planned yesterday. At the same time, I think it’s also clear that there are aspects of Zelenskyy’s vision of Ukrainian identity that are particularly threatening to the Kremlin. I mean, others have talked about the idea of having a democracy next door as threatening. But I think it’s actually more than that.
Zelenskyy showed Russian speaking Ukrainians a way to be Patriots of Ukraine. His emphasis on a civic identity as expressed in the Ukrainian constitution, so not a new idea, but his emphasis on including all Ukrainians and on Ukraine as a political nation. The opposite of what the Kremlin is saying Zelenskyy is promoting. But the idea of Ukraine as a political nation is threatening to an imperial world view.
I love how you brought up how Zelenskyy has made Ukrainians think differently about themselves as a single people. Can you help explain how he did that? Is it just through his person, like who he is? Is it through words that he’s given? Is it through actions or policies? How has he actually achieved that?
So, I think there are a lot of different ways in which he does that. But one of the things, if you look at the ways Zelenskyy addresses his compatriots and we see this in his evening video broadcasts, in his speeches, and in his interviews abroad. His emphasis is always on his compatriots and not on himself. I wrote in the article that he uses Homeric epithets to address his compatriots. He encourages people to see the best in themselves, not the best in him. You might remember back on January 22nd, Zelenskyy somewhat controversially, from an American perspective, describes himself as quote the president of a great power.
Now, I think Zelenskyy might have been referring to a poem and patriotic song from 2014 ‘We will never be brothers’ whose last lines described Russia as huge, but Ukrainians as great. But I think the point here is that Zelenskyy encourages Ukrainians to see what they’re capable of. That they’re the most daring that they are strong. You know, that’s real leadership. His focus is on other people, not on him.
So, Jessica, what really struck me about your piece was how important Zelenskyy has been. I mean, in a lot of ways he is changing the way Ukraine’s politics operate. But it begs the question whether or not it’, Zelenskyy that’s driving this, if he is the key cog to be able to make a change in the politics in Ukraine or whether he’s fundamentally changed the system itself. So, who knows who’s going to follow him as the next president. But I do wonder how you imagine that Zelenskyy’s successor will govern. Do you think that they’ll just revert back to old forms or do you think that Zelenskyy made that impossible and that he’s established something that future leaders are going to have to follow after him?
Great question. So, I think something that both leaders in the West and the Kremlin need to keep in mind is that Ukraine has a deep bench. I think Zelenskyy has set a standard and precedent for communication that future politicians in Ukraine will have to live up to. We should note that it’s not just Zelenskyy who’s communicating so successfully with the Ukrainian public. Other members of his administration, advisors; governors, and also politicians like Kharkiv mayor, Ihor Terekhov, are publicly behaving in ways that are different in Ukrainian politics. I don’t think Ukrainians are going to be willing to go back.
Now, of course, what people in Ukraine in future generations, and there will be future generations not withstanding Russia’s war with its organized mass deportations and rape and so what Ukrainians and future generations will remember about Zelenskyy in this period could end up depending on whether countries in Europe and North America put their money where their mouth is to support Ukrainians fight for their existence as a country. If the Kremlin were to achieve its aims, we know that Russia will rewrite the history of this war including Zelenskyy’s role in it.
For example, already there have been unconfirmed reports out of parts of Kharkiv region and other temporarily occupied territories that Russian forces are pulling a “Man in the High Tower” move. When they move in, they cut off communication with the outside world and tell Ukrainians that Russia has won the war. That their city or all of Ukraine has fallen or have been divided up. So, it’s not just the present, but also the future of the past that’s at stake here.
Well, Jessica, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to give a plug one more time for your book, Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond. It’s really something that anybody who wants to understand politics in Ukraine and Russia should probably read right now and there’s so much interest in that region at the moment. It’s just one of those books that should be on everybody’s list. And then, of course, the article that you wrote as well, “How’s Zelensky has changed Ukraine.” I thought that that was just the perfect coda for the book that you wrote. I think that they complement each other and they help explain how things are evolving within the region as well. So, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for writing those pieces.
Thank you, Justin, so much for this opportunity to talk about Ukraine.
Learn more about Jessica Pisano
“How Zelensky Changed Ukraine” by Jessica Pisano in the Journal of Democracy
Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond by Jessica Pisano
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