Zelinskiy the comedian shows our leaders how it’s done: with courage, empathy, improvisation

It is fitting that Ukraine is led by a Jewish comedian, says Irish comic Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan is thinking a lot about fellow comedian Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the moment. He remembers meeting Ukranian comedians in Odessa (the humour-capital of the former USSR and the third most populous city on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea) in August 2018. Is he providing the leadership needed in Britain and other countries in Europe? Peter lives in Hackney, London and works as a comedian all over Europe

“Why did you come here?” they asked. Traditionally a holiday destination for wealthy Russians, the locals in Odessa couldn’t understand why I’d decided to visit in summer 2018. The war in Crimea had curtailed tourism from the east and some Ukrainians were meeting Westerners for the first time.

At Arcadia Beach on the Black Sea, opulent open-air clubs were defined by their "oligarch chic" aesthetic – think Miami meets Stalingrad. The town centre was less gauche, with wide boulevards lined with Mediterranean architecture. It was here I stumbled upon a Russian language stand-up night in the back room of a pub, filled with curious young people.

Everyone I met in Ukraine was a creative, energetic young person. Today their dreams are in tatters, their lives in danger, their homes and businesses facing total destruction

I didn’t understand a word, but the host had just enough English to welcome me as I took my seat. The comics were mostly in their 20s. The audience listened intently, laughing intermittently or breaking into applause. When a heckler stormed the stage, the comedian handed over the mic and listened to the other man’s point of view.


The comedy appeared political, urgent, and funny. Afterwards the performers and I swapped details. It was inspiring to follow their adventures on social media as they toured around Ukraine putting on shows in theatres and bars, creating something wonderful from nothing. Equally, it's heartbreaking to think that the men and women in that room today will be either in hiding, or preparing to fight.

Everyone I met in Ukraine was a creative, energetic young person – bar owners, performers, IT professionals – making the most of their country’s transition from communism to liberalisation. Today their dreams are in tatters, their lives in danger, their homes and businesses facing total destruction.

There is a long tradition of satire in Ukraine, particularly among the Jewish community. Odessa had been considered the humour-capital of the old USSR, with many Jewish comedians in the US having emigrated from there to New York over a century ago. It is argued that the modern brand of neurotic Jewish-American comedy can be traced back to Ukraine.

It is notable then that in this dark moment in its history, the nation is being led by a Jewish comedian. Much has been made of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s dearth of political pedigree. As an actor, he played the lead in a Ukrainian TV show about a teacher who gets elected to the presidency. In a surreal case of life imitating art, Zelenskiy himself was voted in as the country’s president in 2019, vowing to take on corruption in the same way his television character had.

His courage has been a revelation. Reports suggest there are over 400 Russian mercenaries in Kiev with orders from the Kremlin to murder him. The comic epitomises his country's turn away from the stagnant cronyism of Moscow, so Vladimir Putin and his henchmen want him eliminated.

When the US offered to evacuate Zelenskiy from Kiev, he asked them for more ammunition

Yet, despite the risk to himself and his family, he has not fled. Instead he has become a symbol of defiance, his grim charisma helping to inspire the fierce resistance of Ukrainian troops. When the United States offered to evacuate him from Kiev, he asked them for more ammunition.

There could be a lesson in this. While Ukraine's novice leader has been inspirational, Europe's career politicians have largely dragged their heels and embarrassed themselves. Technocrat Mario Draghi has worked tirelessly to ensure exports of Italian luxury goods to Russia would not be jeopardised by sanctions, while Germany has made sure its supply of Russian oil and gas will not be interrupted.

Boris Johnson – who went to all the right schools, came from the right family, served as a member of parliament before becoming mayor of London – has not only failed to lead by example as Britain's prime minister during his country's lockdowns, but is currently under investigation by London's Metropolitan Police.

Perhaps the most striking contrast of all would be with Ashraf Ghani, the former president of Afghanistan. He'd been a darling of Western leaders, a man they felt they could do business with. He was cut from the right sort of cloth: highly educated, well-spoken, and a member of the same tribe as the old royal family. Last year the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of investigative media and journalists operating in Eastern Europe, listed him as one of the world's most corrupt politicians, in the same league as Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenko and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. When Taliban forces surrounded Kabul last year, he fled in a helicopter with a reported $169 million in cash (Ghani denies this).

As the conflict escalates, it is appalling to consider what horrors still await ordinary Ukrainians. The openness, optimism, and humour I was treated to there is incompatible with Putin’s view of the world. The invasion has only begun and the Russian president has already been accused of war crimes. By contrast, the heroism of Ukraine’s elected leader is unambiguous.

Being funny doesn’t necessarily imply foolishness. It does require balls, improvisation, and empathy with an audience. There is much the world’s politicians could learn from him.