What I learned about Ukraine from watching Servant of the People

Nick Felker
7 min readFeb 23, 2023

It was late, perhaps 11pm or so on a February weeknight roughly a year ago when I saw Russians plow across the Ukrainian border. This was a stark showing of imperialism that Europe hasn’t seen in generations.

The following few days I was glued to a TV, or more often my Twitter feed. Where were these soldiers going? What was going to happen? The “special military operation” turned into a quagmire as Kyiv didn’t fall. Now, as countries around the world supply Ukraine with the necessary resources, it’s clear that this will end in a victory for liberal democracy.

It comes back to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who came into office following his success as an actor. His hit show Servant of the People arrived on Netflix with English subtitles a while ago. I watched all three seasons as each was added to the platform and it gave me a lot of insight into the concept of Ukrainian national identity.

Today, a year after that late night, it would be wise to reflect on this show again. While normally pointing to any given TV show in any given country might not mean anything, this wasn’t just a silly entertaining program. It was the start of a political party and eventual electoral victory. By analyzing this show, perhaps we can predict the future.

Corruption is an open secret

Corruption is a key part of the first season. Zelensky plays a history teacher, Vasily Goloborodko, in the show whose rant about government/business corruption goes viral, leading to his victory as an underdog president.

Everyone talks about fighting corruption and yet everyone is a part of it. In one early scene, the infrastructure minister is told to prepare a budget for fixing the roads. The infrastructure minister calls the head of the highway service, who calls the head of the Kyiv Highway, who calls the district head, who calls the section head. All the road metal was being stolen and sold because the section head hadn’t been paid in three months, probably as that money had been stolen by someone else.

The section head says fixing the roads would take a month and cost ten million. The district head says it would take two months and twenty million. The Kyiv Highway head says six months and 400 million. The highway service head says a year and a billion. The infrastructure minister then tells President Goloborodko road repair will take two years and cost two billion.

This is a kind of joke that is rare in US shows but seems common throughout the series. Everyone is seen as corrupt and everyone views it as inevitable. If everyone else is stealing, why shouldn’t I?

Ukrainians talk a lot about anti-communism, and are eager to get out of the shadow of Sovietism. But this virtue signaling is often at the expense of material benefits. Everyone agrees the communists were bad. But few can agree on tax reform, especially as those in parliament would lose money.

Goloborodko knows his cabinet is corrupt and gets rid of everyone. Aside from a close staff of trusted main characters, he hopes to bring in young trusted ministers. But all the new members are just relatives of the original politicians.

That kind of mentality is hard even for Goloborodko to break. A group of oligarchs work behind the scenes to disrupt his plans for reform. Everyone knows this, but nobody can do anything to stop them. Things like kompromat become plot points several times.

At the end of the first season, the prime minister is arrested for corruption. But few believe that he can be convicted. A number of jokes are made about judges also being influenced to keep him out of prison. Goloborodko resigns from his position after he fails to secure an IMF loan.

Ukraine doesn’t want charity

Ukrainians want status, to be seen as a strong independent nation that is a member of the EU. Goloborodko’s failure to get the loan isn’t because of his incompetency. Rather, a lot of people within the country want to dip their hand into the large funding that the IMF provides. However, the IMF views Ukraine as a buffer state with Russia and a new set of resources to exploit. They don’t respect Ukraine. This comes up later in the final season as Ukraine takes its seat as a member of the G7.

Kyiv was defended not just by soldiers but by civilians. They don’t want to flee, they want to fight.

Even during the time of the show, Russia and Putin loomed overhead. They were anti-communist, but disagreed on what came afterwards.

By the end of the second season, a resigned Goloborodko joins campaigning for the next president. We get to see many things we didn’t see the first time: oligarchs deeply entwined in presidential campaigns, the absurdity of debates, and a large number of campaign ads.

America is the land of the free

Goloborodko loses to a wealthy man, Dmytro Surikov, who gains popularity quickly and soon squanders it as the problems of Ukraine don’t go away. A large-scale protest takes place, a repeat of Euromaidan. Surikov is ousted and is replaced by Zhanna Borysenko. She is also corrupt, and another Maidan occurs. After six Maidans, the military takes over the country. However, that also falls apart.

Months after all these crises, Goloborodko is released from prison and is elected president again. However, he isn’t president of Ukraine. There is no more Ukraine.

The country loses its identity and splits into over twenty independent nations. This scene is quite striking, and critical to understanding the cultural philosophy of Ukraine. They are proud of their country, as a single geopolitical entity. Crimea, which has been under Russian occupation for nine years, cannot be negotiated away. It is part of Ukraine and must remain that way.

As a history teacher, Goloborodko occasionally has scenes where he meets historical figures and talks to them about his situations. He talks to Abraham Lincoln, who we are taught is a symbol of leadership and freedom. That’s the way he is seen around the world.

Vasyl Petrovych, you could also free your people

America is a symbol for freedom around the world. We are a nation that has made gay marriage legal and continue to progress in protecting many minority groups. America had the first pride parades, spread ideas of equal rights around the world, and are often the most vocal even today.

We’re not perfect, but people aren’t expecting perfection. They are looking for the world to be a bit better than it is now. Ukraine’s support for LGBT rights has been growing and they look to the US with aspirations. As gay men and women fight for their country’s freedom, this presents an opportunity for landmark legislation. (It would also be worth reading about Russian attitudes to LGBT rights, which they will impose on others.)

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

The tens of billions of aid are quite small compared to the roughly six trillion of COVID spending, but it makes a massive impact in keeping Ukraine free. It is beneficial to the US as well, able to degrade Russia’s military capacity with high ROI:

If we divide out the US defense budget to the threats it faces, Russia would perhaps be of the order of $100bn-150bn in spend-to-threat. So spending just $40bn a year, erodes a threat value of $100–150bn, a two-to-three time return. Actually the return is likely to be multiples of this given that defense spending, and threat are annual recurring events.

Coincidences abound

The third season is short, and wraps up the story in just a few episodes. It also looks ahead to 2047, a generation after the events of the show take place. Goloborodko has to become a leader, doing his best to unite all of these small nations together under a singular national identity.

Having defeated corruption, and reuniting the country, we see a Ukraine of the future becoming a powerful force on the global stage. European students come to Ukraine to learn rather than oligarchs sending students abroad.

It’s a motivational way to end the show. Everything bad was defeated and everything is good now. It presents people with a lot of hope and gave Zelensky a landslide victory.

In practice, this isn’t quite what happened. As it turns out, being president is much harder than just playing one. One can’t rely on plot twists each week. His popularity in Ukraine had been waning as people lost interest. Having to deal with COVID right away made many reforms harder.

Yet should we be so quick to dismiss him? After all, he didn’t succeed as president in the show either. Corruption is hard to fight when its pervasive. He has gained worldwide recognition as the war started, and has published daily videos to the public. An actor background and charisma have allowed him to get commitments from many nations to provide the tools they need for an ultimate victory.

To summarize Goloborodko’s journey in the show, he came in with a populist promise to fight corruption. He quickly becomes muddled in politics and opposition which leads him to become unpopular. Then, a crisis that starts in 2022 breaks Ukraine apart. It is up to him, in Kyiv, to reunite the country, finally succeeding in 2023.

It’s uncanny.

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Nick Felker

Social Media Expert -- Rowan University 2017 -- IoT & Assistant @ Google