Americans, welcome to the Zelenskyy Cinematic Universe. The bicycle courier may have been delayed with the invitation, but we are definitely on the guest list.
From 2015 to 2019, then-actor and now-President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy led the cast of the television series Servant of the People. The first two seasons floated a trial balloon for his candidacy, which he announced on December 31, 2018. Zelenskyy and his studio, Kvartal 95 (Quarter 95, named after the Kryvyi Rih neighborhood of his youth), wove into the show images and symbols suggesting the type of leader he would strive to be; he is quoted as saying, “I didn't invent all this [the concept of the show] — I felt all this, I am really feeling all this.” The series is also a showcase of some of Ukraine’s best, parts of which are now in rubble; Zelenskyy’s vision for the country’s future; an entreaty for entrance to the European Union; and a prod to Western democracies to live up to what we believe in by reminding us of democracy’s roots.
Beginning with the opening credits, we see that bicycles — widely recognized as a symbol of progress and unification — are important for highlighting things in the show that represent advancement, even if relatively small. As the title character pedals through Kyiv, we look upward to see skyscrapers, bridges, a modern rail system, and graceful works of outdoor art intermixed with street signs depicting bicycle icons and upward-pointing arrows. The message to the world is that Ukraine, led by Kyiv, is constantly working on elevating itself.
The Importance of Children
Zelenskyy’s character, Vasily “Vasya” Petrovych Goloborodko (also transliterated as Holoborodko, which translates to “beardless” — a man without experience) is a mild-mannered, divorced history teacher who lives with his parents in a modest home in Kyiv. At school one day he launches into an expletive-filled political rant to another teacher while his class is out, but one student catches the outburst on his cell phone and uploads the video to the internet, where it goes viral. Vasya, who has a visceral sense of responsibility for educating the children who represent Ukraine’s future, later apologizes to his class, but they tell him they agree with him and so do their parents. With some crowdfunding by the students, Vasya puts his name on the ballot, and, against all odds, he is elected president by the popular vote.
The Everyman President’s Choice: Oligarkhia vs. Demokratia
The series begins with a nighttime view of Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and then pulls out to show three oligarchs on a hotel balcony overlooking it. The lights around the Square are yellow-tinted and the oligarchs are shown in a blue light, colors which suggest the Ukrainian flag — but upside down, in a position of distress. The oligarchs, who are discussing the upcoming election, seem to surround the monument in the Square, imperiling Ukraine’s independence.
In contrast to the oligarchs, Vasya awakens in his brightly-lit bedroom, flanked by a model ship on the headboard and a telescope in the corner. The ship and telescope are allusions to Plato’s Republic and his “Ship of State” metaphor. The Greek philosopher compared a wise, benevolent leader to a person with the skills to pilot a ship, which required being able to navigate by the stars.
Picture a shipmaster in height and strength surpassing all others on the ship, but who is slightly deaf and of similarly impaired vision, and whose knowledge of navigation is on a par with his sight and hearing. Conceive the sailors to be wrangling with one another for control of the helm, each claiming that it is his right to steer though he has never learned the art and cannot point out his teacher or any time when he studied it. … They have no suspicions that the true pilot must give his attention to the time of the year, the seasons, the sky, the winds, the stars, and all that pertains to his art if he is to be a true ruler of a ship, and that he does not believe that there is any art or science of seizing the helm with or without the consent of others, or any possibility of mastering this alleged art and the practice of it at the same time with the science of navigation.
Also behind his head is a decorated curved animal horn. This Easter egg is a nod to Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, which means “crooked horn.”
While Vasya is going through his chaotic morning routine, Prime Minister Yuri Ivanovich Chuiko arrives with an entourage and greets him as Mr. President. They depart in a private vehicle, where Yuri asks if he prefers Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin, but Vasya, who has never heard of the luxury watch brands and thinks they are writers, says he has never read them. In the next scene, Yuri offers a case of watches to choose from; Vasya asks if Putin wears a Hublot and Yuri asserts that he does. The way Vasya words the question (“Putin Hublot?”) is an Easter egg referring to a popular obscene football chant in Ukraine (Putin khuylo - “Putin is a dick”), which resulted in the show being banned in part of Russia. Unsurprisingly, Vasya declines the watches.
Back at the Goloborodko home, Zelenskyy slips in an Easter egg referring to his name. As his father, Petro Vassilyevich (“Petya”), leaves the house, we see workers repainting the exterior from white to green. “Zelenskyy” means “green” in English, and the website of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party is also green.
