The Uncanny Prescience of Servant of the People

Revisiting Volodymyr Zelensky’s comedy through the eyes of America—and the world—today

Volodymyr Zelensky as the fictional president of Ukraine, peeking out from behind red curtains, in "Servant of the People"
Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty

A charming, baby-faced man, somewhere in his late 30s or early 40s, rises to a governmental lectern flanked by blue-and-yellow flags. He is not a career politician. World leaders think of him as something of a joke. He looks at the gathered crowd, draws a breath, and, in Ukrainian, begins his inaugural speech.

The speaker is not Volodymyr Zelensky. Or rather, he is, but only in character as Vasily “Vasya” Petrovych Goloborodko—the schoolteacher improbably elected the president of Ukraine in Servant of the People, Zelensky’s 2015–19 comedy whose first season is now on Netflix with English subtitles. The show asks: What if a common man were president of Ukraine? He might not be expected to maintain his incorruptibility in the face of rampant cronyism, but maybe, just maybe, he could.

Watching Servant of the People today is like watching The West Wing knowing that America really elected Martin Sheen—and that he turned out to be the most rousing wartime leader in the nation’s living memory. This is not merely life imitating art; it is art that seems to have created the conditions under which life imitated it. Servant of the People ran for three seasons in Ukraine, up to Zelensky’s actual election in 2019. It is as if Zelensky reprised the role in a fourth season that is real life, broadcasting now on our television screens. Of course, the character in the show is not Zelensky. The differences between the two have been documented, though in another case of life imitating art, many early assessments of Zelensky underestimated his capacity for the moral clarity that would later garner him widespread praise.

To watch Servant today is to see it with the knowledge of this future, which heightens every moment. In a clip that made the rounds on social media, Vasya gets a call accepting his country into the European Union, and the camera spins in euphoria—until the caller reveals that she dialed the wrong number. At a different point, Vasya says, “Europe will laugh” at Ukraine—and his prime minister (played by Stanislav Boklan) answers, “It’s not scary when they laugh at you. It’s scarier when they cry over you.” When a meteorite in Servant is headed toward Kyiv to wipe Ukraine off the map, Vasya’s foreign minister (Evgeniy Koshevoy) says to him, “You’re still here?  I thought you’d fled the country.” Vasya, perplexed, says, “Where to?”

Though the scene is played later as a comic misunderstanding, the viewer has already watched it through the lens of history in the making. We momentarily imagined Ukraine gone, and possibly Earth alongside it. We saw that Vasya in his privileged position could flee, as Zelensky could have in real life, and it doesn’t occur to him. Viewers cannot know to what degree we are watching a character or the man himself, but we do see a president who will not abandon his people. Almost immediately, we learn that there is no meteorite. The prime minister planted the story to get civil protesters off everybody’s back.

The show is very funny, its tone half Veep, half West Wing. It follows a lovable cast of goofball family and friends. Its references to Vladimir Putin are always cheeky. (“Putin has been deposed!” is the running joke that Vasya uses to command attention.) The key threats in Servant’s Ukraine are from within, and the show’s humor lies largely in the inherent absurdities of corruption, its Escher-like quality of fingers pointing at themselves. The show seems to take real glee in presenting its Ukrainian oligarchs in ridiculous excess, always at their dilettantish canvases or above a pool table or sipping wine while overlooking Kyiv. The show is eminently bingeable, and I can’t wait for the next season to arrive on Netflix—even knowing that it dropped five years ago.

Indeed, an American viewer’s eye on Servant is, if slightly unexpected, not the wrong way to watch the show by its own lights. Perhaps most fascinating to such an audience will be the recurrent Americanisms in it—including an appearance by Al Capone and references to the likes of Huckleberry Finn, Bill Clinton, and the John F. Kennedy assassination. Barack Obama is particularly notable for being mentioned roughly once an episode in the early part of Season 1, which aired in 2015. (Until Netflix releases Season 2, I can only speculate as to how the 2017 and 2019 seasons reference Donald Trump.) Obama is the first world leader shown commenting on Vasya’s win; an entire plotline follows the Ukrainian leader’s family aspiring to Michelle Obama’s fashion sense. The plotline reads as a fascination with the typology of a young, charismatic president who has an unusual connection to the pulse of his country.

Zelensky’s character is a history teacher, and the show gives us stylized flashes into his fantasies, which feature cameos from great—and not-so-great—leaders of the past. These appearances, including ones by Che Guevara, Louis XVI, and Yaroslav the Wise (the only Ukrainian in the lot), are when the show is at its most fun and creative, and certainly its most impudently intellectual. The first shot of Vasya is of him in bed with a copy of Plutarch’s Lives open on his face; then Plutarch and Herodotus show up in his fantasies, in Greek robes and white beards, debating what kind of leader Vasya should be. Autocrat? Democrat? (The show cheekily avoids mentioning that Plutarch excoriated Herodotus in his actual writing. He also wrote about Julius Caesar, who shows up here too.)

As if in answer to their question, the very next fantasy sequence—only the second in the show—features Abraham Lincoln. He has arrived because Vasya has realized that his handlers’ inauguration speech is plagiarized from the Gettysburg Address. “We have much in common,” Lincoln tells Vasya. “You could also free your people.” With that, Lincoln is the only apparition who does not offer tragically outdated advice for violent governance. Clearly, American ideals of freedom and democracy—however imperfectly realized here in the United States—were formative to Zelensky’s presidential character in his show.

It’s worth contrasting Lincoln’s understanding of freedom with that of the season’s other most notable phantasm: 16th-century Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, who shows up in the finale to insist that Russia will free Ukraine, while Vasya argues that Ukraine doesn’t need freeing. This episode seems to set up a shift in attention from the threat within Ukraine to the threat without.

I don’t want to be too credulous about the show’s merits. The series tends to under-serve its women—particularly its most cerebral one, a secretary named Oksana (Olha Zhukovtsova-Kyiashko), who receives an uncritical Grease/She’s All That makeover plotline that is beneath the show. The relationship between Zelensky’s fictional show and his real candidacy was characterized in The Atlantic as three seasons of campaigning. But history has a way of revealing what was fleeting and what was truly prescient.

I am left thinking of the scene of Vasya in bed with his son. “It turns out that it’s not easy being president,” Vasya says. His son asks if he has a superpower. Vasya smiles at the boy. “Of course I do. You.” It is hard not to see the resonance with real life: Zelensky himself has children, and he risks death for what he views as the only path forward for Ukraine. The scene concludes with the president turning onto his back, holding his son and almost sleeping—but his eyes are open, looking worriedly at the ceiling.