Nicole Rifkin

The Betrayal of Volodymyr Zelensky

The surreal story of how a comedian who played the Ukrainian president on TV became the president in real life—then found himself at the center of an American political scandal

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.

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.

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 Trump has imperiled democracy.

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. (Aleksandr Gusev / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty)

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.

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.”

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 U.S.S.R. 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. (Sergii Kharchenko / NurPhoto / Getty)

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. (Here’s the YouTube footage, if that’s your thing.) 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.”

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.)

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.”

What drew my attention to Anatevka was the 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.

Rudy Giuliani tweeted this photograph in May. (Screenshot from Twitter)

All of this made me curious about the village—as did the bronze plaque on the door of Anatevka’s school, which thanks Giuliani’s collaborator Igor Fruman for his philanthropic support. But as I witnessed the guard’s tenderness toward the boy, my skepticism about the project melted. Beneath a gray sky, with the shambolic shtetl before me, I felt overwhelmed by the historic irony: A Ukrainian gentile was proudly protecting a Jewish village.

In the past few years, nearly every European nation has witnessed a surge of anti-Semitism. Ukraine, still home to at least 50,000 Jews, is the miraculous exception to this trend. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of Ukrainians reject Jews as their fellow citizens—the lowest number among the countries surveyed in the region. Although vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries persists—and the country has a weakness for venerating 20th-century heroes who instigated pogroms—there hasn’t been a single anti-Semitic assault reported in the country since August 2016. (If only New York City could say the same.) A researcher named Vyacheslav Likhachev told me that surveys show that Ukrainian parents would be pleased if their daughters married Jewish men, because Jews are identified with devotion to family.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine cemented this new philo-Semitism. The Kremlin’s tactics didn’t consist just of storm troopers and militias. Propaganda depicted Ukrainians as neo-Nazis. “There was a steady drumbeat from Russia that a fascist junta was taking over,” according to Sam Sokol, the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews. In the face of this slander, Ukrainians self-consciously set out to debunk the charge. “Anti-Semitism dropped sharply after the Russian invasion,” Likhachev told me. Ultra-nationalist political parties, which the Russians portrayed as dominant, performed terribly in the subsequent elections.

Still, Zelensky is a child of the Soviet Union, which attempted to bury Jewish history, and he has rarely focused publicly on his own religious identity. His wife, a schoolmate from Kryvyi Rih, is a gentile. According to press reports, their children have been baptized. When he portrayed Jews in his comic sketches, the humor often carried an atavistic edge. He once dressed in a yarmulke and wire-rimmed glasses while finagling his way out of paying bills. Mocking a Jewish oligarch, he spoke in a stereotypical accent that Jackie Mason might consider a touch too thick.

Zelensky hardly speaks of his ethnicity, but Ukrainians are well aware of it—and that awareness has done nothing to hinder their attachment to him. During the presidential campaign, critics charged him with drug use and called him a Russian stooge. But there was no discernable hint of anti-Semitism in his rivals’ attacks. Despite all the tragedy that has transpired on Ukrainian soil, Zelensky won with 73 percent of the vote.

Still, Anatevka’s fairy-tale ending comes with a foreboding coda. A monument honoring Tevye’s creator, Sholem Aleichem, stands across from the Brodsky synagogue, in Kyiv. Soon after I left the country this fall, vandals spray-painted red swastikas on the statue’s belly and one of its legs, the marks of a disease that can’t be eradicated and might violently flare again. Ukraine’s fitful journey toward liberalism suggests that even seemingly decisive victories are tenuous, easily undone by the forces lurking within.

Four days before Zelensky’s inauguration, the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky boarded a private jet. The fourth-richest man in Ukraine—a figure both accused of ordering contract killings (which he denies) and hailed for fending off Vladimir Putin—was returning home from self-imposed exile in Israel to the city of Dnipro. The plane descended toward a skyline dominated by Kolomoisky’s monumental construction, the Menorah Center, seven marble-and-glass buildings in the shape of a candelabra: the largest Jewish community center in the world. Before returning to his native city, he told reporters that he “will not be the shadow leader of the country and the gray cardinal.” It was the sort of denial that suggestively implies everything it ostensibly refutes.

Kolomoisky’s return was triumphant, but his exit had been ignominious. The government had nationalized the bank he’d founded after discovering a $5.6 billion hole in its ledgers. Investigators reported that the bank had fraudulently loaned Kolomoisky and his business partner massive sums (both men deny this). A court in London froze $2 billion of their assets. When Kolomoisky departed Ukraine, he said he feared that the government would “invent” a criminal case against him.

