Servant of the People

Alan Zendell, May 9, 2022

By now, most of us know the remarkable story of Ukrainian President Володимир Зеленський (Volodymyr Zelensky) and how he found himself at the fulcrum of history. But knowing isn’t the same as seeing and feeling. Thus, as our nation continues to mobilize resources and inch ever closer to what could become a much wider conflict, helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression, I urge every American to watch the Netflix series, Servant of the People.

I thought nothing would make feel more certain that defending Ukraine was right and necessary. I even bought four Ukrainian flags and my friends and I display them proudly. But this Netflix series gave me an entirely new and greater commitment to saving Ukraine, no matter the risk. What is at stake is all of our futures if we allow Ukraine to fall.

If you’re not aware of Zelensky’s history, I’ll summarize it briefly. The media enjoy the irony that Russian President Putin characterizes his invasion as the denazification of Ukraine, ignoring the fact that Zelensky is Jewish. But Zelensky’s religion, while it may have shaped his values and his heroic character, is only part of who he is. During the Bush and Obama years, Zelensky was one of the most popular and beloved comedian/actors in Ukraine. From 2015 to 2017, he starred in Servant of the People, playing the role of a Ukrainian high school teacher who loved his students and was equally loved by them. The show is not a Hollywood production; it was made in Ukraine in Russian, by and for Ukrainians and their neighbors.

During the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, Ukraine was still a country struggling to become a successful democracy following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the young nation suffered under the yoke of corruption, as powerful oligarchs lived high on the backs of its citizens, driving the country deeply into debt.

As fictional history teacher Vasyl Petrovich Holoborodko, Zelensky is outraged by the corruption and the neglect of public education. One day, he loses his cool in a profane rant against the system, not realizing that one of his students is filming him. The video is uploaded to You Tube, where it gets nine million views. Vasya (вася) Petrovich is an instant national hero who is drafted to run for president. Though he appears to have no chance to win, his students begin a nationwide campaign on social media that carries him to victory.

All that occurs in episode one, and there are fifty more in which Vasya fights corruption and the oligarchs. The series was intended as a dark comedy, and it’s very funny, but viewed in the light of current events, it’s amazingly portentous. It was so successful, and Zelensky was so convincing in the role, that life followed art. He was drafted to run for president, and in 2019 he defeated his corrupt opposition convincingly.

Americans saw him for the first time when Trump attempted to extort him into destroying the reputation of President Biden’s son Hunter. Our first view of him was a reflection of the character he played, as he stood up to and defied Trump. Watching Servant, I was first struck by the magnificent beauty of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. One look at this city, which is on display constantly, and all of the grand history and majesty of Ukrainian culture is obvious. Seeing life go on in this capital before Putin attempted to destroy it added a powerful emotional component to my support for Ukraine. And hearing the fictional Vasya voice the same sentiments and love for his country that the real President Zelensky does every day is inspiring in a way that’s difficult to describe. Vasya is incredibly courageous, taking on the entire system single-handedly, and the viewer is struck by how diminutive he is physically.

Zelensky is only five feet seven inches tall, and everyone else towers over him, but nothing stops him. It’s an apt metaphor for the real Zelensky, whose courage has stunned the world, as his relatively small nation fights off monolithic Russia.

Almost as an aside, it’s interesting to see how Ukrainians perceived other countries and world leaders in 2015. Servant was not made for American audiences, but it’s clear that our country dominated Ukrainians’ view of the world, when they weren’t consumed with hating Russia. Six episodes in, the world leaders who appear prominently are Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and Chinese President Xi. Putin shows up, clearly the object of scorn and hatred, but by far, the most popular foreigner is Michelle Obama. That says as much about Ukrainian values as anything I could express.

If you’re not sure why Ukraine must be defended, watching this film will convince you.

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