Ukraine News

The Script That Changed History: Zelensky’s Servant of the People

When Volodymyr Zelensky first produced and starred in the comedy series Servant of the People, he never dreamed that he would one day become Ukraine’s president instead of just playing one on TV. But the series’s message of honest politics resonated with a people tired of corruption and shot Zelensky to the top of the polls. Without exaggeration, Servant of the People was a piece of art that changed history.

Servant of the People / © Wikipedia /

March 08, 2024 05:28 EDT

In a twist that could rival any TV drama, Volodymyr Zelensky went from playing a fictional president of Ukraine on TV to becoming the country’s real-life president. It’s fortunate for Ukraine that this happened, because it’s a perfect example of the right man being there at the right time. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, Zelensky refused the American offer to helicopter him to safety (“I need ammunition, not a ride,”) and in doing so, galvanized Ukraine and the world. Without Zelensky’s inspirational courage and flair, Ukraine could have been overrun, its culture destroyed and its people no longer free.

From TV star to head of state

Zelensky’s ascent from actor to President of Ukraine began when he starred in the TV series, Servant of the People. The wildly popular series began in 2015 and aired for three years. Even today you can find online reviews of it that say, as a certain Derping Flamingo said, “This is the best show ever. I died laughing and now I’m a ghost!” Or AllanHy who says, “This series is so hilarious, unpredictable, and well done that it needs to be seen by EVERYONE.”

The plot is an idealistic schoolteacher becomes president of Ukraine and works to combat corruption. The background of the show is, in 2014, after Ukrainians forced a corrupt Putin-puppet president to flee the country, people saw the possibility of a rebirth of freedom and prosperity.

The head of the Ukrainian TV network 1+1 was swept along in this enthusiasm and he asked screenwriters to come up with a series based on the idea of, “A new government is coming to this country.”

Thinking back on this time, Dmytro Hryhorenko, one of the show’s writers, remembers: “We started with a clean slate, imagining the perfect picture: a simple person, untouched by politics, becomes president overnight. The show would offer a satirical yet hopeful vision of a Ukraine free from corruption and oligarchy.”

Although Zelensky played the fictional president, Hryhorenko points out, “Zelensky was more than just an actor. It was his production company, and each of the company’s shows was personally edited by him.”

Servant of the People turned out to be wildly popular in Ukraine. It was more than just entertainment; it was a reflection of a nation’s yearning for change. By the second season, Hryhorenko and his fellow screenwriters learned that their viewers were imagining that the man who played the fictional president might become the real president. 

Hryhorenko says that it was at this point that Zelensky began thinking seriously about going into politics for real. Hryhorenko remembers talking with him in the actors’ van. “We could watch him struggle with the fear of such a task,” Hryhorenko recalls. “We got to witness how Zelensky gained determination from one shooting scene to another.”

An anti-corruption candidate

Zelensky may have been awed by the seriousness of what he was contemplating, but Hryhorenko knew that Zelensky knew that if he didn’t run for president, there was no other candidate who would be as well-positioned and as well-motivated to fight corruption. 

Ukrainians had good reason to want to attack corruption. A Ukrainian social worker told me, “The worst legacy of the Soviets was you couldn’t get anything done without a bribe. Your kid doesn’t get into a good school, you don’t get a good job, you aren’t seen by the right doctor, your legal case doesn’t go the way you want, everything depended on bribes.”

And further, the corrupt oligarchs were siphoning off the people’s wealth to pay for their yachts and their villas in France. This kind of theft was keeping the country poor. 

In this context, Zelensky and his scriptwriters knew that fighting corruption needed to be the focus of the series. “We laid out the dramatic twists and complications that faced the President in the show,” says Hryhorenko, “but all of these were solved in 25 minutes and evil was punished. In real life, the battle is not between good and evil. It’s between terrible and bad. Reforms cannot change the country overnight. But they can help take another step from a bad reality to a slightly better one.”

Inspired by Servant of the People, Ukrainians began to demand a new and better kind of leader, one who could take on corruption. The culmination of this came when Zelensky ran for office in 2019. He won with 73% of the vote.

“At its best,” says Hryhorenko, “good art gives the impulse to change reality.” 

Hryhorenko and his colleagues did change reality. Without them, Zelensky would almost certainly not be Ukraine’s President today. And without Zelensky, Ukrainian people might today be under Putin’s Mafia-style thumb, and Putin himself might be invading still more countries. The Servant of the People script writers changed history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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