But with the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, Kolomoisky had every reason to believe that his most lucrative days in the country were ahead of him. The Zelensky presidency likely never would have happened without Kolomoisky’s not-so-hidden hand. It was Kolomoisky’s television network that broadcast Kvartal’s programs, including Servant of the People. And it was Kolomoisky’s network that touted Zelensky’s candidacy in its news coverage. Over the course of the campaign, Zelensky reportedly visited Israel and Switzerland 13 times, places where Kolomoisky happened to have homes.

The oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky is known by the nickname Benya, a reference to a cartoon lion with a fluffy mane. (Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters)

Despite Kolomoisky’s wealth, he books appointments with reporters himself, via WhatsApp. When I asked for an interview, he kept texting his willingness to see me, but never set a time and place. As I waited for him, I studied the lore that shrouded the man. Before his exile, his office had featured a shark tank. He would entertain (or perhaps intimidate) visitors by dumping shrimp into the water. Then there was the time he reportedly wanted to remove a Russian oil company from its office space. One morning workers from the oil company arrived to find an exhibition of coffins in their lobby.

The night Kolomoisky finally summoned me to his Kyiv office, a thick fog descended on the city. Car headlights struggled to make themselves known through dense darkness. His office, however, was plenty easy to see. On the street outside, a dozen or so young men, some with protruding earpieces, milled about. At one time, Kolomoisky had had a private army, 2,000 strong, a force that he sent to battle Russian invaders in 2014. Militias he funded arguably stifled Putin’s westward push into the country—and they also arguably employed neo-Nazis, who happily placed themselves under the banner of a Jewish oligarch.

A secretary shuttled me into a conference room that contained a leather-clad table and no hint of a predatory pet. Half an hour later, Kolomoisky bounded in. He’s widely known by the nickname Benya, after a Soviet cartoon lion with a fluffy mane. (Benya is also the name of Isaac Babel’s most famous fictional creation, the Jewish Odessan gangster Benya Krik.) Kolomoisky’s silver hair was tousled, his face dusted with stubble; he wore a T-shirt beneath a blazer. Before he sat down, he took out his iPhone. With a knowing grin, he announced that his lawyers had instructed him to record all his interviews—many of which, to be fair, veer toward the unpredictable.

As a story-teller, Kolomoisky takes time to limber up. His monologues gain steam after he starts to revel in ironies and permits himself to enjoy a few good one-liners. He told me that he once joined a group of comedians, including Zelensky, on a vacation to the Maldives—and that he rated Zelensky the most hilarious of the comics. “I like being surrounded by funny people,” he told me. When I asked if he had the speed and wit to match his comic friends, he splayed his arms in a gesture that said, Are you kidding me? “I can keep up,” he said, smiling. “Nobody writes the jokes for me.”

Since Zelensky entered politics, he has tried to distance himself from Benya, protesting that he’s not “a toy in Kolomoisky’s hands.” But, by Kolomoisky’s account, their relationship is far more intimate than the president admits. Kolomoisky regaled me with a tale of carousing with Zelensky (“He likes to drink but knows when to stop”). On the night that Zelensky told Kolomoisky about his plans to run for president, the pair drunk-dialed a rock star named Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, asking him about rumors that he might also run. “Run where?” the rock star replied. “I’m sleeping.”

These riffs give Kolomoisky the appearance of a raconteur who values a good story above all other considerations. For the better part of an hour, he told me how he’d built his empire in the dying days of the Soviet Union. (“My idiot relatives in America had to wash the floors for a month to earn $1,000, while I earned $4,000 a week here.”) But there’s a cunning to his monologues, an unstated agenda. As we spoke, I sensed that he intended to use our interview to send a message to Donald Trump.

Adam Schiff and the House Democrats have kept their impeachment inquiry tightly focused. They haven’t permitted themselves to stray from one narrow question: Did Donald Trump attempt to extort Volodymyr Zelensky? Embedded in their accumulated pages of depositions, however, other scandals loom.

The scandals are familiar. Since the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, the question has been asked: Can a foreign power manipulate him? And ever since Paul Manafort arrived on his campaign, a more specific version of the question has been asked: Can a rich Ukrainian manipulate him? Based on the evidence unearthed in the congressional investigation, the answer is yes. Powerful Ukrainian officials fabricated conspiracies about U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and then used the stories to successfully prod Trump into removing her.

Before Trump, oligarchs felt relatively defenseless in the face of American efforts to strip corruption from the Ukrainian judicial system. Because the Ukrainian nation depended on American support, a figure like Yovanovitch had the leverage to demand cleaner government. But the new U.S. president presented the possibility of salvation for the corrupt. Here was an American leader who operated in the style of an oligarch, who wanted to use the legal system to wound his political rivals. Trump seemed like he could be enlisted, with a properly calibrated message, to act on an oligarch’s behalf.

