Way before this terrible war, I used to groan when people referred to the president of Ukraine as a “comedian turned politician.” Comedian indeed!
Servant of the People is among the world’s great satires, and Volodymyr Zelensky, who both writes and acts, is the most appealing “little guy” since Charlie Chaplin.
The show ran on Ukrainian TV for three seasons before Zelensky got into politics. By the time I saw it on Netflix, he was already Ukraine’s president. But in the United States he was primarily known—if known at all—as the recipient of the “perfect phone call.” That’s the call where President Trump threatened not to restore Ukrainian military aid (he had already delayed shipments) unless President Zelensky agreed to announce an investigation of Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Servant of the People opens with three oligarchs who normally choose Ukraine’s president deciding to give themselves a little excitement. This year, they’ll each groom and bet on a different candidate. That way no matter whose horse wins, they’ll still run the country.
Meanwhile, unassuming high school history teacher Vassily Golborodko is caught on camera delivering a semi-obscene screed against government corruption. It goes viral. Without telling him, his students crowdfund the registration fees to put their teacher on the presidential ballot. Confusion among the oligarchs allows the little guy to slip in.
And little he is.
Vladimir Putin, five foot seven, carefully avoids being photographed standing next to other heads of state—except for Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s also five foot seven. With equal calculation, Volodymyr Zelensky (five foot six) shows the protagonist he plays opening Ukraine’s parliament looking like the birthday boy who has to sit on telephone books to blow out the candles.
Accidental President Goloborodko may be short and naive—but he’s constitutionally unable to repeat the bullshit in the scripts he’s handed. He doesn’t know quite how government works, but he knows what’s right.
To choose a cabinet, he interviews a string of office seekers and despairs of finding a qualified Ukrainian. “If he’s honest, he’s a fool: if he’s smart, he’s a thief.” In desperation, he rounds up a cabinet from among the misfits he met as a kid when they played practical jokes together at Young Leninist Summer Camp.
You probably don’t know exactly what makes “Young Leninist Summer Camp” a laugh line. Neither do I. But Ukrainians, part of the Soviet Union until 1991, certainly do. Putin says that there is no nation of Ukraine. It’s true that Ukrainians, both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking, were still shaping a modern identity. Zelensky grew up in a Russian-speaking home; in his role as President Goloborodko, he speaks Ukrainian. A terrific way to weld a common identity is through in-jokes. Audiences crack up at allusions to things they all recognize but have never heard mentioned aloud. “Oh right,” we say. But to work, the allusions have to be exactly right.
Over its three-year run, Servant of the People delivered hundreds of “Oh right” moments that helped shape the sense of nationhood Ukrainians are now defending with guns.
In each episode, the inventive oddballs from Young Leninist Summer Camp (played by actors from Zelensky’s old comedy troupe) dodge bribery, blackmail, and bullying as they claw back some—though hardly all—of the national wealth that the oligarchs steal. Oddly enough, they fare worst when they face oligarchs of the West.
When two tall and elegant women from the International Monetary Fund stride in, the show’s comedic style changes. Servant of the People normally relies on verbal humor and sardonic reaction shots. Zelensky doesn’t go in for slapstick. But the fearsome IMF enforcers set off a Keystone Cops chase. It’s in-one-door-and-out-the-other farce as Golobrodoko ducks behind pillars and palm plants to evade the implacable creditors.
I couldn’t help thinking about that IMF episode when one of the Trump/Giuliani strong-arm team complained that it was so hard to make Zelensky commit to smearing Joe Biden. Every time they thought they had the guy pinned down, he seemed to disappear. (Maybe they should have looked behind the potted palm.)
The real President Zelensky stalled and outlasted Donald Trump. (May he live to play himself in a skit of the “perfect phone call” on Saturday Night Live!) The fictional President Goloboroko sees no way around the IMF. Besides, he believes an honorable nation should pay its debts. (In the real world, that means signing an IMF austerity agreement to cut back on things like education, medicine, food, and transportation subsidies, until the banks recoup every penny they loaned to the crooks.)
Volodymyr Zelensky is not Vassily Goloborodko.
Goloborodko was plunked down in the president’s chair without even knowing he’d been nominated. Zelensky created the Servant of the People Party after playing Ukraine’s president for three years on the nation’s most popular TV show. The title of both the show and the party comes from a question Goloborodko asks the parliament: “If this is a democracy and we are the servants of the people, how come the servants live better than the masters?”
The man who writes, directs, and produces a top TV show, then starts a political party and wins the presidency is a determined individual. A friend of his has described Zelensky as a person who means to win and never gives up. He’s also a rational man who can calculate odds.
When the Russians invaded, Zelensky must have understood that Ukraine would inevitably lose and he would die. Is he willing to die? So it seems. What about his responsibility to other Ukrainians?
In Servant of the People, the little president objects to hanging portraits of the leader (i.e., himself) in government offices. “Hang pictures of your own children,” he tells officials, “and look at them when you have to make decisions.” As long as Ukrainians resist, their children will continue to die.
So what’s the right time for the doomed to surrender? To achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, Ukranians would optimally resist until they’ve caused Putin enough pain that he won’t try this again soon. America’s “Vietnam Syndrome” deterred invasions for almost two decades. Then again, a thin-skinned strongman like Putin might feel the sting of humiliation so deeply that he’d need to relieve it soon. What awful calculations for a comedian to have to make!
Once in battle, Zelensky had to forget the odds. As a wartime president, he demands weapons. He calls for volunteers. He just announced a one-year moratorium on small-business taxes, to start on the day Russians are driven off Ukrainian soil. He can still be epigrammatic—“I need ammunition, not a ride”—but never equivocal. He’s the leader of a nation that’s going to win. How easily a sophisticated satirist gets swept into primitive patriotism.
What about me? When I saw the 40-mile Russian tank caravan, I remembered the military truism that a stalled tank is a death trap. So I made a demonstration sign that said “SEND JAVELINS” (US anti-tank weapons). Am I so swept up in Ukrainian nationalism that I’m raring to see thousands of young Russians roasted alive? Apparently, yes. I never carried my sign, but I see that Javelins have been delivered. Good!
How did I become a bloodthirsty Ukrainian partisan? People naturally root for the plucky underdog. Zelensky is a master at playing the little guy, and Putin is cast perfectly as the bully. But anti-Assad Syrians were bombed by the same cold-blooded villain. Yet my impression of the Syrian civil war was of “some kind of factional struggle.” I pitied the refugees, but I didn’t feel the need to have a side.
It may be partly my racism—or “Europeanism”—that makes it easier for me to identify with Ukrainians. But perhaps a part of what made the world line up with Ukraine is their president’s dramatic skill. Frankly, I preferred Zelensky’s earlier work. I hope he survives to write about more nuanced conflicts than war. But I doubt he’ll ever again create anything as light, wry, and simply brilliant as Servant of the People.
Editor’s Note: On the day this article went to press, Servant of the People returned to Netflix. You can watch the first season here.