Poster of the TV show Servant of the People. Source
Bringing together politics and show business, this project became a significant part of Zelenskyy’s internet campaign, including platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. The show generated great interest in terms of political advertising and, for instance, a few episodes were watched by Angela Merkel.
Although Zelenskyy denies the promotional component of the comedy, it is deeply entwined with his election strategy: from the name of the party to its logo showing a man with a mace riding on a bicycle.
Followed by the eloquent slogan: “A story of the next president,” the TV series represents a typical satirical plot: a protagonist, Vasyl Holoborodko (Volodymyr Zelenskyy) who is an ordinary school teacher, unexpectedly wins the presidential elections and starts reforming the whole political system, fighting against greedy oligarchs and protecting the rights of the common people. Being a straight, naive, noble, and a little bit ridiculous newcomer, he invites sympathy, unlike all the ministers and deputies mired in corruption and lies.
Mocking all the parties and their leaders, the show depicts them as incurable criminals, liars, and bureaucrats whatever their ideologies and programs: from radicals to democrats, from pro-Russian oppositionists to far-right nationalists. The Ukrainian language is only used in the TV series by ridiculous characters; all the “serious” politicians speak Russian. Even the president himself during his inaugural address starts speaking Ukrainian and then turns to Russian “to be more sincere,” which strengthens the linguistic schizophrenia in the show.
The message was rather transparent: the main character has a messianic function of saving the country and its people, being the last chance for quick and effective change.
The series also makes extensive use of Ukrainian political realities, showing the main character in the best possible light. Thus, a character of Zhanna Borysenko is an allusion to Yulia Tymoshenko, head of the Batkivshchyna party. She is described as hypocritical, deceitful, and dependent on the oligarchs.
One of the most dangerous antagonists is Dmytro Surikov, who represents the image of Petro Poroshenko. He is competent, wise, and has a spotless reputation; on the other hand, he is striving for money and absolute power against all odds in the show.
The character’s tyrannical presidency was followed by a new Maidan uprising. Curiously, in this episode real photos from the Ukrainian Euromaidan were used to emphasize his criminal activity, symbolically placing him on a par with exiled former President Viktor Yanukovych.
In one of the episodes, Holoborodko shoots dead all the MPs in the Verkhovna Rada after a wrathful speech creating the atmosphere of a Hollywood blockbuster and gaining public recognition. This is an allegorical image of a national hero who gets rid of hazardous enemies – if one disregards the fact that these “enemies” were delegated to the parliament to represent the will of the people. This metaphor from the film has turned into reality, albeit a less violent one, after Zelenskyy’s inaugural address when he announced the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada and his later confrontation with the parliament.
Holoborodko’s friends who were shown in the series as honest and incorruptible professionals, occupied all the key posts, heading various ministries and state institutions. This film episode has also become real in Zelenskyy’s appointments, in which he gave away public positions to his allies from Kvartal 95.
In the film, Holoborodko is shown as a great reformer and educator [Zelenskyy’s character is a world history teacher in a Russian-language school – YZ.]. This image came to life after the parliamentary elections, in which Zelenskyy’s party had an overwhelming victory and now has a single-party majority in parliament. The new parliament now boasts 80% of new faces, most of which have no political background. Moreover, now members of the haphazardly assembled pro-presidential party started a week-long “MP school” – basically, a training course at the Kyiv School of Economics.
In the show, Holoborodko reorganized the President’s administration, moving it from the city center to the outskirts to save budgetary resources. In life, head of the presidential administration (now renamed into an office) Andrii Bohdan stated that it would be moved from its original location at Bankova Street to the nearby Yevropeiska Ploshcha in central Kyiv and be turned into an open space accessible to the Ukrainian public. However, unlike the outcome in the film, this ambitious project may cost Ukrainian taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The third season of the show was released during the presidential election which made its advertising influence as effective as possible. Following the example of The Simpsons where Donald Trump’s presidency was predicted, Servant of the People made several prophetic gestures about upcoming events in Ukraine. All in all, being a part of a powerful internet campaign of the current president, the Servant of the People phenomenon is not only a new way of delivering political messages but also a new era of relationship between candidate and electorate, a fiction which is now too close to the truth.
What steps Zelenskyy’s TV character took and President Zelenskyy still didn’t
In fact, most of the actions by fictional president Holoborodko in the TV series have nothing in common with the real-life presidency and go way beyond presidential powers. The character is presented as a kind of absolute monarch who can do anything he wants. However, in real life, Zelenskyy approaches to the full control of the legislative and executive branches of power after his political force won the majority in the Parliament.
- The fictional president ordered the Parliament to move to the outskirts of Kyiv and to use bicycles instead of luxury cars (Ep. 7, S. 1). The real-life president didn’t consider moving the Rada anywhere from downtown Kyiv yet. As well as he didn’t show the signs that even he himself was going to refuse using the presidential carpool and airliners.
- Holoborodko imposed a fiscal reform, reducing tax rates (Ep. 12, S. 1). It didn’t happen in reality.
- Holoborodko pressed oligarchs throughout the entire TV series, meanwhile, Zelenskyy didn’t go farther than words so far.
- The character cancels Ukraine’s cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (Ep. 14, S. 2), while Zelenskyy himself favors such cooperation.
- Holoborodko loses his second presidential elections, ends up in prison. While he’s incarcerated a revolution rocks the country followed by a military coup. At the moment Holoborodko returns to his presidency, fictional Ukraine has been collapsed into 28 independent states. No actions of Holoborodko were connected to the described plot, however, the showcased grim reality was shown in three episodes of the third season, premiered amid the presidential campaign of real Zelenskyy. The collapsed Ukraine in the TV series could be as just a message of the presidential campaign which can be worded as “everything is bad without Zelenskyy,” as preparations to changing the political organization of Ukraine from the current unitary state to a federation.