Servant of the People
Bankova Street, Kyiv
February 26, 2022
I’m here.—V olodymyr Zelenskiy
One winter evening, I walked up Hrushevskoho toward a row of government buildings. The Kyiv street is named after Mykhailo Hrushevsky, a historian whose bearded visage appears on Ukraine’s fifty-hryvnia note. Hrushevsky was head of the Central Rsada, the 1917–1918 parliament that proclaimed Ukraine’s independence from Bolshevik Russia, and he was a revered patriot and intellectual.
Subsequent Ukrainian leaders did not always match up to the saintly Hrushevsky. During the years following the country’s modern independence, the whiff of scandal was never far away. The accusation, inevitably, was corruption. And in the case of the gangster-like Yanukovych—who was caught cheating in the 2004 presidential election and who returned as president in 2010—selling out to Moscow.
There were other structural issues characteristic of post-Soviet states. Ukraine’s oligarchs were so powerful, so unbudgeable, they constituted a permanent shadow government. The courts, prosecutor’s office, and anti-corruption bureau were susceptible to political influence. The culture of paying bribes was entrenched. Large private fortunes were hidden offshore.Reform was elusive.
I passed the Verkhovna Rada, the Supreme Council or parliament, and stopped at number 5. It was a damp, cold, foggy day in late January. I showed my passport to a policeman in a dark blue uniform and entered through an ornamental gate. There was a formal garden with a sweeping view over the black Dnipro, and on the left, a turquoise neoclassical palace stood, brightly lit.
This was the Mariinskyi, the Ukrainian president’s official residence, constructed in the eighteenth century for the tsar, and subsequently used by governors and as a museum.
I had come to see the palace’s latest incumbent, who had been elected in a landslide nearly two years previously. With the threat of invasion hanging in the air, the president’s press team had invited a group of foreign journalists for a briefing. Aides escorted us down a long corridor into a ceremonial reception room, decorated in French empire style with a lozenge-pattern floor. There was no lectern; a chair had been placed informally on a dais in front of blue-and-yellow flags.
Exactly on time the president walked in. Of medium height, five feet five inches, perhaps, boyish looking, he was dressed in a black suit and tie with a white shirt. The cameras clicked. Three days earlier, he had celebrated his forty-fourth birthday. He arrived with a self-deprecating remark. At the time, Covid was racing around Kyiv. “Can I be without mask?” he asked his audience in English.
He nodded, gave us a ceremonial mini bow, and sat down with an “Oof.”
Enter Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
I half expected him to remove a bicycle clip from his right ankle. Or to leap onto a stage and do a small theatrical kick in the air. This, of course, was the real president. But close-up it was hard to distinguish him from his alter ego, Vasiliy Petrovych Holoborodko, the fictional president from the hit Ukrainian TV comedy series Servant of the People
. Holoborodko had done all of these things and more.
Where, I wondered, did Holoborodko end and Zelenskiy begin?
Between 2015 and 2019, Zelenskiy had played Holoborodko on the nation’s TV sets. The actor was already well known as a versatile comedian and performer. He appeared in the popular show Vecherniy Kvartal
, or Evening Quarter
, and in 2006 won his country’s version of Dancing with the Stars
. Servant of the People
made him a household name. Zelenskiy’s character is a secondary-school history teacher who one day rants about impunity and misrule, themes familiar to every Ukrainian. A student secretly films Holoborodko’s classroom outburst, and the clip goes viral online.
Holoborodko stands reluctantly for election after his students crowdfund his entry fee. He wins. As president, Holoborodko is a self-effacing everyman, a genuine and likable guy, unspoiled by fame. He cycles to work, turns up for his inauguration in a taxi, and squabbles with his ex-wife and his family. In office, he is decent and true to himself, an outsider and naif who unexpectedly finds himself bearing great responsibility.
