Volodymyr Zelensky could become the country’s next real-life leader. If his show is any guide, Ukrainians should be worried.
Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky on set in Kiev, Ukraine, during filming of “Servant of the People” on Feb. 6. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
After this weekend’s first round of voting in Ukraine’s presidential election, Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular actor, and Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s current leader, have emerged as front-runners. Ukraine’s next president, though, will be either Poroshenko or Zelensky’s alter ego, Vasyl Holoborodko.
Holoborodko is the incorruptible television president Zelensky plays in the hit series Servant of the People, now in its third season. A simple schoolteacher, whose tirade against corruption is filmed by a student and goes viral, Holoborodko catapults to the presidency. In real life, Zelensky has kept his campaigning to a minimum. He has let Holoborodko do the work for him, which may mean that the only way to guess at the real man’s views may be to take seriously the fake one’s.
Like Zelensky, who never showed much of an interest in government until he decided he’d like to run one, Holoborodko knows little about politics, economics, or international affairs. In the show, he sets aside the stirring inaugural address his handlers have written to state that he won’t make any promises because that would be “dishonest and I don’t know enough.” He does assure the public, though, that he will “act in such a manner that I won’t be ashamed to look children in the eye.” His next two seasons in office are marked by a series of oftentimes funny confrontations with an intractable bureaucracy, slimy advisors, and corruptioneers galore.
If the show is, as one Canadian supporter of Zelensky has written, a “playbook for reform,” then his backers should be worried. At best, they can expect nothing but setbacks for two years. At worst, they might see their country dissolve and their leader go to jail. At the end of the second season,
Holoborodko’s efforts win him enough enemies that he loses a rigged election. In the third season, crazed Ukrainian nationalists (with the slogan “Freedom, Surname, Country”) stage a coup that leads to his arrest. As one of the usurpers says while asking prison inmates to reveal their last names (and, hence, their nationality), “Ukraine is not for everybody”—so much so, apparently, that even “Ukrainian prisons will only hold patriots.”
By the time the latest episode of the third season rolls around, the country breaks up into close to 30 statelets. In the far west is the Kingdom of Galicia; in the far east, the SSSR, which stands for Union of Free and Self-Reliant Republics but also happens to be the Latinized version of the Cyrillic acronym of the USSR. In the middle, there’s even a Jewish state centered on the city of Uman, the home to Hasidism. Fortunately for Ukraine, Holoborodko stages a comeback, is re-elected president, appoints a new cabinet of reformers, and is so successful that the breakaway statelets are persuaded to rejoin the nation. The economy booms, foreign direct investment returns, start-ups take off, migrants return home, and Ukraine even embarks on a space program.
Alas, two statelets refuse to come home—Galicia and the SSSR, whose elites insist they can’t coexist in a unified Ukraine. The people save the day, however. A fire breaks out in a Lviv mine, threatening the lives of the miners trapped in the shafts. The SSSR leadership refuses to help, but a troop of Russian-speaking rescuers from Donbass rushes to Lviv and saves their Ukrainian-speaking comrades. Both regions rejoin the nation, and Ukraine is whole once more.
But Holoborodko isn’t finished. He attends a meeting of Western countries in Brussels, where the Westerners admonish Ukraine for challenging their economic and political primacy. Holoborodko proudly walks out. Back in Ukraine, he tells a graduating class that he envies them for being able to live in this new Ukraine. But there’s one enormous problem that will affect them and their children for decades to come: Ukraine still has $163 billion in debt. He calls on Ukrainians to pay it back “so that we will never again be second-rate people.” The final scene of the episode (and, depending on Zelensky’s political fortunes, possibly of the series) shows Maidan square, the site of the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions of 2004 and 2014, respectively, piled high with gold. The people have come through. The show ends with a transparent campaign message to vote for Zelensky for president.
Most of the characters speak Russian most of the time. In reality, in Ukraine, Ukrainian is spoken publicly at least as often as Russian. The vast majority of Ukrainians who speak out for the Ukrainian language and culture are hardly radical putschists. Corruption is widespread, but it’s not quite the monster that Holoborodko—and Western journalists—imagines it to be. And rather than chide Ukraine, the West would be delighted if it took off economically and politically. These inaccuracies may be forgiven as campaign hyperbole.
