Volodymyr Zelensky does not mince his words. “Our presidents come to power and make the same mistakes,” he shouts. “They come to power and steal and steal and steal, and nobody gives a s–t. If I could get in there, I’d show them. I’d do away with their corteges, with the bonuses, the summer cottages. All of them!” This is not, however, the Volodymyr Zelensky of 2022, President of Ukraine, freedom fighter and idol of the Western world. This is the Volodymyr Zelensky of 2015, zany comic and romcom star, voice of Paddington Bear, and winner of the Ukrainian version of Strictly Come Dancing.
Zelensky’s rant about corrupt Ukrainian politicians comes in the first episode of his political satire series Servant of the People, in which he plays Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a mild-mannered history teacher from Kyiv who “accidentally” becomes president when his expletive-filled rant is filmed by one of his students and goes viral in the Ukraine. The final episode of the third series was aired in the Ukraine on 28 March 2019. Zelensky became president on 21 April. Holoborodko wins with a landslide 67 per cent of the vote. Zelensky got 73 per cent.
Watching the series now is surreal – and you’ll be able to do so via Channel 4 from Sunday – not just because Holoborodko’s story mirrors Zelensky’s in an uncanny way (Zelensky’s political party is named Servant of the People), but because of the gorgeous shots of a vibrant, sun-kissed, bustling Kyiv. The series’ very first shot is of Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Kyiv’s Independence Square – with its towering Independence Monument, which once was topped with a statue of Lenin. At the time of writing, it still stands. In Servant of the People, it is an instant flash of irony. The men we see looking at the Independence Monument are the corrupt billionaires who rig the Ukrainian elections.
Zelensky to most of us now is the indefatigable, courageous leader of a beleaguered people, who may well be dead by the time Channel 4 broadcast his comedy-drama. Here, he is the archetypal sitcom everyman, tottering around his parents’ poky flat, annoyed that no one will iron his shirt, fretting about being late for work, burning his hand on the coffee pot and generally being vexed that everyone is busting his balls . In his white vest, the diminutive Zelensky is reminiscent of Joe Pesci. His comic timing of him is exquisite, his charisma undoubted. But you’d no more imagine him as president of his nation as you would Lee Mack.
The show’s satire isn’t hard to locate. Holoborodko is a decent, honest man – if completely out of his depth and a little bumbling – in a system so corrupt that the new president’s first duty is to pick out his designer gear (would he like a limited edition Hublot watch on his wrist? Putin has one, he’s told). The moment he is made president, former enemies bow and scrape fearfully at his feet from him – the headteacher who wanted to fire him after the viral video bakes him a cake and organizes for the children to sing him a ludicrous song of praise. His father calls distant cousins to promise them jobs in government. It is all very Soviet.
It is also, occasionally, very funny. In episode two, Holoborodko is introduced to a comically long line of increasingly arcane department chiefs, which causes him to suggest some reforms are needed. “I quite agree,” says his lackey of him. “That’s why we set up the Department for Reforms.” The parp-parp sitcom soundtrack is a little annoying, but forgivable – under the circumstances it’s quite nice to be reminded that this is a comedy – and some of the more subtle jokes are inevitably lost in translation (the broader jokes, alas, aren’ t). However, you won’t worry about that. This is a head-spinning meta-watch that simply cannot be missed. That there, playing the President of Ukraine, you remind yourself, is the President of Ukraine.
The first three episodes of Servant of the People will air on Channel 4 on Sunday from 10.35pm