Rewatching Zelensky’s Servant of the People as Russia Wages War on Ukraine
Sonya Bilocerkowycz on the Potency of Narrative in Ukrainian Political Life
I am a writer, but at the first reports of Russian shelling over Kyiv in February, my fixations shifted from the realm of words to that of numbers: the number of hours a friend waited in line at the Polish border to evacuate (23); the number of kilometers between the bombed oil depot and my cousin’s house (28); the number of missiles Russia has launched at Ukraine (nearly 2,000); the number of Russian tanks destroyed by Ukrainian forces (725); the number of IFAK and trauma kits needed for an aid shipment (more, always more); the number of people still trapped and starving in Mariupol, the city around them being razed to the ground (120,000).
Last weekend a mass grave of Ukrainian civilians was found in Bucha. I am inclined to stop the essay here. What else is there to say? My sentences feel dry and dusty. I do not recognize them.
Though I have lived and worked in Ukraine in the past, and have family and friends there now, I am not there. I am in the US, far away from Russia’s airstrikes. My grandparents came to America from Ukraine as WWII refugees. They had survived the horrors of the Nazi and Soviet occupations, and clung to their Ukrainian identity and culture. Busia, my grandmother, said that during the years they were in a displaced persons camp after the war, she and other Ukrainians would stage theatrical renditions of Taras Shevchenko’s narrative poems.
When they finally settled in Chicago, my grandparents hung embroidered portraits of Shevchenko and other Ukrainian poets like Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka in the living room. As a child I stayed in their house for several months each year, so perhaps it is no coincidence that I grew up to identify as a Ukrainian-American writer.
When Lit Hub asked if I wanted to write about Servant of the People, the comedy series Volodymyr Zelensky created and starred in prior to becoming president of Ukraine (the first season of which Netflix brought back last month), my initial reaction was no. Though I have been thinking and writing about Ukrainian art for a long time, when Russia launched its full-scale war on February 24, my desire to engage with art dissipated. Comedy, as a genre and a concept, seemed irrelevant. What’s the point of composing some dried-out English sentences from afar? My books are secure on the shelves around me, while in areas of Ukraine that have been occupied, there are reports of Russian troops seizing and burning Ukrainian literature.
Servant of the People first aired on Ukrainian channel 1+1 and on YouTube in 2015, the year after the Maidan revolution overthrew Ukraine’s corrupt, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Russia had retaliated by annexing Crimea and starting a war in the Donbas region. Maidan was the country’s third revolution in 25 years, which reveals something about how Ukrainians conceive of their own political agency. While they embrace free and fair elections, there is also an emphasis on corporeal politics and direct action, on imagining impossible things and then propelling those things into existence.
One example is when Ukrainian revolutionaries seized Yanukovych’s lavish and sprawling presidential estate Mezhyhirya, north of Kyiv. What had been a highly secretive private compound stuffed with vintage cars and Italian furniture was transformed into a public park and the site of a summer camp for displaced children from Crimea and Donbas. When I strolled the verdant grounds overlooking the Dnipro River as a visitor to Mezhyhirya in 2014, it felt like a sort of eat-the-rich dreamscape made real. (Currently, the basement of Yanukovych’s former mansion is serving as a bomb shelter for local families.)
In the Ukrainian context, speculative politics and speculative art have a kind of eerie immediacy, their imagined worlds soon borne out by material realities. This is famously evident in Zelensky’s rise to the presidency on an anti-corruption platform following Servant of the People. In the series, Zelensky plays Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a history teacher who lives with his parents in their Kyiv apartment and reads Plutarch before bed. (The character is said to be named after living Ukrainian poet Vasyl Holoborodko—reportedly to the poet’s chagrin.) He is fed-up with political corruption in the country, and one day channels his frustrations into a profanity-laden rant after class. A student is secretly recording, and the video of Holoborodko’s outburst goes viral, his rage and candor resonating widely in this fictional version of Ukrainian society. His students then organize a crowdfunding effort to register Holoborodko as a presidential candidate.
Zelensky’s character is bewildered and embarrassed by all the attention. After he miraculously wins the election, Holoborodko continues to embrace an everyman identity, by, for instance, trying to evade his security detail so he can take a marshrutka bus to work. There’s a Ted Lasso-style earnestness to Holoborodko in season one, as if the show is sincerely testing out the premise that a regular, decent person can sanctify the tarnished corridors of power by mainly just being himself.
Of course, that aura of sincerity was intentional, and not only for its narrative effect. “We were not just making a kind of humorous critique but also proposing something to society, putting forward our vision,” one of the show’s writers, Yuriy Kostyuk, told The New Yorker in 2019. “In fact, the show was successful precisely because we weren’t indifferent—we really wanted Servant of the People to demonstrate that a different life was possible.” After he won the election, Zelensky appointed Kostyuk to his presidential administration.
I binged the first season of Servant of the People over a weekend in 2019, while sick at home with the flu. Zelensky had been inaugurated a few months earlier, but I had avoided his show until then, in part because several Ukrainian friends had expressed reservations about their country electing an actor-turned-president—a concern I certainly empathized with. I found myself charmed by Zelensky’s portrayal and also leery of it. He was a good storyteller, but does that translate into good leadership?
