How a Fictional President Is Helping Ukrainians Rethink Their Absurd Politics
Ukraine is so corrupt that it’s hard to imagine it being otherwise. A new comedy series shows that things could be different.
Under growing pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Ukrainian lawmakers pass an unpopular bill that will raise taxes on alcohol. Angry protesters surround government buildings in Kiev, vowing to stay until the law is repealed. But on the next day, the president discovers the protests have miraculously cleared, scared away by reports — concocted by the prime minister and cabinet — of an imminent meteorite strike. “How did you even come up with the idea of a meteorite?!” the president fumes.
“I suggested an epidemic,” says one minister in a moment of self-preservation. “I suggested bringing up the dual-language question,” says another, referring to the divisive issue of whether Russian should become a second state language. “We don’t need to go to extremes,” says the prime minister glibly, explaining why a natural disaster was best. Finally, the president shuts down the discussion (“Cancel the meteorite, understand? There is no meteorite and never was!”) and vows to address the crisis at hand, much to the shock and dismay of his cabinet.
This is just one of the many absurd scenarios that play out in Servant of the People, a popular Ukrainian comedy series that follows the life of Vasily Goloborodko, a thirty-something high school teacher who wakes up one morning to find out he has been elected the country’s president with over 60 percent of the popular vote. The new president’s inadvertent stump speech was a YouTube video, surreptitiously placed online by his students, that showed him ranting against corruption.
The show is the work of Kvartal 95, a production company founded in 2003 that is best known for its spiky and occasionally maladroit stand-up comedy shows that frequently parody Ukrainian politics. Servant of the People takes these jokes further, lampooning Ukraine’s corrupt political elite while also suggesting what a democratic Ukraine could look like. “The best way to make sure Ukrainians don’t come to accept the current state of affairs as normal is to put these [political] absurdities in a new format,” says Vladimir Zelenskiy, one of the founders of Kvartal 95, who also stars as Goloborodko in the show.
When it comes to politics, Ukrainians, are overwhelmingly frustrated: Nearly three years after the Euromaidan protests ousted Viktor Yanukovych from power, little in the country has changed for the better. President Petro Poroshenko was elected using the campaign slogan “Live in a new way!” but the oligarchic clique that has ruled the country since its independence from the Soviet Union — Poroshenko included — is still pulling the strings. The electronic declarations now required of government officials hint at the opulent lifestyle of the country’s politicians and civil servants, many of whom have amassed vast wealth through murky business dealings. For an everyman to break into this system — and moreover, to retain his morals — is fantastical.
“It’s not a story about how things are, but how they should be,” says Andrey Yakovlev, one of the show’s writers. “That’s why people are watching it.” At last count, the pilot episode had over 9 million views on YouTube; a feature film and second season are due out later this year. The American media company Fox Studios has purchased adaptation rights. Netflix has also purchased the show.
While the premise may be far-fetched, the problems Goloborodko faces as president mirror real-life events in Ukraine. The national bank, populated by corrupt officials, is under severe pressure. Oligarchs operate behind the scenes to buy off lawmakers. Impatient international aid donors push the president to reform the country. (The only problem that is omitted is the war against pro-Russian separatists in the East.) The main source of humor is how Goloborodko and a small group of his friends he drags into politics deal with all of these problems. The honesty of the new president and his team make the overt corruption of career politicians and Soviet approach to governing look preposterous, even comical.
“It would be nice if 90 percent of our viewers watched the series and said, ‘They’re right. I’m going to live like that,’” says actor Victor Saraykin, who plays Goloborodko’s father.
In creating Servant of the People, the show’s writers leaned on the Soviet genre of the anekdoti, says Zelenskiy. In the Communist era, friends traded these pithy stories to vent their frustrations with the system. There was seldom any direct criticism of the government, but the stories dripped with sarcasm. (A judge walks out of a courtroom laughing hysterically. A colleague asks why he’s laughing. “I just heard this great joke,” he says. “What’s the joke?” his friend asks. “I can’t tell you,” the judge replies. “I just gave someone five years for it!”)
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, satire in Ukraine had little opportunity to develop further. Leonid Kuchma, president from 1994-2005, clamped down on press freedom and summarily sold off media outlets to the new oligarchic class. The new owners, in turn, used them to promote stories that were in line with their own agendas. Political satire or pointed comedy shows did not make the cut.
“Only the [English-language] Kyiv Post dared to print political cartoons back then,” says Dmitry Chekalkin, a Kiev-based media expert, who created a rare Internet political satire series that ridiculed then-President Viktor Yanukovych in the early 2000s. “One of the primary objectives [of our show] was to get rid of this Soviet way of thinking that everything is out of your control, that you are powerless,” says Chekalkin. If you can laugh at something, he argues, it automatically becomes less intimidating and you become more powerful.
Today, Ukraine’s television channels remain under the control of oligarchs and most comedy shows offer shallow critiques, if any at all, of the government. Without the partnership of a major network, it is financially difficult to cover the costs of production. The 1+1 media group, which has exclusive rights to show Kvartal 95’s productions in Ukraine, is owned by business magnate Ihor Kolomoisky, a staunch opponent of President Petro Poroshenko. Critics have accused the show’s writers of focusing on the failings of the president in Servant of the People in order to make Poroshenko appear especially ineffective. But Kvatral 95 has editorial independence, says Zelenskiy. Oligarchs and politicians are both harshly criticized on the show, which uses made-up characters instead of current political figures.
The actor says he looks forward to a day when politicians and businessmen will actually appear in comedy shows, and speaks fondly of American late night television, where a good flogging on comedy shows is a rite of passage for politicians. In Ukraine, he laments, the politicians are too scared that being lampooned will diminish their political power. “No one will come on air here. None of the politicians.” Though, he muses, the fictional Vasily Goloborodko would.
Photo credit: Kvartal 95