The president of Ukraine sits in his office, a glum look on his face. He has just been trounced in the election by a political outsider, and isn’t taking it well. When his successor, Vasyl Holoborodko, tries to move into his office, the outgoing president shoots at him through the door with a shotgun, just missing his target. He’s refusing to leave until his demands are met, says an aide: he wants a litre of vodka, several packs of cigarettes and political asylum in Yugoslavia. “But Yugoslavia doesn’t even exist anymore,” says Holoborodko. “He knows, that’s why he asked for the vodka,” the aide replies.
The mix of slapstick and satire is typical of “Servant of the People”, a television show that has gripped Ukrainian audiences since 2015. In an astonishing example of life imitating art, Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor and comedian who plays Holoborodko, was elected this month as Ukraine’s president. Despite having no political experience whatsoever, he managed to defeat Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent of five years, with a whopping 73% of the vote. Poroshenko graciously accepted defeat and congratulated Zelensky.
Aleksey Kiryushchenko, the actor who plays Zelensky’s on-screen opponent, is also the showrunner of “Servant of the People”, responsible for developing the storyline and producing and directing the show. But now that his star is too busy having meetings with foreign dignitaries and members of parliament, Kiryushchenko is saying goodbye. “We can’t have the show without its hero,” he tells me matter of factly. We are sitting in the canteen of Kvartal 95, Zelensky’s production company, which is housed in a converted Soviet apartment block in Kiev. “There were three seasons, and the fourth is happening now before our eyes,” Kiryushchenko tells me. “It has become reality.”
When Kiryushchenko was asked to work on “Servant of the People” four years ago, nobody on set seemed to think that the show would be renewed for a second season. Zelensky and his writers knew that the protagonist of their story would be an everyman-turned-politician, but they were struggling to put a fresh spin on a familiar archetype. For inspiration they watched “House of Cards”, “Yes, Minister” and “Boss”, starring Kelsey Grammer. In the end, they decided to set their story firmly in the 21st century: their hero, a Ukrainian schoolteacher, is elected president after his rant against the country’s corrupt establishment goes viral after being secretly filmed and uploaded to YouTube by a student. Zelensky’s character, Vasyl Holoborodko, reluctantly moves into the presidential residence. He resolves to purge Ukraine of corruption but, almost immediately, everyone from his bank clerk to the country’s most powerful oligarchs seek to buy his favour. The question tugging at the minds of viewers is whether Holoborodko will resist the urge to use his office to enrich himself or succumb to it, like so many before him.
“The show is an experiment,” Kiryushchenko says. “We see what happens when you drop an idealistic person into dirty politics, like a clean spoon full of honey into a barrel of tar.” That experiment has been wildly successful. “Servant of the People” was a hit, and is the only Ukrainian programme ever bought by Netflix. Tired of their scandal-ridden politics (Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe after Russia according to Transparency International), Ukrainians found in Holoborodko a man who not only entertained them but who also promised to defend their interests against those who would ransack the country. Holoborodko gave his fans hope for a better future.
Enter Zelensky. He announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve last year. Though Kiryushchenko is careful to say that Zelensky didn’t consult him while he was thinking about a run for office, he does recall one conversation they had during that period.“‘You are doing satire,’ I told him. ‘What’s the goal? You want him [Poroshenko] to change? You want him to become better. You criticise him at first gently, then harder and harder, and he doesn’t change. So are you going to do that into old age, barking at his feet like a little dog? Maybe change places and become him yourself.’”
That’s when the border between fact and fiction began to blur. The latest season of the show was broadcast during the election campaign. As viewers watched Holoborodko rooting out corruption on screen, they observed his real-life avatar, backed by a political party called “Servant of the People”, criticising Poroshenko and championing ideas first mooted by Holoborodko, such as getting rid of the presidential motorcade which Holoborodko thought frivolous. Zelensky even once addressed his social media audience while he was on set and in costume, and took to the stage on election night as the show’s theme music played on the speakers.
“Do you think Zelensky would have won if it wasn’t for Holoborodko?” Kiryushchenko asks rhetorically. “People believe in Zelensky’s character on the show and can’t separate them.”
Kiryushchenko claims that he, Zelensky and their team had no idea that their show would prove a highly effective means of mobilising voters. “The show ended up being a new kind of political technology,” he says, using a post-Soviet term for the techniques used to influence voters. “For the world that was a really unexpected political shock. But we didn’t plan that. I would love to say we did, that we have some sort of know-how in political technology. I would have a million offers on my desk from people asking me to do the same thing for them.”
Part of Zelensky’s appeal is that he is a political outsider, one who isn’t in the pocket of the oligarchs, or so he claims. His opponents disagree. “Servant of the People” is aired on 1+1, a popular TV channel which provided favourable coverage of Zelensky during the campaign. Poroshenko has accused Zelensky of being the puppet of the owner of 1+1, an oligarch called Ihor Kolomoisky. Zelensky denies the claim.
Other concerns abound. Many Ukrainians worry about Zelensky’s lack of experience. He may be able to act the part of a president but when the cameras are turned off and the real work begins, what then? He readily admits that his political views aren’t well developed; when a BBC journalist met him in January, the journalist described those views as “still very much a work in progress”. Zelensky has responded to reports that he came across as clueless in briefings with diplomats by promising to surround himself with eggheads. But at a particularly fraught time for the country, which is still at war with Russia, some may reasonably wonder whether Zelensky is fit for office.
Whatever happens with Zelensky’s presidency, “Servant of the People” is on the verge of going global. Even before Zelensky was elected, media companies in over 15 countries, including Fox Studios in America, had bought the rights to remake the series, creating the possibility that copycats will try to launch their own political careers via the characters they play on screen. “I opened Pandora’s box,” admits Kiryushchenko.
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