THE REAL WORLD  - UKRAINE

Next



UKRAINE’S POLITICAL REALITY SHOW

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “is starring in a reality show that is very different from the program running on the Donald Trump network,” Franklin Foer writes in an Atlantic essay. Freewheeling and attuned to public performance (he conducted a 14-hour press conference in a mall and urged officials accused of corruption to take polygraphs on a Facebook livestream), Zelensky nonetheless is committed to pushing Ukraine away from the personalized self-dealing to which Ukraine’s oligarchs are accustomed, and which they instantly recognized in President Trump. Detailing the relationships 

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani ( Rude Ghouliani)  has developed in Ukraine—including his reception of the keys to a Jewish enclave founded by a Hasidic rabbi—Foer depicts Zelensky’s team as perplexed by Giuliani’s advances. 

Serhiy Leshchenko, the investigative-journalist-turned-politician who produced the “black ledger” that purportedly showed off-the-books payments to Paul Manafort (which forced Manafort’s resignation from Trump’s campaign and is now the center of a conspiracy theory about Ukraine and 2016) was told flatly he couldn’t work in Zelensky’s administration, for fear of alienating the US, Foer writes. More ominously, Foer suggests that President T-RUMP  already proven susceptible by his ousting of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, can be manipulated by Ukraine’s oligarchs.

ENTER THE PRESIDENTS SCUMBAG PERSONAL LAWYER
Last May, in the weeks leading up to his presidential inauguration, Volodymyr Zelensky learned that a man named Rudy Giuliani wanted to meet with him. The name was only distantly familiar. But the former mayor of New York City was the personal attorney of the president of the United States, and he apparently wanted to make the case that certain investigations deserved the full attention of the new Ukrainian administration. Zelensky understood that it might be hard to say no.

Zelensky had won his country’s highest office despite having been a politician for little more than four months. Even as he prepared to assume the presidency, he remained a professional comedian and a fixture on television shows, including League of Laughter. Unsure of whether he should agree to meet Giuliani, Zelensky gathered advisers in the headquarters of his entertainment company.

As a film actor and sitcom star, Zelensky thrived in the role of the everyman, often playing the average guy who wins over the beautiful woman seemingly beyond his reach. His former offices, on the top floor of a middle-class apartment building, match the modest characters he liked to portray. Air-conditioning units bulge from the facade; their exposed wires crawl up the cement edifice like ivy. The wooden walls of a cramped elevator have been treated like a Basquiat canvas by vandals. Only upon arriving at the top floor does one confront a brushed-steel door, a metal detector, and the trappings of wealth. Zelensky wasn’t just an entertainer; he was also arguably the nation’s most successful producer.

During the campaign, experts would regularly visit the office to provide him with tutorials on corruption and the other mind-bending problems he promised to confront.  Zelensky did little to disguise his inexperience in these meetings, taking extensive notes on a pad of paper. When John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, met with Zelensky, he was struck by his seriousness. “He’s a very intent listener,” Herbst told me. “With his body language, he gave the sense that he was paying careful attention.” Zelensky would ask questions in an unmistakable basso profundo, which scrapes along the lowest registers. (His company’s website described his voice as “sexy.”) Only rarely did Zelensky reveal his own opinions in these sessions.

THE CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS BEGIN
Of the many subjects he struggled to understand over the months, Giuliani was among the most nettlesome. Since the late winter, the city’s elite had been aware of the mayor’s emissaries, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, whom he had dispatched to uncover incriminating material about Joe Biden and his son. The bumbling pair, who had won a meeting with the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, spoke a little too freely about their “secret mission.” But while Giuliani’s strip-club-going proxies could be dismissed, the arrival of President Trump’s lawyer himself was another matter.

Zelensky realized that he needed an American understanding of the situation confronting him, so he sought the advice of a former Obama-administration official named Amos Hochstein, who served on the board of supervisors for Ukraine’s state gas company. 

During a nearly three-hour session, Zelensky asked pointed questions; he found the mayor’s relationship with the president maddeningly unclear. Was Giuliani an official representative of the Trump administration or a freelance operator? Did Zelensky have a diplomatic obligation to meet with him? And why did Giuliani want to cause so much trouble for a presidency that hadn’t even begun?

Zelensky seemed to sense Giuliani’s capacity for troublemaking. Today, impeachment proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives are focused on a single question: Did the president of the United States attempt to extort the president of Ukraine?

Volodymyr Zelensky—slapstick practitioner, lovable protagonist of romantic comedies—always hoped his name would become ubiquitous. Representative Adam Schiff’s impeachment hearings made it so. For two weeks in November, American members of Congress talked about Zelensky with casual intimacy: They offered insights into his thinking; they expressed outrage on his behalf; and they bandied about his past statements, as if they could be sure of exactly what he’d meant.