In one early episode, Holoborodko tells the prime minister Yuriy Chuiko (played by Stanislav Boklan) that he has some ideas for his upcoming inaugural address. Before he can elaborate, Chuiko interrupts and dismisses him, explaining to Holoborodko that they have speech writers for that, so the president shouldn’t concern himself with such trivialities and minutiae. “You think it’s minutiae?” Holoborodko asks, visibly disappointed. To him—and to Zelensky—crafting narrative is not an afterthought or a chore to delegate. It is central to how he understands the responsibilities of his office.
It’s hard to ignore the potency of narrative in Ukrainian political life, given how Servant of the People’s fictional storyline served as a scaffolding for reality. Today, it’s not enough for the Russian occupiers to try and destroy Ukrainian people, including Zelensky—they are also destroying Ukrainian books. Putinism demands the suppression of Ukrainian literature and stories in order to continue Moscow’s long legacy of colonial violence toward Ukraine.
For several centuries, Russian imperial authorities subjected Ukrainians to systemic persecution and, in 1863, banned the publication of most texts in the Ukrainian language. Under Soviet-era policy in the 1930s, a generation of Ukrainian modernist writers were murdered or deported in what is called the “Executed Renaissance.” That name emerged through the title of an anthology, edited two decades later by exiled Ukrainian writer Yuriy Lavrinenko, who attempted—with much difficulty—to curate a selection of work from those vanished authors. Lavrinenko notes that out of 259 Ukrainian writers who had managed to publish in the USSR in 1930, only 36 of them were still active by 1938. Lavrinenko himself survived over three years in a Siberian gulag. Now, in 2022, Russian state media is openly calling for the “de-Ukrainianization” of Ukraine.
What does it mean, then, to be a writer in this tradition? When a Ukrainian text articulates a vision of the future, it inevitably pushes back against the past, against the violence that sought—and seeks—its erasure. I decided to write this essay about Servant of the People because Ukrainian art does not exist in some separate sphere, exempt from Russia’s war. What’s interesting, and perhaps less legible to a non-Ukrainian viewer, is that when Servant of the People first aired, not everyone was satisfied with how it represented Ukrainian-ness.When a Ukrainian text articulates a vision of the future, it inevitably pushes back against the past, against the violence that sought—and seeks—its erasure.
One criticism was that the series treats the 2014 Maidan revolution flippantly, in that it depicts a proliferation of “Maidans” (especially in season 3) as a detriment to national unity. For Ukrainians who mourn the protestors murdered by government snipers during what is known as the “Revolution of Dignity,” a dismissive portrayal does not sit well. It echoes aspects of the Kremlin’s chosen narrative about Maidan, namely that it sowed chaos.
It also troubled viewers that, aside from a few passing jokes, Putin and Russia are hardly mentioned in the show. The Russian occupation of Crimea and the war in Donbas do not exist in Holoborodko’s Ukraine, despite that by the time the series premiered, Russia’s aggression had caused the internal displacement of 1.5 million people and several thousand deaths. It is a glaring omission that obscures Russia’s role in destabilizing Ukraine.
Another salient point of contention is that the characters in Servant of the People speak almost entirely in Russian, with Ukrainian used briefly for ceremonial purposes, newscasts, et cetera. Recalling the history of Moscow’s suppression of the Ukrainian language can help explain both why this fact about the show bothered some Ukrainians, and why it is a fact at all. Russification has long been part of the colonial project, though it would be wrong to imply that Russophone Ukrainians somehow lack agency. Zelensky is a native Russian speaker who made a concerted effort to improve his Ukrainian language skills when he ran for president, and who also promoted a pluralistic message with regard to Ukraine’s linguistic diversity and its widespread bilingualism.
That said, Russia’s current brutality seems to be hastening a process of grassroots Ukrainianization that began in 2014. One widely shared meme video even appears to show Zelensky forgetting several Russian words during a recent interview with Russian journalists. Some friends who didn’t support Zelensky in 2019 now express their admiration for him and for how he uses narrative to galvanize and comfort in his nightly video updates. Unlike the show, these videos are trenchant about Russia’s sole responsibility for the devastation in Bucha, Mariupol, and across Ukraine. To view Servant of the People today is to view a work of art from a country facing a renewed existential threat, and thus rapidly changing in real time.
“No matter what, we all have to think about the future,” Zelensky said in his video update on March 31. “About what Ukraine will be like after this war. How we will live. Because this is a war for our future.”
When I imagine the specifics, I see a future permeated with innumerable Ukrainian stories. Stories that stretch themselves into Chicago living rooms and other places far beyond Ukraine’s borders. If these dried-out sentences can alchemize into something real, maybe it is in their function as a portal. To be in solidarity with Ukrainians, go watch a Ukrainian comedy. Read Ukrainian essays and poems, fiction and memoir. Support Ukrainian publishers and translators of Ukrainian literature. Listen to Ukrainian folk music and hip-hop. Encounter Ukrainian architecture and art.
These are not trivialities or afterthoughts, but the exact mediums through which Ukrainians will, once again, envision and rebuild.