Before he was actually president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian, starred as Ukraine’s fictional president in his three-season political satire Servant of the People. He played a junior high teacher who asked his students to leave the classroom one day so he could have a word with a school administrator. In private, he launched a tirade against corruption in the education system, while a student secretly filmed him from an open window nearby. The rant went viral on YouTube, riling up Ukrainians who were tired of government shakedowns for basic education and health care, determined to replace their decrepit leaders.
Within weeks, the teacher, named Vasiliy, was elected president in the fictional show. He set out to reform the government, oust the oligarchs, and bring back integrity to Ukraine’s leadership. Terrified and alone in his bedroom, he had visions of receiving counsel from Abraham Lincoln; learned how to deal with the eccentricities of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin; and walked the tightrope between removing cronies from their offices and avoiding the anger of the political establishment that could unite against him.
There was a secret to Zelensky’s success, his friends and colleagues say. “We started filming Servant of the People with a broad sense of the storyline. The screenwriters kept track of the wild political situation in Ukraine, and wrote it into the script as it happened,” said Ekaterina Kisten, a Ukrainian actress. Kisten was a friend of Zelensky and grew close to him, playing his sister on Servant of the People. “We received the scripts only one day in advance of the shooting. The show was like a living organism.”
Zelensky’s ability to improvise his show based on political satire followed the pattern of how Ukraine united through, essentially, improvisation. Sudden and unforeseen hardships, followed by decisive leadership, forged the Ukrainian language, arts, and culture into a unified front during the previous two decades. Now, whatever the ultimate conclusion of the current conflict may be, it is clear that Ukraine has stood strong—and certainly proved more resilient than most predicted—against superior Russian firepower.