If Zelensky was paying close attention to the hearings, he likely despised how the committee routinely described his nation as hopelessly corrupt. The corrupt part was fair enough—Zelensky won the presidency on a promise to dismantle the kleptocracy—but the hopeless part was not. Indeed, his victory embodied his nation’s faith that it might succeed where the rest of the formerly Soviet world has failed. Rather than voting to return a dull oligarch to the presidency, the Ukrainian people handed power to a pro-European Russophone Jewish populist. 

After decades of polarized elections, his landslide victory was itself an act of reconciliation.

RELATED STORIES OF A COUNTRY T-RUMP WILL INJECT HIS SICK PHILOSOPHIES
Until the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States served as both Ukraine’s protector and its ethical conscience. In the years after the Iraq War, amid a global turn toward illiberalism, Ukraine was perhaps the place where American idealism burned brightest. Under the pressure of the State Department, and prodded by a restless and dissatisfied public, the Ukrainian government fitfully traveled in the democratic direction that Washington guided it in.

Donald Trump has gravely threatened this trajectory. Where American diplomats once attempted to inject morality into Ukrainian politics—and introduce the ideas of neutral governance and judicial impartiality—Trump polluted Ukraine with his own transactional politics. He dangled much-needed (and congressionally approved) military aid just out of reach, available only if the Ukrainian president abetted his plans to smear a political rival. He reinforced corrupt tendencies and practices that the United States had long tried to bury. These practices are why Congress is considering his impeachment.

All of the witnesses who sat down to testify at the impeachment proceedings introduced themselves with an account of their life story. They talked about their upbringings and their careers. They explained how everything they were about to reveal to the committee was, in fact, the culmination of their experience. Even though Volodymyr Zelensky never appeared before the committee, his biography is worth recounting too. It can be told as a parable of his country, and how Donald T-RUMP has imperiled democracy.

ZELENSKY SHARES REALITY SHOW INTELLECT WITH T-RUMP
To narrate Volodymyr Zelensky’s ascent is to slip into the plot of a postmodern novel that mocks the distinction between reality and entertainment.  There is, remarkably, a fictional version of Zelensky’s rise, the one he tells in Servant of the People, the sitcom in which his character unexpectedly becomes the president of Ukraine. 

He plays a teacher lifted from obscurity after a student surreptitiously records him ranting about the prevalence of corruption and his vituperative monologue goes viral. Against all expectations, and despite the fact that he doesn’t campaign for the job, the teacher is elected president. Because he doesn’t trust stalwarts of the old ruling class, he surrounds himself with his oldest friends, appointing inexperienced chums to the most important posts in his government.  

Zelensky was elected president with no previous political experience. Before that, he played a television character who was elected president with no previous political experience. 

Art was tracking life: Many of the actors who played these chums turned functionaries were Zelensky’s old friends. Since the 1990s, they had been the core of his comedy troupe, and some were his classmates before that. When Zelensky won the presidency, life tracked art right back. Zelensky stayed true to the script of his show, installing his friends—his original writing partners, the head of his production company, and his lawyer—in the highest positions in his administration.


SIDEKICKS BECOME ADMINISTRATION DARLINGS
One of his old friends—a schoolmate since sixth grade, a groomsman in his wedding, a comic sidekick—is Oleksandr Pikalov. As teens, they shared a pair of blue jeans that they would trade back and forth, so that they could take turns wearing them on dates. In Servant of the People, Pikalov portrays a henpecked lump of a low-ranking army officer, a nebbish who becomes the minister of defense. In real life, Pikalov wasn’t interested in joining the new administration.

When I first asked to talk with Pikalov about his friend, he hesitated. He said that a Russian had recently posed as an American journalist, presumably to squeeze him for compromising information from the good old days. Pikalov didn’t look like someone easily squeezed. He wore a baseball cap with sunglasses perched on the brim; a tattoo of a motorcycle on his bicep peeked out from below the sleeve of his form-fitting black T-shirt. As we spoke, he gripped a cigar that he never lit.

Pikalov and Zelensky grew up in the industrial bleakness that is Kryvyi Rih, an 80-mile strip of blast furnaces and pit heads. In summers, brownish-red exhaust would settle on the windshields of parked cars. Their youth overlapped with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pikalov told me that the crumbling of the all-powerful state uncorked an era of terrible violence. Gangs rampaged through the city. But Zelensky’s parents—his father is a computer-science professor, his mother an engineer—raised him in one of Kryvyi Rih’s better neighborhoods. 

His group of friends dissented from the violence, with their intellectual interests and sartorial choices. “Most of the young men in our city preferred track suits; we wore classy suits. We were the dandies of our city,” Pikalov told me. Zelensky liked to listen to English rock, and he played the guitar. One night he busked in an underpass. When he returned home, his guitar had been smashed in half. He told his friends, “I guess Kryvyi Rih isn’t ready for us yet.”

