Long before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shot to international stardom as the charismatic leader of a besieged nation invaded by its Russian neighbor, he was a comedian who starred in Servant of the People, a popular television series in Ukraine made by his production company.
Currently available on Netflix, this amusing sitcom is a remarkable case of life imitating art.
In Servant of the People, which ran from 2015 to 2019, Zelensky portrays Vasyl (Vasya) Petrovych Goloborodko, an amiable high school history teacher who’s elected Ukraine’s president against all odds.
His rise to fame is completely accidental. As he condemns government corruption and the culture of cynicism, one of his students secretly records his rant and posts it on the Internet. It strikes a chord with Ukrainians, and voters elect him to the nation’s highest political office.
Upon hearing the news, he expresses utter surprise. “It sounds like a practical joke,” says Goloborodko, a divorcee who lives with his parents and a niece in a cramped apartment in Kyiv. “I still can’t fathom what’s happened.”
As he assimilates the windfall, he hears a knock on his door. Yuriy (Stanislav Boklan), a presidential handler, has arrived to prepare him for his exalted position. Yuriy is not a disinterested bureaucrat. He’s employed by a group of greedy oligarchs who comprise Ukraine’s “deep state” and pull its strings. It is Yuriy’s job to put a brake on the reforms Goloborodko intends to phase in.
Yuriy’s first order of business is to give Goloborodko a complete makeover. In whirlwind fashion, he’s outfitted with a fancy French suit, presented with an expensive Swiss wristwatch of the kind worn by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and photographed for an official portrait.
Goloborodko is amazed, though not overwhelmed, by the luxurious goods placed at his disposal. And he is surprised when he learns that his bank loan has been paid off by the state.
His parents also receive the royal treatment. Their flat is refurbished at no cost to themselves, and they receive a “100 percent” discount on consumer goods.
“Get used to it,” says Yuriy, a seasoned operator accustomed to the best of everything. “You’ve been granted an entirely new life.”
At his first press conference, Goloborodko admits he’s unprepared for the barrage of questions and asks the journalists for time to master the material. They seem impressed by his modesty and honesty.
Goloborodko is ushered into the palatial presidential mansion and it is indeed imposing and impressive. The interiors are opulent and the grounds are manicured down to the last bush and flower bed.
Goloborodko’s fawning house staff is immense. He has exclusive access to a barber, a masseur, a personal trainer, a stylist, a beautician and a psychologist. There is even a body double on standby. His policy advisors are at his beck and call.
Next on the agenda are elocution tutorials and cutlery lessons. Another advisor urges him to “stick to the text” of the speeches he will be given to deliver.
As he spends his first night in the mansion, Yuriy offers him a bedtime companion of his choice, be it a woman or a man.
Being an unprepossessing and modest person, Goloborodko rejects the black limousine that is supposed to whisk him to appointments. Much to Yuriy’s puzzlement and wonderment, he hops on a bus, his security detail in tow.
Goloborodko considers himself a “regular guy.” And that is precisely what he is, an earnest, hard-working mensch of integrity who has not been seduced by the privileges and power of the elite. Indeed, he rides his bike to work and brings his own lunch to work. His father, though, is entirely enticed, intoxicated and corrupted by the perks.
Judging by the first four episodes, Zelensky is perfect as an everyday man of the masses. He’s decent, sincere, approachable and eager to live up to the people’s expectations. And the show itself is quite appealing, a satirical portrait of a country trying to make its way in the world.
Interestingly enough, Zelensky was elected president in 2019 on the strength of the admirable qualities he displayed in Servant of the People. Three years on, with Ukraine struggling to maintain its sovereignty and independence in the face of Russian aggression, Zelensky is no longer a faux president, but the real thing.
He can now demonstrate to Ukrainians whether he and Goloborodko are made of the same cloth.