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Johnson and Zelenskiy: The contrasting fortunes of two political comics

World View: Zelenskiy rose astonishingly to meet a moment of grave crisis while Johnson proved himself to be a joker without substance

In the summer of 2019, Ukraine and the UK each elected a comic as leader. Boris Johnson had been mayor of London and an MP, but more than any fixed world view or political accomplishment – it was hard to discern either – he was best known for his buffoonery. Volodymyr Zelenskiy was the real thing – a career comedian whose only political experience, famously, was to have played a history teacher who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine in TV satire Servant of the People.

We know that historical change is the product of structures, cultures, the environment and other forces. But in their very different ways, Johnson and Zelenskiy remind us of how individual leaders can shape world events in lasting ways. When his sorry premiership ends next month, Johnson, thanks mainly to his role as figurehead of the Brexit movement, will leave office having had a dramatic effect on his country and its standing in the world. That is even more true of Zelenskiy, a figure of fun who became a global hero.

Their contrasting fortunes also tell us something about the collapse of the fence between entertainment and politics. Since the financial crisis, comic actors have scaled the higher reaches of politics in Iceland, Slovenia, Guatemala and Italy. Each came to power as an anti-establishment figure challenging the dominant political structures at a time when there wasn’t much to laugh about. Johnson’s trick was to pass himself off as a refreshing outsider in a system whose sclerotic ruling class he epitomised.

Behind the slapstick, Servant of the People... offered an alternative and gently subversive version of Ukrainian politics

In a political culture dominated by oligarchs and their money, Zelenskiy – born into a Russian-speaking Jewish family in a mining town in Ukraine’s southeast – was a more obvious antidote. And though he was a professional comic, he was always more serious-minded than Johnson. In his recent biography of the Ukrainian president, the journalist Serhii Rudenko portrays Zelenskiy as the driving force behind the artistic and commercial success of Kvartal 95, the comedy troupe whose members became household names in Ukraine and parts of Russia. While foreign coverage has focused on Kvartal’s broad sketches, there was a sharp, intelligent edge to its satire, which long before Zelenskiy showed any political ambitions was taking aim at Ukraine’s crony politics and the Putin regime in Moscow.


Behind the slapstick, Servant of the People, with its humble protagonist who disdains the trappings of power and simply wants to do well by the people, offered an alternative and gently subversive version of Ukrainian politics – one that Zelenskiy would repurpose for his presidential campaign.

The pandemic reduced the messy business of government down to one big, defining challenge. Johnson botched it

In power, Zelenskiy and Johnson both confronted world-historical crises, and their respective responses would seal their legacies. Johnson’s was the once-in-a-century pandemic, which required him to take unprecedented steps to restrict ordinary life while offering reassurance to a frightened public. His communications skills should have been the British government’s biggest asset. And for a man who always struggled to articulate any sense of what he wanted to achieve with his power – beyond holding on to it – the pandemic reduced the messy business of government down to one big, defining challenge. He botched it.

A House of Commons report found that Johnson made serious errors by flirting with the idea of herd immunity, convinced as he was that people would not accept lockdown and that attempting to suppress the virus was only delaying the inevitable. The result was “many thousands” of unavoidable deaths, the report found. When Johnson belatedly ordered a strict lockdown, he failed to abide by it. The fallout from illegal parties at Downing Street, for which he and others were fined by police, left him so badly damaged that it was only a matter of time before the next scandal brought him down.

Intuitive grasp

Zelenskiy faced an even bigger crisis, of course. At the beginning of this year, after almost three years in office, he was mired in recriminations over the slow pace of reform and stood accused of hypocrisy for having filled so many key positions will allies from his previous career. Russia’s invasion transformed him. His bravery and resolve set the tone for Ukraine’s remarkable resistance. Using just a camera phone, he reassured his compatriots while shaming the West into rapid, co-ordinated action and making the Kremlin’s propaganda machine look like a clapped-out relic. Zelenskiy intuitively grasped the role he had to play and played it better than anyone.

In his final months in office, Johnson aligned himself closely with Zelenskiy. It became a running joke in London: whenever he had bad headlines at home, the British prime minister would pick up the phone to Kyiv. But it was not necessarily a flattering parallel: Zelenskiy’s moral stature, his ability to rise to the moment, showed up Johnson’s shortcomings.

In the postmortems of his time in Downing Street, Johnson’s rise has been described as a cautionary tale about what happens when the lines between politics and entertainment are blurred. But the problem wasn’t that Johnson was a joker; it was that his character flaws – his contempt for truth, his lack of compassion, his organisational ineptitude, his changeable convictions – made him wildly unsuited to high office. When the joke wore thin, it turned out the joke was all there was.