Unforgivable is the absence from the show of Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin. In its alternate universe, Crimea and Donbass are not occupied. There is no war. There are no deaths. There is no mention of Russian attempts to quash Ukrainian independence since 1991. This curious absence suggests either that Zelensky, who serves as the show’s executive producer, has no idea how to deal with a very real existential threat to Ukraine or, far worse, that he doesn’t believe that there is one. At best, then, a President Zelensky would be prone to serious mistakes in his relations with Putin; at worst, he might be willing to make concessions that would hollow out Ukrainian sovereignty.
The absence of Putin’s Russia has another implication. It’s impossible to understand Ukraine’s war in the eastern Donbass region—the inspiration for the show’s own civil conflicts—without an appreciation for Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea; his support for separatists in Ukraine’s southeast; his continued basing of several thousand soldiers there; his stationing of tens of thousands of Russian troops, tanks, and artillery units along Ukraine’s border; and his blockade of Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov.
By ignoring all these facts, the show adopts Putin’s narrative—one that he began expounding years ago and then perfected during the Euromaidan revolution. Russia was forced to occupy Crimea and invade southeastern Ukraine, he insists, in order to save the country from the supposedly fascist junta that had ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, threatened the lives of Ukraine’s Russian speakers, and made plans to join the U.S.-led imperialist alliance known as NATO. The show effectively says Russians aren’t to be blamed for any of the country’s problems; blame Ukrainians, it argues, more specifically Ukrainian patriots who think they can rely on the West.
Throughout his five years in office, Poroshenko has consistently rejected Putin’s line and striven to make Ukraine a viable nation and state. In large measure, he has succeeded. Ukraine has a strong army that has fought the Russians and their Donbass supporters to a standstill. The country is increasingly integrated into Western institutions and is expanding its ties to the rest of the world. Poroshenko’s administration has adopted a raft of positive political, economic, social, and cultural reforms, and it has effectively left the Russian sphere of influence.
By contrast, if Servant of the People is any guide, Zelensky may well roll back these achievements and effectively bring Ukraine back into the so-called Russian world. Zelensky’s major strength—that he is identified with Holoborodko—is also his major weakness. He has got a few weeks before the next round of voting to make his own mark, but that, too, would be a problem; there is no hiding the fact that he has no experience in politics. Zelensky’s supporters hope that his advisors, especially the self-styled reformers who served under Poroshenko, will make up for his ignorance, but that’s unlikely. Their willingness to renounce Poroshenko when the going got tough bodes ill for their future dedication to Zelensky. Zelensky could end up completely on his own—or completely dependent on oligarch backers. On his own, he’ll fail as a reformer. As a puppet to powerful oligarchs, he would succeed as an anti-reformer. Whatever the outcome, a weak president would be just what Ukraine’s corrupt elite—and Putin—want.
Poroshenko is a known quality, which is his own strength and weakness. Many Ukrainians correctly see him as a steady hand who saved Ukraine from the brink of disaster in 2014-2015. Many also correctly see him as someone who has failed to defang the oligarchs and has imposed painful price hikes, mandated by the International Monetary Fund, on a struggling population. Five more years of Poroshenko would probably mean five more years of moderate reform, growing institutionalization and stability, and progressive integration into the West. But Poroshenko could also surprise Ukrainians. He just might worry about his historical legacy enough to conclude that he needs to do something dramatic—like a real crackdown on corruption.
The choice before Ukrainians couldn’t be starker. In 2004, they voted against Yanukovych. The government that followed failed at reform but succeeded in keeping Ukraine alive. In 2010, they voted for Yanukovych. His government ignored reform, promoted a pro-Putin agenda, threatened Ukraine’s existence, and sparked the Euromaidan revolution. In 2014, they voted for Poroshenko, who managed to create a Ukraine that is so free that it can seriously consider electing a make-believe president.
The question is: Will Ukrainians opt for fantasy, or will they decide that the current reality is good enough?