How Volodymyr Zelensky Became Ukraine’s Jewish Hero

April 26, 2022 | Ruth R. Wisse
About the author: Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

In the Jewish imagination, Ukrainians are best remembered as the brutish perpetrators of pogroms. In the Ukrainian imagination, Jews have often been seen as weak and unmanly, or conniving and disloyal. Yet today a Jewish comedian has become the leader of Ukraine as it faces a brutal enemy bent on the destruction of the Ukrainian nation. He has, moreover, become a hero for much of the free world in the process. Ruth R. Wisse—in an analysis of the many moral, geopolitical, historical, and literary dynamics at play—points to the fact that this is not the first time the two peoples have “found themselves on the same side of the barricades” in the struggle for the liberation of their respective nations:

In the 1950s, dissident national minorities throughout the Soviet Union, including Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, and Ukrainians, began the struggle to liberate themselves from Communist dictatorship. The state of Israel had been declared in 1948, and in tandem with those other subject nations, a movement to free Soviet Jewry demanded the right of Jews to emigrate to their national homeland. Natan Sharansky, of Donetsk in Ukraine, the most prominent of the refusenik Jews insisting on the right to emigrate, describes how much he had in common with Ukrainians who had been imprisoned, like him, for demanding their national freedom. As the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, Sharansky spearheaded the emigration of almost 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel. Jews and Ukrainians were fighting in a common cause.

Since Volodymyr Zelensky’s career as a comedian plays an important part in his political career, it is important to note how Ukrainian and Jewish politics merged in their humor. Folk traditions of Russians/Ukrainians and Jews, long since intertwined in food, song, and story, merged in their joking. Zelensky thus embodies a precious synthesis—with the caveat that should conditions change, political pressures could yet again drive them apart.

Of Zelensky’s life before being elected president, which included army service and law school, his work in professional comedy was critical in more than the obvious way of turning him into a celebrity. It came about in a country that was trying to define itself. Post-Soviet Ukraine had embraced democracy, but in the absence of an established political class or proven national institutions. The famous independence of Ukrainians that keeps them from serving a strongman like Vladimir Putin also allowed for catch-as-catch-can practices that won the country a reputation for massive “corruption.” In that social free-for-all, many ambitious youngsters went into media, and there—as in post–World War II America—many Jews chose comedy, where piebald identity can be an asset and short brainy guys are all the rage.

Moreover, Volodymyr was less an actor than part of a comedy team that created a show with a far from trivial title: Servant of the People. His program was not the domestic comedy of Friends or Seinfeld; it was social satire designed to show how government should be run by showing how it shouldn’t.

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