A COMEDIAN PLAYING A DANGEROUS GAME
One of the privileges of post-Soviet freedom that arrived during Zelensky’s adolescence was the right to make fun of politicians. A show on Russian television called KVN—an acronym that roughly translates to “The Club of the Funny and Inventive”—pitted teams from across the old USSR against one another in improv and sketch comedy. This format, which had originated on a hit show in the ’60s and was revived at the height of perestroika, captured Zelensky’s imagination. 

As a 17-year-old, he earned a spot on the Kryvyi Rih squad. In the mid-’90s, Zelensky, Pikalov, and their friends created their own troupe. They named it after a neighborhood in Kryvyi Rih, the 95th quarter—or Kvartal 95.

Zelensky’s comedic style is vulgar and adolescent. In one sketch, he pretends to play the piano with his penis.

Zelensky’s mother wasn’t terribly pleased with his pursuit of comedy. After visiting a rehearsal, she stealthily pulled Pikalov aside and said, “He’s going to be a lawyer … Isn’t he?” Television success didn’t translate into wealth, at least not initially. It took Zelensky years to parlay his fame into an entertainment empire of concert tours, films, and televised variety shows. Because his movies were in Russian, he profitably exported his work to much of the old Soviet empire.) In 2012, Forbes Ukraine reported his company’s income as $15 million. Zelensky was rich enough to purchase a 15-room villa in Tuscany (a property he neglected to declare during his presidential campaign.

In a BBC interview, Zelensky credited Monty Python as a primary comic influence, but he’s also said that his style is more Benny Hill. Vladislav Davidzon, the editor of The Odessa Review, told me, “His comedy was puerile, vulgar, and working-class—what the Russians call ‘bazaar humor.’” 

In one signature sketch, Zelensky pretends to play the piano with his penis. On the show Evening Kvartal, actors would impersonate politicians and oligarchs, who would sometimes bray for the cancellation of the program. (Zelensky should have been more sympathetic: According to Pikalov, he now gets annoyed by televised jokes made at his expense.) The most savvy politicians would invite satirists to play at elite gatherings, in an attempt to dull the comics’ bite. One oligarch told me that he watched Zelensky headline a birthday party for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president, who would later be ousted from power during a revolution in 2014.

That year, after Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Kvartal 95 cut its lucrative ties with the Russian market. “I don’t want to have anything in common with Russia,” Zelensky told a friend. The company donated 1 million hryvnia to the ragtag Ukrainian army—a contribution that earned him splenetic denunciations from politicians in Moscow. A year later, Zelensky began creating Servant of the People.

The new show exuded sincerity and idealism, but in retrospect it was a campaign announcement spread over three seasons. The series depicted a politician rising up against cartoonish oligarchs, who heap caviar on crackers and lift snifters of cognac. Only Zelensky’s ascetic character has the fortitude to resist their favors. The opening credits show him riding a bicycle to the office, a briefcase dangling from his hand. Servant of the People reflected the restlessness of a man who had reached the zenith of his industry but not his ambition. “He always liked serious challenges, and used to supply himself with greater and more serious challenges,” Pikalov told me. “But still, I thought mogul was his ceiling. I was wrong.”


STRANGE FRIENDS 
At the end of 2018, Zelensky caught the attention of an investigative journalist named Serhiy Leshchenko. Leshchenko had seen colleagues murdered in pursuit of their stories, but he kept on writing about the rot of the system. His best pieces were triumphs of obsessive reporting that revealed the ill-gotten wealth of the political elite. That same activist fervor had propelled him into politics, where he’d held a seat in Parliament until this spring.

In the summer of 2016, Leshchenko had briefly burst onto the American political scene. Just after Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination, Leshchenko called a press conference in Kyiv. Before a sea of reporters, he brandished pages from what came to be known as the Black Ledger. The book contained notations of furtive payments disbursed by the pro-Russian political party that had ruled until the Revolution of Dignity swept it from power in 2014. Among the transactions were apparent payments to Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Leshchenko presented what seemed like hard evidence of Manafort’s shady work in Ukraine, evidence that helped force Manafort’s resignation from the campaign and anticipated the charges of financial fraud that led to his conviction. By going after a member of the Trump campaign, Leshchenko became a favorite villain of the president’s loyalists. They insinuated that he had fabricated the documents, and reportedly considered ways to exact revenge.

Leshchenko, who has a black beard and Harry Potter glasses, tends to look like he’s just stepped out of a rave, his other passion. When I met him on my last trip to Kyiv, he arrived late to a café, dressed in a pink Carhartt T-shirt. The past few months had been a whirl of euphoria followed by disappointment, which he was eager to narrate.