Kolomoisky may need Trump’s help quite soon. According to a report earlier this year in the Daily Beast, the FBI is investigating Kolomoisky for financial crimes. The specifics of the FBI investigation are unknown, but a civil lawsuit filed against him in Delaware has accused him of using money pilfered from his Ukrainian bank to amass a property empire in Ohio. (He has categorically denied all the accusations.) By some accounts, he was once the largest landowner in Cleveland and the proprietor of a steel mill outside Youngstown.

To garner Trump’s support, one must speak his language. In our interview, Kolomoisky railed against the so-called deep state with the alacrity of a Trump tweet: “You change your presidents, but the State Department politics stay the same. It is like a country within the country.”

Kolomoisky isn’t just panicked about the prospect of an indictment. He’s filled with a growing sense that his political patron might betray him. For a time, Zelensky humored him by taking his calls and performing small favors on his behalf. Even if he hadn’t retained affection for him, he had little choice but to regularly talk with him: Kolomoisky can allegedly dictate the votes of a large faction in Parliament, which provides Zelensky with decisive legislative support.

But late last month, Kolomoisky called Veronika Melkozerova, a journalist who translated for me and helped set up appointments, in a pique of frustration. Kolomoisky had harbored dreams of taking back control of his bank. But the International Monetary Fund wants Ukraine to recoup the deposits Kolomisky allegedly stripped from the bank. The IMF wants Zelensky to force him to pay back the money, or it might refuse to lend Ukraine billions of dollars. Kolomoisky feels frustrated that Zelensky has done so little to protect him. He joked to me that Zelensky’s performance made him want to “bring back Poroshenko,” the president who had nationalized his bank in the first place. He texted Melkozerova pictures of protests outside the central bank and predicted that Zelensky would face larger protests soon. “They don’t want to give back the bank in a good way,” he told her. “We’ll make it happen in a bad way then.”

In the weeks after Zelensky’s election, Serhiy Leshchenko took a much-needed vacation, accompanying his wife, a DJ, when she was invited to play in New York. He showed me photos from the journey. There he was standing in front of a SoHo property owned by Paul Manafort, the man his investigative work helped bring down. In another he mugged at the entrance to Trump Tower. As he amused himself with these photos, his enemies in New York and Washington were seeking to destroy him.

While Leshchenko was in New York, Rudy Giuliani was planning a trip to Kyiv to lobby the incoming government to investigate the Bidens. But word of Giuliani’s imminent arrival leaked in the media, and the mayor canceled his journey. He went on Fox News to cast aspersions. Zelensky, he warned, might be “surrounded by literally enemies of the president.” There was one individual—an adviser to Zelensky—that Giuliani wanted to single out for particular blame. “I’ll give you his name.” He held up his hand to make sure he had the audience’s attention. “A gentleman by the name of Leshchenko.”

It didn’t require a journalist of Leshchenko’s skill to understand that any prospective job in the Zelensky administration had disappeared in a televised flash. Zelensky’s inner circle was perfectly straight with him. According to Leshchenko, “They told me, ‘For a new president to start his work by nominating someone who is mentioned as an enemy of the American president by the man who is the lawyer to the American president—this won’t work.’”

Zelensky and his wife have been married for 16 years. (Maxym Marusenko / NurPhoto / Getty)

Even before he entered office, Zelensky exhibited tremendous insecurity about his relationship with the Trump administration. He desperately wanted Vice President Mike Pence to attend his inauguration, because Joe Biden had graced his predecessor’s ceremony. That was a desire Trump thwarted, sending Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead. To get on better terms with Trump, Zelensky kept hoping for a face-to-face meeting. Given the chance, he believed that he could charm Trump out of his negative view of Ukraine. This created a cycle of desperation—and it helps account for the sycophantic tone that Zelensky adopted in his July 25 phone call with Trump, the transcript of which he never imagined would be so widely released. As a highly experienced actor, he must have known that he needed to slip into the character of obsequious supplicant (“You are a great teacher for us”). Zelensky permitted himself to believe that a meeting was imminent, but then the White House placed new demands on him. Finally, Trump’s emissaries asked him to personally announce the opening of new investigations into the president’s political opponent.

Most of Zelensky’s advisers understood the dangers of acceding to Trump, but they felt cornered. In early September, Zelensky prepared to go on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show to announce the investigations he had demanded. He avoided this fate only when political pressure, and knowledge of a whistle-blower’s complaint, forced the White House to release Ukraine’s suspended military aid, two days before Zelensky’s scheduled appearance.

When I asked Leshchenko about Zelensky’s performance as president, I expected a negative review, given how ruthlessly he had been excised from the administration. But Leshchenko surprised me. He told me that he remained bullish on the president. Leshchenko’s initial faith in the comedian had been justified by a raft of anti-corruption legislation Zelensky had passed, stripping legislators of the immunity that protected them from prosecution. The High Anti-Corruption Court had finally opened, after interminable delays. Reformists populated crucial positions, including at the helm of the notoriously corrupt prosecutor general’s office. Leshchenko told me that he continues to not only support Zelensky but advise top officials, a quiet rebuke to Giuliani.

