Servant of the People

I am embarrassed at how badly I underestimated Ukraine. I mean, I never thought much about Ukraine. I knew Russia had invaded and taken Crimea, in 2014, and there was a war on the border, skirmishes. I had seen documentaries, maybe on the Independent Lens series, in which Ukrainians lived in inadequate housing and rubble and the children played in dangerous, bombed out buildings, and the sons went off to fight the Russians and keep them at bay.

I knew there were sanctions and sometimes Russia was barred from things because of their invasion and occupation of Crimea. I knew we provided aid to help the Ukrainians fight back. It seemed to me a stalemate. The Russians stayed, the lines held, many people lived in misery.

I knew a lot about the scandal behind President Trump’s first impeachment. That he asked the president of Ukraine, President Zelensky, to announce an investigation into false charges of corruption by Joe Biden, and that he held back funds needed to fight the Russians to pressure Zelensky. Zelensky didn’t do it.

When the war started, I was surprised by a lot of my misconceptions. I had thought, for example, that Chernobyl was in Russia, not Ukraine, even though I watched the HBO series on the nuclear site meltdown, and another documentary about the old women who still lived in the contaminated area.

In addition to basic geography, I learned about the true meaning of NATO, and it’s limits. I learned about the oligarchs and corrupt puppet presidents installed by the Russians. I learned that Volodymyr Zelensky was a reform figure, but also a comedian who had won Dancing with the Stars in Ukraine. No one had expected him to be such a powerful leader or so strong and brave in the face of the Russian invasion. Whereas no one had exhibited a Ukrainian flag when Crimea was invaded, suddenly the world was awash in blue and yellow. The flag, and the flag colors on everything from pins and handbags and dish towels to the clothing worn by politicians at the State of the Union address. Constant appearances by Zelensky streaming from his bunker. I woke up every day, like so many others, and checked the New York Times for news that Zelensky was still alive and the Russians were not in Kyiv. I learned how to pronounce Kyiv, and that chicken Kiev was not a Russian dish. I watched videos of Zelensky dancing, doing humorous sketches, and understood why the world had underestimated him.

Then the Ukrainian television sit-com, Servant of the People, came to Netflix. My husband didn’t want to watch it because it was certain to be cheesy. Laugh tracks. Over-acting. What kind of program would come out of Ukrainian television?

So we were stunned when we watched the pilot — by the beauty of Kyiv, the high production values, the acting and the cleverness of the script. I knew the show imitated life — Zelensky as Vasily Goloborodko, a history teacher who gets elected president after a fiery, reform-minded video of him goes viral. For several episodes, Zelensky is the straight man to a cast of characters who mostly reveal the depth and breadth of corruption in Ukraine.

The situation can be summarized thusly: taxes are high on ordinary working people, so they break the rules to try to get enough money to live. Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs control the country’s wealth, not paying taxes and using their power to get their relatives and friends positions of power, many of which are purely ceremonial. In the show, three Russian oligarchs have rigged the elections for decades and put in their hand-picked candidates for president and parliament and, basically, all elected positions. Ukraine is not a real democracy until the people thwart the oligarchs by electing Goloborodko. After his election, some media figures yell at him and demand reform and justice (reimbursing people whose money was stolen by a corrupt national bank, lowering taxes and punishing those evading taxes, etc). The new president puts together a council of people he can trust, and they prove to be honest even under pressure from their own families to take bribes.

The first time the show made me sad was when I grasped the vast reach of corruption that Goloborodko, now Zelensky, was facing. And then had the thought of what it meant to receive a phone call from the American president, Donald Trump, asking him to participate in American political corruption. America. A democracy in which the world had for so long trusted. A supposed ally against Russia. Zelensky trying to dismantle corruption in his own country and facing that phone call knowing how much his country depended on that money and those arms. And into my head came an image of Trump and Zelensky meeting, at long last, not in Washington but at the UN in New York.

Zelensky had looked so small and powerless. So worried. Trying to walk the tightrope so as to receive aid from this corrupt world leader. Getting no respect. Even the articles surrounding this meeting described Zelensky as “comedian turned president.” And yet, now he’s being called the Winston Churchill of the 21st century. And effectively schooling us on the worldwide spread of autocracy and what it does to countries like his.

The second time my heart broke watching Servant of the People was when Goloborodko’s government tried to bring down the oligarchs on tax evasion. And I thought of the United States and our oligarchs, Zuckerberg and Bezos and Musk and others, and of the Bitcoin Bros, and the young millionaire I know who moved to Texas so as to avoid state taxes, and of the way wealth and power are concentrated in our country and the people show no will to undermine or dismantle that system — politicians answering to lobbyists and major corporations and calling those who want a more fair system “communists. Perhaps it is because Servant of the People is a sit-com, a satire, that I can see the US reflected in it. I can walk back the exaggeration and see the underlying facts and principles at work. What is democracy and how is it undermined? What is fairness? What happens when wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of people who don’t care about the public at large or have a commitment to the common good, fairness, and justice?

They use their money for private space travel. They block their workers from organizing for a fair wage and better working conditions. They avoid taxes for themselves and their companies, amassing personal wealth and hiding personal and corporate wealth in offshore accounts.

I am still shocked that Zelensky is president of Ukraine. It is as if Martin Sheen actually became president the year after starring in The West Wing. Zelensky starred in this television comedy for three years, beginning in 2015. In 2017 the Servant of the People party was formed and won elections up and down the ballot. The show and the political party share the same name! In April 2019, Zelensky with almost 73% of the vote. Almost immediately, he was embroiled in the scandal with Trump. In the way he has handled the invasion and war with Russia, summoning worldwide support, he has taught us all about much more than Ukraine. He has taught many of us about Europe, the history of the region, and the importance of democracy against powerful, despotic forces at work in the world.



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