He told me how he had first caught wind of Zelensky’s presidential ambitions, well before his campaign launched. Out of journalistic curiosity, Leshchenko had asked to meet the potential candidate, to get a sense of the man and his intentions. It’s hard to be more skeptical of politicians than Leshchenko is, and at first he wasn’t sure what to make of Zelensky. “He’s a little bit of an introvert. He’s not open for everybody, and he doesn’t reveal his mind during the early part of a meeting.” When Leshchenko talked about corruption, Zelensky didn’t know basic facts about the judicial system. “It was clear from the first meeting that he had limited knowledge,” he told me. Leshchenko saw an opening to shape Zelensky’s agenda, to mold him into a tribune of reform.

Zelensky gave Leshchenko his phone number, and Leshchenko discovered that Zelensky would respond to his WhatsApp messages as he prepared his young kids for school—Zelensky and his wife of 16 years have a daughter and a son. Leshchenko was drawn to Zelensky’s earnestness. The candidate’s inner circle, which included veteran comic writers, traded quips at an intoxicating speed when it convened campaign strategy sessions in the Kvartal office. After nearly five years of war, the entertainer seemed like a balm for a fractured country. As a Russian speaker, he could help soothe the eastern reaches of the country, alienated by the martial fervor of the West. Another reform-minded journalist, Nataliya Gumenuk, told me, “He was a populist, but without inciting the hatred of the Other.” Zelensky had the potential to rally the nation with an inclusive, liberal patriotism.

Leshchenko found himself drawn into the campaign, attending sensitive meetings with U.S. diplomats and officials from the World Bank. The alliance was symbiotic. Zelensky hoped that the imprimatur of the investigative journalist would bolster his own bona fides. Leshchenko told me, “Expectations were so low because people anticipated meeting a clown. And he’s not a clown.”

As I watched Zelensky rise from afar, I couldn’t quite believe that Ukraine would elect a Jewish vaudevillian as its president. My grandmother came from western Ukraine, and I grew up hearing bitter stories about the anti-Semitism of her neighbors. When I first visited the country, in 2002, her voice rattled around my head. I decided against announcing my Jewishness to my translator, although I struggled to fabricate fresh reasons to refuse the pork he kept ordering for me. During one of our meals, he confirmed the wisdom of my reticence by noting confidingly, “Stalin was a bastard to Ukraine because he was a Jew.” (Stalin was a bastard, but he was not a Jew.)


THE BIRTH OF THE ANATEVKA SETTLEMENT
I knew the worst about Ukraine’s past, but I also knew that Zelensky was running in a country transformed by two revolutions and a deep desire to join the European Union. I witnessed the new Ukraine on a visit to a settlement called Anatevka.  

Every American Jew (and show-tune aficionado of a certain age) is familiar with the name Anatevka. It’s the fictional locale where the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem set his cycle of stories about Tevye the Dairyman. With the Broadway and film version of these stories, Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye became a beloved folk philosopher and the somewhat kitschy symbol of the world that Jewry left behind.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, a Hassidic rabbi made it his mission to build the real version of that famous shtetl in the suburbs of Kyiv. It would house Jewish refugees from war-torn cities in the East. In the rabbi’s vision, the gathered exiles would reside in the manner of their ancestors. (As Tevye might say: Tradition!)

When I went to visit earlier this fall, the Uber driver turned off the highway at the Mary Kay cosmetics factory and pulled into a muddy driveway. An elderly security guard in a threadbare camouflage uniform with a wool collar stopped the car at a checkpoint that protects the village. My translator had called the rabbi in Kyiv to book a tour, but his office had declined my request, citing a recent experience with a rude American journalist. I went anyway, and the guard was so excited to show off Anatevka that he didn’t bother scrutinizing my presence. He led me past tall stacks of wood that would heat the shtetl through the coming winter. We crossed paths with young men with long beards and yarmulkes carrying boards to a construction site.

I asked the guard if he was Jewish. He shook his head. We were standing in the center of the village, a mud patch strewn with antique-looking lampposts and flaccid shrubs. His blue eyes moistened. “You should see this square just before Shabbat, when they turn on the lights. It’s so beautiful.” A boy on a bike sped in our direction, sidelocks and fringes flying behind him like ribbons. He skidded to a stop in front of the guard, who stroked the boy’s cheek with avuncular affection and said, “My favorite Jewish hooligan.”

Fact:   that Rudy Giuliani had become the shtetl’s honorary mayor earlier this year. In May, the Hassidic rabbi who founded the village presented Giuliani with an ornate key to it, and the pair shared celebratory cigars after the ceremony. Images from the occasion show Rudy resting his stogies next to a Fox News tote.

It will get crazier, guaranteed… the Ghoul will not only run the train off the tracks, it will fall into a large valley filled with molten lava  and finally hit by a five ton meteorite

06-07-2019 aljacobsladder.com