The third episode begins with an almost mystical scene in which Vasya, having fallen asleep while reading, dreams about a conversation between two ancient Greeks — the philosopher Plutarch and the historian Herodotus — concerning the government of Ukraine. I have used a mix of the official Kvartal 95 video translation and the Netflix version for this transcript:
(Vasya mumbles in his sleep.)
Plutarch: He’s raving.
Herodotus: He’s raving after reading your book.
Plutarch: What are you talking about, Herodotus? This guy is nervous now. The whole country is on his shoulders now.
Herodotus: He should be happy. His children and their children will be rich!
Plutarch: Listen, he’s an honest person.
Herodotus: Ah. That is a problem.
Plutarch: He wants to serve the country and to make it better.
Herodotus: Is he a reformer?
Herodotus: That’s his doom.
Vasya (murmurs): Demos Russos… the euro at five hryvnias, and only at five…
Herodotus: What does he want to change? What type of government do they have?
(Vasya reacts by laughing in his sleep.)
Plutarch: Well, they call it a democracy.
Herodotus: And what’s his goal? Anarchy?
Vasya (responding softly): No
(Vasya mumbles negatively.)
Herodotus: Ahh! Federalization!
(Vasya, asleep, reaches for Herodotus’ throat.)
Plutarch (to Vasya): What are you doing? Keep your hand away from his neck!1
Vasya (murmurs): The moonlight night, starry and clear...Shining a brilliant gleam like the light of day...2
Herodotus: Listen, Plutarch, did they live badly during communism?
(Vasya, still asleep, bolts upright.)
Plutarch (to Herodotus): Hey you, think about what you are saying.
(Vasya settles back down.)
Plutarch: If they actually want to change something, the only way is autocracy. Tsar Goloborodko!
(Vasya laughs in his sleep.)
Herodotus’ remark about federalization is seen in the mirror, indicating that this is exactly the opposite of what Goloborodko (and Zelenskyy) wants for Ukraine given the country’s tragic history with Russian federalization. The conversation continues with Vasya negatively reacting in his sleep at the mention of default, another thing Zelenskyy wants to avoid, and an amusing discussion of Ukraine’s economic strengths.
Later in the episode we see the Ukrainian oligarchs doing a background investigation of Vasya as none of them “owns” him. The Easter eggs in their research are actual photos of Zelenskyy’s youth, which you can find on his Instagram account.
Name-dropping the West
Vasya prepares for his inauguration at the Mezhyhirya Mansion and his assistants give him a speech to rehearse, which he recognizes as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He has serious misgivings about plagiarizing Lincoln but carries on with his speech exercises, which include reciting a tongue-twister about lobbyists with two unshelled walnuts in his mouth. Yes, he went there.
His ex-wife, Olga, calls to remind him of a scheduled visitation with his son, Dima. Since Vasya cannot bring his son to the zoo, they visit a mall instead to ride a carousel together. He sits backwards to face his son during the ride, another indication that his focus is on children and the future they represent.
They have a heart-to-heart talk. Dima is proud of his father becoming president but says that he is only the second coolest dad in his class because another dad drives a cool car: a Dodge. At the end of the ride, they meet Olga, who is wearing a shirt with English text — not Ukrainian or Russian (i.e., aimed at local audiences) — that reads, “Dear past, thank you for all the lessons. Dear future, I am ready.” English is one of the three procedural languages of the European Union; this message is for the EU and for us in North America, asking for a new relationship.
Back at the mansion, Vasya imagines a conversation with Abraham Lincoln himself, the first of a series of historical figures who offer him advice for his new role, ranging from potentially useful to merely illegal to utterly barbaric.
On Inauguration Day, Vasya ditches his bodyguard and arrives in a diminutive taxi. Upon entering the building, he comes to a fork in the red carpeting — suggesting Ukraine’s relationship with Russia — and goes to his left, ending up in the crowd. Thinking of his students when he reaches the lectern, he begins the prepared speech but then puts it aside, saying he won’t make promises because that would be dishonest, and it’s more important for government officials to act in a way that won’t make them ashamed to look in their children’s eyes.
A Just Society vs. Lawlessness
Over the course of several episodes, Vasya manages to get some reforms passed, including reducing the number of deputies, cutting costs, and moving the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) to the Kyiv expo center, making the center of the city less congested. The deputies begin riding bicycles to work, indicating the changes are a sign of progress.