Zelenskiy’s friends from Kvartal-95, the production studio he founded, wrote the script. It was a classic fairy tale, a sort of Cinderella with oligarchs. Some of it was shot at the Mezhihirya estate outside Kyiv, where Yanukovych built himself a lavish Swiss-style chalet, together with a replica galleon and private zoo. The show was genuinely funny, a collective tonic during a traumatic period of revolution and war in the Donbas.
In 2018, during season three, the show received a cosmic twist, as if penned by the same capricious postmodern gods who gave America and the rest of humankind Donald J. Trump.
Zelenskiy announced he was going to run for president. Actual president— as in, doing the job for real. He registered Servant of the People
as a political party. When I arrived in Kyiv in March 2019 on a study trip with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Zelenskiy was leading in the polls. I met his campaign team in a modern office in the Pechersk district, close to the United Arab Emirates embassy. They were agreeable, new faces. About politics they knew little.
Like Vasily Petrovych, Zelenskiy wished to clean up public life. His campaign chief, Ivan Bakanov—later the head of the SBU intelligence bureau—said the candidate wanted to turn Ukraine from a “monster state” into a “service state.” That meant repatriating offshore wealth and canceling immunity from prosecution for politicians.
On Russia, Bakanov admitted that Ukraine had an “existential problem.” “We are the victim of bullying,” he told me. Zelenskiy’s solution was to sit down with Putin. As president, he would end the grinding war in the east with Moscow. This peace message worked. In the spring 2019 election, Zelenskiy trounced sitting president Petro Poroshenko, winning 73 percent of the vote.
That was the high point.
Zelenskiy hoped Putin might be appeased. In his first months in office Zelenskiy refused to call the Russian president an aggressor. His new government toyed with the idea of offering possible concessions to Moscow. One was the resumption of the supply of water from southern Ukraine to occupied Crimea, which was stopped when Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.
This appeasement strategy bore a few results. There were prisoner exchanges in late 2019 and a series of short-lived cease-fires across the “line of control.” Ukrainian forces pulled back. But it gradually became apparent that de-escalation wasn’t really happening. Instead the Russian side accepted Zelenskiy’s concessions and carried on shooting. More Ukrainian soldiers died.
Meanwhile, attitudes in Moscow toward Zelenskiy were beginning to harden. There was frustration that he would not yield to Russian demands in the Minsk agreements—the negotiating process between the two countries, which began in 2014, guaranteed by France and Germany. Putin demanded political recognition of the Donbas separatist enclaves, followed by the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and a cease-fire; Zelenskiy wanted the reverse sequence.
In the face of hardball tactics Zelenskiy took a tougher anti-Kremlin stance. In February 2021—weeks before Putin’s fateful Siberian holiday with Shoigu—Ukraine’s national security council closed down three TV channels controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, an influential pro-Kremlin politician and oligarch. The TV stations were broadcasting Russian propaganda, the council said.
Medvedchuk was a Kremlin interlocutor and the most important leader for Russia within Ukraine. Putin viewed the shutdown as a “personal insult,” Oleg Voloshin, a deputy from Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform party, told me. Putin was godfather to the oligarch’s younger daughter. The authorities put Medvedchuk under house arrest and charged him with treason.
The Russian government decided that contact with Zelenskiy was pointless. “There is a deep conviction that Zelenskiy is a guy whom it doesn’t make sense to try to discuss things politically,” Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst whom I had known in Moscow, said. Ex-president Medvedev added that Russia had to negotiate directly with the “suzerain”—that is, with Washington.
By the time of our Mariinskyi Palace briefing, reality and comedy drama had parted company. Accommodation with the Russians had proved impossible, a naïve plotline that didn’t land in real life. Zelenskiy was facing a geopolitical crisis. It was darker and scarier than anything his TV collaborators might have dreamed up. Many of them, though, had gone from show business into senior government posts.
In the weeks leading up to February 24, 2022, questions swirled about Zelenskiy’s political judgment.
