Over the last couple of weeks we in the West have been shunted into an unwelcome parallel reality, with the spectre of World War 3 hovering in our peripheral vision. The Russian double-speak drives me to distraction: “What, hospitals? No, we didn’t bomb a hospital. Those pictures are fake.” “The Ukrainians are deliberately bombing their own civilians.” I can’t read books any more, I just refresh news sites. Meanwhile my brother messages me to say he’s been watching videos of beheaded Russian soldiers on Twitter. Quite likely these invaders were conscripted boys. It feels like the end of days. Perhaps if Ukraine had not relinquished its nuclear weapons in 1994, in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the UK and the USA, then – ironically – this conflict might not have happened.
Ukraine’s populist President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has emerged as a war hero. His charismatic, groomed, witty appearances prior to the conflict contrast with his wartime khaki shirt, grizzled face and defiant rhetoric. As everyone now knows, he was first a TV executive and comic actor who voiced the Ukrainian version of the Paddington movies, and who, in 2015-19, produced and starred in a TV series, Servant of the People, about an ordinary man who becomes the unlikely President of Ukraine. Zelenskiy’s real life political party, established in 2018, shared the name of the TV series.
At the time of writing, the first three episodes of Servant of the People can be watched on All 4 in the UK. It’s a discombobulating and poignant watch, given the circumstances. As depicted in the series, Kyiv is of course an attractive, modern city, not a war zone: pristine, bustling, people go about their lives in schools, cafes and shops.
Zelenskiy plays his role for laughs. He’s Vasyl Petrovych Goloborodko, a hapless history teacher, who makes a sweary, impassioned off the cuff speech about political corruption that is surreptitiously filmed by a student and then goes viral. A crowd-funded electoral campaign and an unexpected electoral success later, and the series presents us with the perfect fish-out-of-water scenario, and Vasyl’s sudden presidential power and influence is bemusing for both him and his family. The jokes are funny, a mix of satire and slapstick, while the three episodes that I’ve seen give a sense of the overt Western orientation of Ukraine – which has evidently become intolerable for Putin. The current reality means the comedy is infused with pathos and a new dystopian slant. Realistically, Zelenskiy may have only a short time to live. I hope he survives the conflict.