Ukraine’s New Leading Man

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky; drawing by James Ferguson

The Ukrainian television series Servant of the People, which aired from 2015 until this year, is the story of Vasyl Holoborodko, a dedicated history teacher in his late thirties who lives with his parents. His father is a taxi driver, his mother a neurologist, and his sister a train conductor. This mixture of familial professions would be surprising in an American setting, but it is perfectly logical in Ukraine, where doctors in the public sector belong to the beleaguered lower-middle class, at best. (The average salary for a Ukrainian doctor is around $200 a month.) Vasyl is divorced, with a young son: his marriage was destroyed by money worries. His father tells him he’s wasting time by going to work, since unemployment payments are bigger than a teacher’s salary. The family has a classically Soviet apartment that was given to Vasyl’s maternal grandmother in recognition of her accomplishments as a historian; it is located in a decrepit Khrushchevka, one of the many cheaply constructed apartment complexes that sprouted like mushrooms on the outskirts of Soviet cities in the 1960s.

Poorly paid though he is, Vasyl has a genuine passion for his profession: he stays up late reading Plutarch and loves to regale anyone who’ll listen with lectures about history. In an early episode, we see him teaching his teenaged students about Mykhailo Hrushevsky, head of the 1917–1918 revolutionary parliament during Ukraine’s painfully short first period of national independence. Before the lesson on Hrushevsky is finished, a school functionary arrives to say that class is canceled; the students have to nail together voting booths for the upcoming presidential election. Vasyl loses his temper, and one of the students surreptitiously films his expletive-filled rant about how history matters—unlike the election, which is a farce that offers no meaningful choice and no way out of the corruption that plagues Ukraine.

The video goes viral, a crowd-funding campaign generates a suitcase full of cash to pay for Vasyl’s entry into the race, and before he knows it, he is Ukraine’s new president. In a black car on the way to his first day of work, he holds onto the handle above the window, as if he’s in a tram, and he worries about when he’ll find time to make his payment on the loan he took out to buy a microwave oven. Servant of the People is full of details like this, juxtaposing the grinding financial concerns of ordinary Ukrainians with the absurd privileges enjoyed by the political elite; Vasyl’s handler has the loan forgiven and then asks him what kind of luxury watch he’d prefer. Ordinary people who are tempted by the lure of corruption are treated with laughing sympathy by the series, while oligarchs are cartoonish villains scarfing up caviar as they plot to manipulate and exploit the masses.

Watching Servant of the People today is an eerie experience. In April Volodymyr Zelensky, the…

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