Brow Beat

Ukraine Elected a Sitcom Star President. His Show Tells Us What to Expect.

A political novice who campaigned as a publicity stunt won.

Photo collage of Zelensky in a still from the sitcom Servant of the People and at a polling station during Ukraine's election.
Volodymyr Zelensky, sitcom star and Ukraine’s president-elect. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Servant of the People and Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images.

In October of 2015, a new sitcom premiered in Ukraine called Servant of the People. A folksy, lighthearted political satire, it followed the story of Vasyl Holoborodko, a 37-year-old history teacher who is elected president after a video of him ranting against government corruption goes viral on YouTube. In its three seasons, Servant of the People saw Vasyl try to limit the political influence of the country’s oligarchs, represented on-screen by a trio of menacing face-obscured villains who plot Vasyl’s downfall over opulent meals and a high-stakes game of Monopoly in which they trade national industries. Once in office, Vasyl finds that the current political class has been bribed into complacency, so he appoints his trusted friends and his ex-wife Olga to cabinet positions. Insisting to Parliament that Olga would be a competent head of the central bank, Vasyl adds, “As her ex-husband, I can assure you that [she] knows how to monitor all financial streams.”

Last year, the production company behind Servant of the People, Kvartal 95, registered a political party by the same name and nominated the show’s lead actor, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, for the presidency. Political observers largely regarded his candidacy as a publicity stunt, and in truth, Zelensky did much to encourage that point of view. In lieu of participating in debates, he held large rallies that reportedly felt more like comedy shows than campaign events (he also charged an entrance fee). But on April 21, life imitated primetime, and Zelensky walked away with 73 percent of the vote (an even higher margin than his TV character’s win), beating out the incumbent Petro Poroshenko. As Zelensky has no prior political experience and largely avoided discussing policy during his campaign, it’s difficult to predict what his presidency might look like. All we really have to speculate from is his television show. So what can Servant of the People tell us about how Zelensky might govern Ukraine? Perhaps quite a lot, given how eerily Zelensky’s candidacy mirrors Vasyl Holoborodko’s rise to power: Both were heavily reliant on harnessing a potent mix of anti-establishment sentiment, social media prowess, and countrywide desire to play a joke on the powers that be.

Much like the viral video that garnered nationwide support for Vasyl’s presidential run, Servant of the People quickly shifted from mere entertainment to a real political sensation. In 2017, Zelensky told the website Cinema Escapist, “I have started receiving more messages from ordinary people that confirm there’s a desire for [someone like Holoborodko] to lead Ukraine through its current realities.” Those current realities are frightening. An ailing economy, widespread government corruption, and continued fighting with pro-Russian separatists have left Ukrainian citizens feeling beleaguered, frustrated, and maybe, it turns out, even a little desperate. Outside observers, particularly in Russia, have tended to paint Ukraine’s political difficulties as insurmountable and the country as endemically dysfunctional, teetering on the verge of becoming a failed state. The appeal of a show like Servant of the People is that it pushes against the idea that there’s anything structurally wrong with Ukraine; the country just needs good, honest people in office, and then everything will be OK. As one of Vasyl’s friends and appointees puts it: “The country is fine. We just have a lot of jackasses.”

In the pilot episode, we find Vasyl living with his parents, sister, and niece in a cramped apartment with outdated furnishings and broken appliances. His father drives an unregistered taxi to supplement the paltry government subsidy he receives as a pensioner. Vasyl works as a public school teacher where he collects a salary that—as his father likes to remind him—is less than he’d receive collecting unemployment wages. Vasyl even has to take out a loan to buy a microwave oven. But one day the family gets a knock on the door: The prime minister is there and congratulates Vasyl, now President Holoborodko. The show flashes back to Vasyl’s history classroom. After learning that his students have been pulled out of class to build voting booths for the upcoming election, he rants to a colleague in a profanity-laden tirade about the uselessness of voting: “It’s always the lesser of two assholes, and it’s been this way for 25 years.” It turns out a student is secretly recording Vasyl, who adds, “If I could have one week in office, if such a thing were possible, I would show them! Fuck the motorcades, fuck the perks, fuck the weekend chalets.” The video quickly garners 8 million YouTube views, and a political star is born. Social media was also a major component of Zelensky’s candidacy. Instead of participating in debates or giving interviews, Zelensky communicated almost exclusively with voters via Instagram (he has 4.7 million followers to Poroshenko’s 286,000).

As president, Vasyl starts to make good on his viral rant. We see him become turned off by the opulence of the presidential estate. During a tour of the property, he’s shown an antique chandelier that was recently replated with gold. “Remember the 2008 crisis?” his aide asks him. “This was that.” In just a couple of episodes, a disgusted Vasyl moves back in with his family and calls for sweeping anti-corruption reforms including one requiring government employees to declare their assets. That mirrored a real initiative implemented in 2016 that showed just how much wealth Ukraine’s political elite was amassing (the mayor of Dnipro had a ticket to space on a Virgin Galactic flight) while the country’s average monthly income teetered around $200. On Servant of the People, Vasyl’s reforms predictably attract pushback from political elites who do their best to collect kompromat (Russian for “compromising material”)—a word that has become increasingly well-known in the U.S. thanks to the alleged pee tape. But their operatives come up empty. Vasyl, in the tradition of inspiring TV presidents, is the real deal, an honest, hardworking teacher who can’t be blackmailed or bought.

This is the fantasy of Servant of the People—and it’s a popular one, not just in Ukraine. The ratings success of the show attracted attention from studios worldwide. In 2016, Fox bought option rights to make an American version of the show. Production companies in France and Greece swiftly followed suit. The original series was translated and aired in South Korea in 2017, and Netflix purchased streaming rights the same year. The show’s popularity and global appeal should come as no surprise; the idea that real political change can be ushered in by electing the right people without any radical altering of the political structure is a comforting, if silly, thought. And perhaps nowhere is that thought more attractive than in a country like Ukraine, which has seen revolutions and popular uprisings (most recently the 2014 Maidan movement) yield little in the way of actual change.

In the pilot episode, Vasyl, shortly after finding out he’s won, turns to his prime minister and says: “It feels like this is a practical joke.” It is uncanny to watch this scene, indeed this entire show, knowing what we know now. Whether or not Zelensky’s candidacy was indeed a practical joke or publicity stunt gone wrong, his election means that, for better or worse, anyone can become president. Either way, it makes for good TV, and it’s a reminder that democracy can be—and maybe is even supposed to be—scary.