In recent weeks, Zelensky has posted videos on his YouTube channel, “ZePresident.” In one installment, a cameraman sits in the passenger seat next to Zelensky as he cruises Kyiv in a Tesla, a far cry from the bicycle he rode to work in Servant of the People. In another, he discourses as he walks on a treadmill. This is his version of fireside chats, in which he discusses his successes and failures. He banters about subjects like judicial reform as he pulls into a McDonald’s drive-through and orders.

He is starring in a reality show that is very different from the program running on the Donald Trump network. Every day, Trump turns in a seemingly unvarnished stream-of-id performance. The Zelensky Show, by contrast, has higher production values. It is a bit gimmicky, but also creative and daring. When members of his political party stood accused of corruption, Zelensky encouraged them to take lie-detector tests, live-streamed on Facebook. To pick his press secretary, he held an open competition for the job, which tested 4,000 candidates for their sense of humor and tolerance for stress.

Zelensky and Trump are both known for orchestrating political stunts, and both won their elections by campaigning against the establishment. (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty)

Of all his gambits, his masterstroke was a 14-hour press conference in mid-October—which his aides dubbed the “marathon”—held in a trendy Kyiv food court. While the public milled about on the first floor, he sat at a table on a mezzanine, facing wave after wave of reporters. In the middle of the marathon, a heckler with a crucifix strung around his neck interrupted the proceedings with a rant about how George Soros was spreading “the perversity of homosexuality.” Instead of ignoring the interruption, or pandering to the man, Zelensky stood and barked back with irritation. “Regarding LGBT: I don’t want to say anything negative, because we all live in an open society where each one can choose the language they speak, their ethnicity and [sexual] orientation. Leave those finally at peace, for God’s sake!” This performance should be judged by its context. Zelensky comes from a region of the world where leaders don’t typically expose themselves to criticism or questions, and they certainly don’t plead for pluralism.

After this display of openness, the Zelensky administration arranged interviews for my story. But then, as Democrats moved toward impeaching Trump, Zelensky’s staff politely backed away. Several officials postponed appointments, citing the atmosphere in Washington. Questions about Trump were deflected with a version of a dark joke: I don’t want to look like I’m interfering in a U.S. election. (Ultimately, after aides learned that I had spent time with Kolomoisky, they declined my request for a presidential interview.)

When he ran for president, Zelensky promised that he would confront Ukraine’s oligarchic system and end the country’s war with Russia. He made these vows despite his inexperience and the weakness of the Ukrainian state. When it comes to the first goal, taking on such powerful enemies simultaneously is almost unimaginable without the support of the United States. Oligarchs have private armies and legions of politicians at their disposal. Without the U.S. embassy cajoling the fight forward, tolerating old ways becomes easier; friendly oligarchs receive dispensations while the hostile ones are punished, a pattern of favoritism that hardly shatters the kleptocracy.

Regarding the second goal, Zelensky will negotiate the terms of peace with Vladimir Putin, under pressure from the Europeans to move quickly. There’s a good chance that Russia will use the expiration of a natural-gas contract to punish Ukraine in the height of winter, starving it of energy. As Russia attempts to weaken its neighbors, no great power will stand in solidarity with Zelensky and push back against Putin. The president of the United States is filled with such disdain for Ukraine—“They are all terrible people,” he reportedly groused in the Oval Office last May—that it can only be described as bigotry. This is yet another example of Trump abetting Russian interests, and perhaps the most consequential example, since Putin considers the submission of Ukraine a paramount objective of his foreign policy.

Volodymyr Zelensky is a president who, by most accounts, wants to propel his country toward a more democratic future. Not so long ago, the relationship between a reform-minded Ukrainian president and his American counterpart would have been an unambiguously constructive one. A shared concern about Russian aggression, and a shared affection for a rules-based democratic order, would have guaranteed this. But today, the United States is led by a man with a different set of values from those of his predecessors, and these values may have led him to extort a foreign leader who once would have been treated as a friend.

At the end of the first season of Servant of the People, the fictional president rescues an amateurish start to his administration by exposing the corruption of his enemies on live television. It’s a dreamed-up moment of inspiration and leadership, untethered from political reality. The nonfiction version of the Zelensky presidency won’t be rescued by theatrics, because it can’t be. Clever stunts and a charming persona might help win elections, but they can’t save a presidency. Abandoned by his international allies and undermined by the enemies on his border, the Ukrainian everyman is on his own.

Veronika Melkozerova contributed reporting.