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What Zelensky’s TV show ‘Servant of the People’ reveals about him, and Ukraine

The 2015 show, which streams on Netflix, tells the story of a high school history teacher who gets elected president

6 min

Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine and lately an international symbol of courage and duty, got his start in politics in a surprising yet wildly on-the-nose way: by playing the president of Ukraine on TV. In 2015, Zelensky created and starred in “Servant of the People,” which told the story of a high school history teacher who gets elected to the country’s highest office, and the first of the show’s three seasons returned to Netflix on Friday.

The show enjoyed immense popularity in Ukraine, and its ambling, vérité style gives it both the farcical spirit of “Veep” and the earnest 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 around the globe. Here are three major lessons the show illustrates about Ukraine and the man who has become its wartime leader.

From satirical comedy to dancing and even voicing Paddington Bear, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky had a pre-presidential career like few others. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Ukrainians learned to expect corruption and excess from government officials

On “Servant of the People,” history teacher Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko becomes nationally famous when a student catches him on video delivering an impassioned, profane rant about the corrupt government officials too busy enriching one another to care about the millions of Ukrainians struggling to make ends meet. It’s uploaded to social media and goes viral.

When Goloborodko arrives at the capital as president, he finds largely what he expected. He’s introduced to a parade of staffers that adds up to a comically bloated government payroll, including several aestheticians and masseuses, specialized zookeepers at the presidential residence’s private zoo, even a designated “personal motivator” to pump up the president’s self-esteem.

Later, his handpicked cabinet of ordinary, trustworthy Ukrainians gets targeted by a bribery entrapment scheme. Soon, Goloborodko has to intervene to stop his sister from being awarded a position in his administration solely on the basis of her being his sister. Even Goloborodko’s dad has to be reprimanded after he’s “gifted” a big-screen TV and several pieces of expensive furniture for making political promises to local businesspeople. “Here I am, battling those vampires,” Goloborodko fumes, “and at home I get the same foul soup, just reheated.”

Zelensky’s past as an entertainer may have prepared him for his most crucial role

In a 2021 study of “Servant of the People,” authors Nataliya Roman, Berrin A. Beasley and John H. Parmelee wrote that although the plot is fictional, “its creators reference actual Ukrainian problems.”

“Goloborodko’s character is easily relatable to the audiences,” they wrote. “He speaks out against many practices with which Ukrainians are frustrated: the corruption, the extravagant lifestyles of political elites, and their callous disregard for the problems of ordinary Ukrainians.”

Zelensky’s character is elected to be a reformer — which may have influenced his real-life voters

Goloborodko has a strong moral compass and a rigid commitment to transparency, in contrast with his predecessors. In his inaugural address he goes off-script to earnestly inform his constituents that he can’t in good faith make big, sweeping pledges when he knows he probably can’t keep them. At his first news conference, he gives the press corps permission to ask him questions that haven’t been preapproved by his press office. He encourages members of parliament to live more modestly; to set an example, he fires his security detail and begins taking the bus to work.

As Roman and her co-authors point out, “Goloborodko … is depicted as a new type of Ukrainian leader who is honest, selfless, keeps his promises and works day and night on reforming Ukraine and directly improving the lives of ordinary people. He is politically and financially independent from oligarchs, who for decades were the true rulers of Ukraine, refusing the luxuries that come with his new status.”

The authors of the 2021 study went on to point out that “Servant of the People” played a huge role in Zelensky’s ascension to the presidency.

Zelensky launched the Servant of the People political party shortly before announcing his campaign for president. He engaged in almost no in-person campaigning or in-depth interviews, did not debate until the last day of campaigning and kept his policy platform vague — allowing his well-known TV persona to speak for him. As a result, when the final episodes of the show aired during the 2019 presidential campaign, the study authors wrote, “this overlapping of his fictional televised presidency with his ongoing presidential campaign may have resulted in some voters having difficulty separating his television character’s characteristics with the actor’s real characteristics.”

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

Ukraine’s fraught relationship with Russia pops up occasionally in “Servant of the People.” In the fifth episode, Goloborodko addresses parliament for the first time. When he arrives, its members are engaged in a physical brawl and ignore his presence until he leans into a microphone and announces, “Putin has been deposed.” Silence falls over the room, and the members of parliament gaze at him in disbelief and fear — suggesting that any regime change in Russia could have serious implications 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 encouraging Ukrainians to pay their taxes; it would caricature Russians as tax-evading jingoists that Ukrainians should try their best not to resemble. Alarmed, the president scrambles to reject the pitch, seemingly skittish at the prospect of offending Russians.

The show began the year after President Viktor Yanukovych, known to have pro-Russian leanings, was ousted from office. It also came shortly after Russia annexed Crimea and Moscow-backed forces took over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Relations between the two countries were deteriorating, so “the creators possibly intentionally avoided this topic” to avoid adding to the existing tensions, Roman said in an email. After all, she added, the show was beloved not for its portrayal of Russian-Ukrainian relations but for its portrayal of a man determined to fix his country from the inside.

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Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to remain in Ukraine as Russia continues its advance. The president's past life as an actor may have prepared him for this moment. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)