A true servant of the people
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In these last terrible days in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has captured the attention of the world.
Most of us now know that before Zelenskyy became the president of Ukraine, he played the president of Ukraine on a TV comedy, which sounds like a postmodern joke but has now become a deathly serious punchline.
In the first stage of the brutal Russian invasion, some commentators suggested Zelenskyy had transformed into an inspiring leader despite the fact he is a former entertainer. Now it’s clear he has succeeded, at least in part, because he is a former entertainer.
Zelenskyy comprehends the power of images and words, he understands how to work with the camera, he knows how to connect with an audience. Ukraine might be outmatched militarily, but this is also an information war, and Zelenskyy’s moving, impassioned speeches and stark, street-level social media videos have become potent weapons in a conflict the whole world is watching.
I don’t mean in any way to imply this is cynical political theatre, or — as with so many things in our digital world — a case of appearance trumping reality or style overcoming substance. This is not like when Russia president Vladimir Putin plays hockey and “somehow” manages to score eight goals.
No, the reason Zelenskyy appears calm, courageous and resolved is because he is calm, courageous and resolved.
But he also knows how to project those qualities, to the Ukrainian people and to the world. Amidst this horrific war, he turned down an offer to be evacuated to safety by the American government, choosing instead to stay. “The fight is here,” he told an American official. “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
In one powerful video, Zelenskyy stands shoulder to shoulder with members of his government on a dark Kyiv street. They wear olive-green military fatigues. Zelenskyy says simply: “We are here. Our citizens are here. Our troops are here…. And it will continue to be this way.”
These are the words and images that have rallied Ukraine’s people and galvanized global public opinion to repudiate Russian aggression. These are the reasons interpreters can be heard weeping as they translate Zelenskyy’s words into other languages. No matter what happens militarily, Russia will now be condemned to moral defeat.
In contrast to Zelenskyy, Putin seems like an authoritarian who has lost control of his story. Those old photo ops (shirtless horseback-riding, swimming in icy waters) come off as overcompensating kitsch. Recent shots of the Russian president seated alone and isolated at the end of a ludicrously long table, are even worse, looking like outtakes from Downfall or The Death of Stalin.
With all the real-life horror playing out on news channels and through social media, it is a strange, moving experience to watch President Zelenskyy’s old TV show, Servant of the People, which ran three seasons on Ukrainian television from 2015 to 2019. (Many episodes are now free to watch on YouTube. It might require some tinkering with your settings to get the English subtitles, but they are available.)
The story of how an honest, slightly hapless Everyman takes on the forces of entrenched corruption, Servant of the People is both a scathing political satire and a goofy physical comedy. Funny and packed with half-hour-sitcom tropes, it is also valiantly hopeful, sharply prescient and now, deeply shadowed by Ukraine’s present tragedy.
Zelenskyy, who has an immensely appealing comic presence, plays Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, an average high school history teacher. Underpaid, overlooked, he lives with his parents in a messy, crowded, slightly chaotic apartment. After he goes on a rant about corruption — he doesn’t realize one of his students is recording it — the speech goes viral, and he unexpectedly finds himself elected president.
His mother packs his lunch. He rides to work on his bike. Turning down all the usual presidential perks, from the palatial residence to the official “ostrich cultivator” (a dig at one of Zelenskyy’s predecessors, Viktor Yanukovych), he pledges “hard work, integrity and fairness,” reforming plans that will put him on the wrong side of kleptocrats, oligarchs and fawning functionaries.
Servant of the People’s subplots include advice on flattering the Americans (“You’ll need a loan from them later!”) and an all-out push to be admitted into the European Union. Then there’s the phrase Vasiliy Petrovich shouts in noisy rooms when he needs to get people’s attention: “Putin has been overthrown!”
The fact that the man who played an unlikely president on TV then became president for real sounds like a charming comedy plot. Now, of course, that premise has taken a challenging real-life turn. As American journalist Michael Weiss suggests, it’s like “Charlie Chaplin becoming Winston Churchill.”
One note: When I wrote these words, President Zelenskyy was alive. I pray that as this goes to print, he still is. No matter what happens in the coming days and weeks, this remarkable leader will be, in a way his old comedy series could never have foreseen, a servant of the people.