Ukraine’s president has the world’s ear. Watch his TV show on Netflix to see why
Dressed in a green T-shirt and armed with little more than a camera and an internet connection, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has successfully captured the world’s attention while largely isolated in a war zone. From his virtual appeal to Congress on Wednesday to his viral social media communications with his own people and the world, Zelensky has masterfully weaponized against his Russian foes a skill set he honed long before he entered politics: The affable actor, comedian and political satirist with a populist bent has channeled his media savvy and his sincerity to press his country’s case.
Before taking office in 2019, Zelensky’s most notable role came in the startlingly prescient half-hour comedy series “Servant of the People,” which ran from 2015 to 2019. (Season 1 just returned to Netflix this week.) In it, Zelensky plays Vasyl Petrovych Goloborodko, a high-school history teacher who is unexpectedly elected to office after a student films and then posts video of him railing against government corruption and the clip goes viral.
For the record:
9:29 a.m. March 19, 2022An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Vladimir Putin as a former director of the KGB. He was an intelligence officer.
“It’s always the lesser of two a— and it’s been this way for 25 years...” the exasperated teacher rants, in what he believes to be a private conversation with a colleague. “Nothing will change. You know why? Because you, my dad, me, we’ll once again vote for another s— stick. We all know he’s an ass wipe but the other person is worse. ... They loot, and talk s—, and talk more s— and swindle. Same s—, different day. If I could have just one week in office, I would show them. F— the motorcades, f— the perks, f— the weekend chalets. ... Have a simple teacher live like a president, and a president live like a teacher!”
When newspaper columnists and TV correspondents express shock at European conflict, they reveal a damning belief that war is acceptable elsewhere.
And, with only minor tweaks to the narrative, that’s what happened in real life. When Zelensky, who also created and produced the series, ran for president of Ukraine, he named his political party after “Servant of the People” — and won by a landslide. He adopted a platform similar to that of his fictional character, promising to cut through corruption and politics as usual: the little guy up against a vast geopolitical machine, the Everyman who fights for the Ukrainian people where others treat them as obstacles to be pushed out of the way in pursuit of larger conquests.
Now, in a poignant case of life imitating art, Zelensky has proven there was more to the loyal, authentic and deeply invested character he played on TV than his acting chops and smart comedic timing. The unassuming Petrovych shares many of the qualities we’ve seen in Zelensky in recent weeks: Ukraine’s real-life leader is a resourceful and undaunted defender of his people, one who’s long since dispensed with the “perks” of office — and in fact continues to risk his life — while broadcasting from besieged Kyiv.
Fighting to save the country he loves with communication skills forged in a distinctly modern media environment, the man who voiced Paddington the bear for Ukrainian children launched an unprecedented virtual campaign imploring Western leaders to act.
On Thursday, in a speech aimed at Germany’s parliament, he shamed leaders for allowing Russia to expand its influence. He even went there, invoking the memory of the Holocaust. “Every year, politicians say, ‘Never again,’” said Zelensky, who is Jewish. “Now I see that these words are worthless. In Europe, a people is being destroyed.” When he pushed Congress on Wednesday, he likened the Russian assault to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and implored Biden to be “a leader of the world.” He referenced Winston Churchill when speaking with U.K. leaders, and in his speech to Canada’s parliament, he used the prime minister’s first name, Justin.
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A performer as president is nothing new, particularly in the U.S. Ronald Reagan jumped from film to politics, serving as California’s governor before making it to the White House for two terms — during which the Soviet hold on the Eastern bloc began to slip. Donald Trump slid directly from reality TV (no acting skills required) to the Oval Office, serving a weirder-than-“The Mask” term that ended in insurrection. But unlike Zelensky, neither of those screen personalities lampooned the government, world leaders or political persuasions — in productions they created — before becoming part of that system. And neither had to navigate as wide a range of audiences and platforms as he has.
Season 1 of “Servant of the People” brims with insights about modern governance, from the absurdity of the carefully orchestrated presentation — Petrovych is pressured by his media coach to put whole walnuts in his cheeks while rehearsing his inaugural speech — to searing indictments of graft, power and puppetry. Faceless influence peddlers plotting behind the scenes offer a sardonic warning sign of the perils Petrovych will face in office, especially when they discover, over caviar and Champagne, that the lowly schoolteacher’s election wasn’t bought. “A man ascending to the presidency who’s not under our control?! Is he a puppet of the West?! The Kremlin?!”
Russian President Vladimir Putin only wishes Ukrainians were following orders from Moscow: Given the speech he broadcast on state media Wednesday, the former KGB officer is deriving his war propaganda from a playbook written in the previous century. “Take power into your own hands,” Putin told Ukrainian soldiers, accusing their government of using its population as a human shield hours before Russian forces obliterated a civilian shelter in Mariupol that was clearly marked as having children inside.
But firepower is not the only might that matters. Zelensky has secured the loyalty of his people by being their servant, using the tools he has at hand, broadcasting Ukraine’s plight to the world.
‘Servant of the People’
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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