In the face of Russian aggression, the international community had shown solidarity with Ukraine. This support went beyond the rhetorical. The United States, the United Kingdom, and others were sending defensive arms to Kyiv, lots of them, flown in to Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv by cargo aircraft. The Western allies had also raised the political stakes with Putin. The Biden administration had warned of massive consequences; should Moscow launch a full-scale attack, there would be unprecedented sanctions.
Zelenskiy, however, disagreed with Washington about the nature of the Russian threat. It was not a falling out as such but a difference of opinion. His response irked U.S. officials and undermined Western efforts in the face of a looming disaster.
The facts were these: some 120,000 Russian troops had massed on Ukraine’s borders. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the buildup as bigger “than anything we’ve seen in recent memory.” He pointed to “ground maneuver forces, ballistic missiles, and air forces”—all “packaged together” to unleash destruction on Ukraine. If the operation went ahead, there would be heavy casualties in urban areas, Milley predicted.
The White House believed these Russian tactical battalion groups to be a potential invasion force. A Russian attack was “distinctly possible,” Biden said. Some of the United States’ European allies agreed, though France and Germany were more skeptical. So was the Anglo-American far left, which pointed to inaccurate claims made by Western intelligence in 2002 and 2003 about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Kremlin, meanwhile, said it did not plan to invade Ukraine. It dismissed Pentagon assessments as hysteria.
Zelenskiy acknowledged a large-scale war might happen at any time. But he did not think the recent buildup was different from the tensions that had persisted since 2014. Speaking that January inside the palace, he described the Russian threat as “constant”— an eight-year war pursued against Ukraine and Europe. Ukrainian intelligence sources said Russia was piling pressure on Kyiv, for sure. But they viewed the latest Russian troop movements as part of a longer-term strategy to destabilize Ukraine and its internal politics.
Hyping the likelihood of attack ultimately served Moscow’s interests, Zelenskiy said. It caused panic, depressed the economy, spooked foreign investors, and ran down the country’s currency and gold reserves. Why, he wanted to know, should Ukraine suffer and its “cynical” neighbor be rewarded?
The president, it was evident, had been stung by critics on social media who had compared his Panglossian attitude to the Netflix drama Don’t Look Up
. “We are looking up. We do understand what is happening,” he told the assembled press. He added: “Yes, it may happen unfortunately. But you have to feel the pulse on a day-to-day basis.” In the same way Biden had a better grasp of D.C., he understood the mood in Kyiv, Zelenskiy said.
One area of friction was the exodus of Western diplomats from the capital. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom had moved some staffers and their families to the western city of Lviv, five hundred kilometers away and close to the Polish border. They had suspended consular services. The diplomats had been relocated for safety reasons, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. In other words, to avoid being bombed by Russia.
It was my turn to ask Zelenskiy a question. I wondered what he made of the Western diplomatic pullout from Kyiv. “Was this a mistake?”
The president agreed. “Yes, for us it was a mistake. I say this openly,” he replied. Zelenskiy said he wasn’t convinced by the argument that these were nonessential staff. Under these tense circumstances, everyone was essential. He pointed to the fact that the government in Athens had not pulled out its diplomats from Mariupol, a city with a Greek minority that was on the front line in the east with pro-Russian separatists.
“You can hear the cannon firing. The Greeks didn’t take anyone away. This is such an important message.” He stressed: “Everyone sees how Biden and the U.S. reacts. These are the captains of the diplomatic corps. The captains should not be leaving the ship. I don’t think we have a Titanic here.”
There was a murmur of relief among the reporters. The Titanic
line was headline worthy. Zelenskiy left, surrounded by bodyguards who looked remarkably like their counterparts in Servant of the People
In those fateful last weeks before the invasion, was Ukraine the Titanic
, steaming inexorably toward a Russian iceberg? Or, in fact, was Russia the giant hubristic ship, headed for a nasty surprise?
Copyright © 2022 by Luke Harding. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.