‘The Servant of the People’: What Zelensky’s TV Show says about Ukraine and him

The show enjoyed immense popularity in Ukraine, and its ambling, verité style gives it both the farcical spirit of “Veep” and the serious optimism of “Parks and Recreation”. During the war with Russia, while many of the cities and landmarks the show references are under siege, it can feel like both a welcome, entertaining distraction and a bittersweet tribute.

Watching “Servant of the People” can also be enlightening for viewers across the globe. Here are three great lessons the show illustrates about both Ukraine and the man who has become its war leader.

Ukrainians learned to expect corruption and profits from officials.

About the “Servant of the People”, history teacher Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko becomes nationally famous as a student captures him on video while delivering a passionate, profane quarrel about the corrupt officials who are too busy enriching each other and themselves to worry about the millions of average Ukrainians fighting for to succeed. It is uploaded to social media, where it then goes viral.

When Goloborodko arrives in the capital as president, he finds pretty much what he expected. He is presented with a parade of staff who put together a comically inflated government payroll, including several estheticians and masseurs, specialized animal keepers in the presidential residence’s private zoo, even a designated “personal motivator” to pump up the president’s self-esteem.

Later, his hand-picked cabinet of ordinary, credible Ukrainians is hit by a bribery scheme. Soon, Goloborodko must intervene to prevent his sister from being assigned a position in his administration solely on the grounds that she is his sister. Even Goloborodko’s father has to be reprimanded after he “gifted” a big-screen TV and several expensive pieces of furniture to make political promises to local business people. “Here I am, fighting the vampires,” Goloborodko reveals, “and at home I get the same ugly soup, just reheated.”

Zelensky’s character has been chosen to be a reformer – which may have influenced his real voters.

Goloborodko has a strong moral compass and a rigid commitment to transparency, unlike its predecessors. In his inaugural address, he goes out of his way to seriously inform his constituents that he cannot make big, sweeping promises in good faith when he knows he is unlikely to keep them. At his first press conference, he gives the press corps permission to ask him questions that have not been pre-approved by his press office. He urges MPs to live more modestly; to set an example, he fires his safety detail and begins to take the bus to work.

As Roman and her co-authors point out, “Goloborodko… is portrayed as a new type of Ukrainian leader who is honest, selfless, keeps his promises and works day and night to reform Ukraine and directly improve the lives of ordinary people. He is politically and economically independent of oligarchs who for decades were Ukraine’s true rulers and denied the luxury that comes with his new status. “

Roman and the other study authors went on to point out that the “servant of the people” played a huge role in Zelensky’s promotion to the presidency.

Zelensky launched the political party Servant of the People shortly before announcing his campaign as president. He hardly participated in personal campaigns or in-depth interviews, did not debate until the last day of the campaign and kept his political platform vague – so that his well-known TV persona could speak for him. As a result, when the final episodes of the show aired during the 2019 presidential campaign, the study’s authors wrote: “This overlap of his fictitious television presidency with his ongoing presidential campaign may have resulted in some voters having difficulty separating his television campaign. character characteristics with the actual characteristics of the actor. ”

From satirical comedy to dance and even expressing Paddington Bear, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky had a career before the presidential election like few others. (Julie Yoon / The Washington Post)

Even before the war, Ukraine had a complicated relationship with Russia.

Ukraine’s full relations with Russia occasionally appear in the “Servant of the People”. In the fifth paragraph, Goloborodko speaks for the first time in parliament. When he arrives, members are involved in a physical fight and ignore his presence until he leans into a microphone and announces, “Putin has been ousted.” Silence falls over the room, and MPs look at him in disbelief and fear – suggesting that any regime change in Russia could have serious consequences for Ukraine. “His statement, which he explains was a joke, represents the real feelings many Ukrainians have towards the President of Russia,” wrote Roman and her co-authors.

In a later episode, Goloborodko hears a pitch for a political ad urging Ukrainians to pay their taxes; it would caricature Russians as tax evading jingoists that Ukrainians would have to do their best not to look like. Terrified, the president tries to reject the path, seemingly skewed over the prospect of insulting the Russians.

The show began the year after President Viktor Yanukovych, known for having some pro-Russian leanings, was removed from office. It also happened shortly after Russia annexed Crimea and the Moscow-backed forces took over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Relations between the two countries deteriorated, so “the creators may have deliberately avoided this topic” to avoid adding to the existing tensions, Nataliya Roman wrote in an email. After all, she added, the show was not loved for its depiction of Russian-Ukrainian relations, but for its depiction of a man determined to rectify his own country from within.

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