When Satire Becomes Propaganda

Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Zelensky

A political outsider who campaigned on an anti-corruption message and no solid policies has won a landslide victory to become the president of Ukraine. This describes both the real life election of Volodymyr Zelensky and the fictional one of the character he plays, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, in the comedy series Servant of the People.

The first episode of the series sees a video of Vasyl ranting at the corrupt political elite go viral, leading him to decide to run for president and win. It became one of the most popular TV series ever in Ukraine, and Zelensky announced his real life candidacy just under 4 years later. Having watched the first few episodes, there are some uncanny similarities.

In the show, Vasyl did no campaigning other than his viral video. He was elected only on his anti-corruption and anti-political class rhetoric. In real life, Zelensky ran with no concrete policy proposals, or even vague ones. He used the same message as the show: politicians are corrupt so you should elect an ordinary person.

It does seem to be a very good satire of Ukrainian politics. Ukraine ranks 120th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption perceptions index (180th being the most corrupt). The first episode opens on 3 oligarchs discussing who they are going to make the next president. The show goes on to show Vasyl fighting the corrupt system from the inside and places the oligarchs as the show’s villains. At the time, brilliant satire. But watching it in 2019 after the election of Zelensky, it feels more like propaganda.

Zelensky relied almost solely on the popularity of the the show and his character to win the election. Maybe this would be okay if Vasyl mirrored Zelensky, but he doesn’t. To secure their place on the ballot, a presidential candidate must pay a deposit of 2.5 million hryvnias (around £72,500). In the show, Vasyl is in debt and achieves this through crowdfunding off the back of his viral video. In reality Zelensky is a millionaire, bankrolled by the owner of TV station 1+1 that broadcasts Servant of the People, exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. What’s the reason for his self imposed exile? He is avoiding facing corruption charges while he was heading Ukraine’s largest bank.

Now it must be said that both Zelensky and Kolomoisky have denied that there is any political link between them, and the the latter simply owns the television station the former happens to have a show on. However it has to be noted that Kolomoisky’s station signs Zelensky’s paychecks. And on the eve of the first round of votes, when political campaigning is banned, 1+1 dedicated an entire evening to Zelensky’s Servant of the People, his stand up, and his documentary about fellow actor turned president, Ronald Reagan.

1+1 sounds less like the channel that happens to show Zelensky’s work, and more like his personal propaganda network. In a scene in episode 2 of Servant of the People, the oligarchs commission background research on the new president. They can find no character flaws and conclude that he is “a saint”. There wouldn’t be a problem with this description in any other show, but when the actor playing the role uses the character’s popularity to get elected president, it stops being satirical and starts being propaganda.

Satirical comedy is meant to be wielded as a weapon against those in power by those who have none. Things get dangerous when it falls into the wrong hands. In my opinion, the most dangerous thing a politician can be is funny.

Just take a look at my own country, the UK. Two of the most divisive figures in modern politics, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, were helped to popularity by appearances on the satirical panel show Have I Got News for You. I myself remember watching them as a teenager and thinking “they’re quite funny, they don’t seem so bad”. I recently saw footage of hardline Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg making self-effacing jokes and found myself chuckling at them. It humanised him and I had to remind myself that I should judge his character on his reprehensible actions, not his sense of humour.

In America, Barack Obama appeared in various comedy sketches to cultivate an image of a down to earth and easy going man who you’d love to have a drink with. And he did this while authorising drone attacks that frequently killed innocent civilians. Trump appeared on SNL while campaigning for president in an attempt to humanise him. Even George Bush managed to use comedy to distract from his policies, although admittedly we were laughing at him.

I’m not saying that comedians should never run for office. Al Franken enjoyed a successful career as a politician, ignoring how it ended. He quit comedy shortly after announcing his candidacy for the United States senate. Eddie Izzard plans to run for Mayor of London in 2020, and has announced that he too will quit comedy before the campaign; he never really did political material anyway. But you shouldn’t use comedy, particularly satirical comedy, to campaign for office. People should be elected based on policies, not personality. It appears Zelensky has a lot of personality, and almost zero policies.

Maybe I’m being too skeptical. Maybe Zelensky truly shares the same ideas as his fictional counterpart. Maybe he will be a true servant of the people, not of the oligarchs he has so viciously satirised while accepting money from them. He certainly wasn’t elected on the popularity of his TV show alone. The populism and anti-political elite sentiment that drove the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump are certainly at play here. Perhaps Ukraine wasn’t so much electing a new politician as they were rejecting the old ones.

Even if the humour doesn’t always translate, Servant of the People was clearly a great piece of political satire. But with the movement of that satirist from outside of power to in it, it becomes propaganda. And with Zelensky showing no signs of leaving comedy behind, only time will tell just how dangerous it proves to be.