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10 March 2022

Watching Zelensky’s sitcom, my heart roared

Servant of the People makes it easy to understand how the Ukrainian president has been able to rally the motherland.

By Rachel Cooke

In the hours after Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the British parliament on 8 March I began watching Servant of the People, the series that made him so famous in Ukraine, and which ultimately led to his election as president. I had to brace myself to do this: the chasm between what I’d read about his long-running comedy, a gentle show in which a good soul accidentally ends up in the highest office in the land, and events in Ukraine, ever more brutal and bloody, seemed so painfully large as to make even the thought of laughing strange and a little shameful. What would Zelensky give now to be back in the safety his writing room, cranking out gags about sycophantic aides, botched press conferences and Alexander Lukashenko? It hardly bears thinking about.

In the end I cried more than I laughed. The experience of watching the first few episodes is hallucinatory: the exhausted man in the bunker appearing before you, sprightly and clean-shaven, goofing around, nervously approaching the mechanisms of power, like a small boy attending school for the first time. Zelensky has one of those irredeemably transparent faces, one that makes you feel (rightly, or wrongly) that he cannot ever lie; emotions pass over it like clouds across the sky. While it may be close to impossible to imagine this man using a gun, suddenly it’s not at all difficult to understand how, in another life (three words to which we must give their fullest weight), he has been able so stirringly to rally the motherland.

“You’re going to have to love the whole nation,” says his character’s small son, worrying that now his dad is president, there’ll be no time for him. Sure enough, when the day of his inauguration arrives, his father puts to one side the speech he has been given to read out, telling the crowd that his only promise is that he will never do anything to bring shame on his countrymen. Zelensky makes the man he plays seem so defenceless, so achingly sincere. Of course this stuff is sentimental; ordinarily it wouldn’t be my bag at all (I never fell for The West Wing, for similar reasons). But in this instance I just couldn’t help myself. I was suddenly teary, my heart performing an inward roar. When you’re watching Servant of the People you’re not just after entertainment: you’re using it as another way, however small, of rooting for Ukraine; as another way, however ineffective, of damning Putin to hell.

When we first meet Petro Vasilyevich Goloborodko (Zelensky), it is summer in Kyiv, the sunshine bouncing off the golden domes of St Sophia’s Cathedral, a woodpecker doing its busy work in a garden. He is a dedicated but disorganised high school history teacher. His students adore him but he trails chaos wherever he goes. A hard-up divorcee, he lives with his parents and niece, and is always running late, usually because none of the women of the house has offered to iron a fresh shirt for him. (The sexual politics are on the retro side. While his neuropathologist mother is always chopping salad for dinner, or making apologies for the fact she’s serving pierogi yet again, his cabby father doesn’t lift a finger to help.) He’s a sort of sponge. People shout, and take the mickey, and wonder why he doesn’t get a more lucrative job but he doesn’t care. He thinks — uh oh — that history is important; that the lessons of the past should not be neglected. 

One day he briefly snaps, delivering an expletive-ridden rant to a colleague, the substance of which is that politics, and politicians, are corrupt. One of his students, delighted by the novelty swearing, films it on his phone and posts it on YouTube, where it goes viral. The public loves this rant and wants to see him run for office, and his students are inspired to crowdfund the sum needed for him to stand for president. Goloborodko’s honesty dictates that he may only use this money for the purposes for which they intended it so he does reluctantly stand, and before he knows it he’s sitting in the back of a limo, on his way to the presidential palace.

I’d guess that Servant of the People was more inspired by American films like Dave (in which a good guy played by Kevin Kline impersonates the president, who is in a coma) than by our own Yes, Minister. But Yuriy Ivanovich Chuiko (Stanislav Boklan), the politician whose job it is to induct our hero into presidential life, and with whom he shares this limo, does have something of Sir Humphrey Appleby about him. “Have you ever thought about reforming the government?” Goloborodko asks him later, dazed by the sheer number of departments he must deal with. “Yes,” replies Chuiko, smoothly. “That’s why we have a reform department.”

Servant of the People’s satirical way with the ridiculous and unnecessary indulgences of high office may be over the top — not even the Shah of Iran had an “ostrichologist”, whose job it is to look after the “coatis, duck molls and hamadryad”, in his employ (duck molls? the subtitles are sometimes quite loopy) — but the real satisfaction of this series lies in the response of Goloborodko to the luxurious and highly dubious realm in which he finds himself. Can he, too, be corrupted?

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When he arrives at his inauguration in a battered taxi the driver rushes to open the door for him. Goloborodko is indignant. Why the ridiculous servility? “The door won’t open from the inside,” explains the driver, with a shrug. (Ba-boom!) Is the new president disappointed he misunderstood? I think we’re supposed to wonder about this, to take on board the notion that the trappings of power are harder to resist than one might imagine, but also to grasp that if anyone can do it, it’s this man: a lover of Plutarch, a cyclist, a fellow who mistakes Patek Philippe, the swanky watch brand, for a noted writer he has unaccountably failed to read.

Servant of the People” is streaming on All 4

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