The show adds several subplots including a bribery scandal in the Goloborodko administration, duplicitous officials, and undercover operations. The Ukrainian oligarchs emerge from the shadows as Vasya, with the help of Yuri, begins setting them against each other in an attempt to roll up some of the racketeering. But is Vasya himself being corrupted? As people begin to react differently to him and his family, the Goloborodkos move to a large lake house with a replica longship in the yard and start living more lavishly.
In S02E04, Vasya has a nightmare in which Ukraine goes visa-free, but everyone has left the country for opportunities elsewhere. He stays to maintain continuity of government while also performing everyday tasks such as mowing the lawns of the government complex. He pays for his groceries in cash — first in hryvnias, representing the status quo, then later in US dollars, representing prosperity — even though no one is in the store to accept his payment. He stops for red lights at crosswalks even though there is no traffic whatsoever. This episode is Zelenskyy’s way of demonstrating his sense of integrity: doing the right thing even when no one is watching.
Sergei Viktorovich Mukhin, Vasya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Oksana Skovoroda, Sergei’s assistant, personify the differences between unjust and just attitudes toward others in Ukrainian society and how they are changing. After Sergei is confirmed to his post, he and Oksana repeatedly butt heads over proper protocol with foreign dignitaries. In one conversation about an upcoming delegation visit, they discuss humor and different people’s reactions to it. Sergei wants to tell a joke which demeans a transgender individual and another joke about animal mistreatment, but Oksana explains that these are hurtful ideas in the modern world. Note that during this conversation, a brightly-lit statue of Lady Justice stands tall on Oksana’s side of the frame and a painting of a dark valley is hanging in an alcove on Sergei’s side.
Oksana then tells what she considers to be an acceptable joke involving exercise and her watch, but Sergei doesn’t get it. This is an admission that there is still work to be done to persuade an older, harsher mindset to be more open and accepting of newer, egalitarian ideas, but over time, Sergei learns to be more diplomatic and the two become an effective team, even falling in love.
Country Over Money
In S02E14 Vasya turns down an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that has damaging strings attached: shale gas extraction requirements, a reduction in the wheat crop, and a huge nuclear waste facility. As justification, he gives a patriotic speech asserting that Ukrainians are not beggars, and Ukraine is neither a suburb nor a border region between orcs and elves. As his enemies start whispering about impeachment, he decides to resign. The show’s theme song mentions Superman, and here Vasya emulates the Man of Steel in Superman II by giving up his power; he loves his country too much to sell it out. Despondent, Vasya retreats to his Fortress of Solitude: the attic. When we see him, lying on a low sofa, the shots are framed with a bicycle, representing progress, hanging on the wall like a Sword of Damocles over his head. A vertical beam forms a visual line from Vasya’s head to the bike so we know what he is pondering. The bicycle faces to the left, an anomalous position, because when bikes are hung on a wall, they are mounted facing to the right to keep the chain away from the wall. For cultures that read from left to right, movement from right to left represents strenuous effort. The message of the bicycle is that progress is a struggle; Vasya knows this but feels that he has let down his constituents.
Later, Vasya musters enough energy to walk down to the dock to fish. Concerned about the possibility of self-harm, Petya joins him as he sits listlessly holding a fishing pole. Meanwhile, his team members in government try to carry on with their jobs, but without Vasya, their hearts are not in it. At the end of the day, as Vasya and his father walk back to the house, Petya tries to cheer him up by saying that he can go back to teaching and the students won’t let him down. After all, his father asks, “What is the Presidency to you?” Vasya looks up to see his trusted staff standing together on the longship next to the house. Though unspoken, his answer to his father’s question is Plato’s “Ship of State” — the use of power by a wise leader to work for progress for Ukraine.
Path through the Darkness
Vasya changes his mind about his resignation and decides to run for president in the snap election. The closest members of his administration become his campaign team, do some crowdfunding, hire a consultant, and acquire a bus, which is covered with an image of Vasya and four staffers pedaling one long bicycle, hinting at the potential for progress.
Shortly thereafter, Vasya and his father see a morning news report about an increase in the number of pedestrians hit by vehicles in crosswalks. Petya asserts that Vasya could have done something as president and blames him for the situation, but Vasya tells him there had been no time or money to make the needed improvements, and he leaves for his office.
While traveling the following evening, the campaign bus comes to a screeching halt at a small roadblock. A man is installing glowing panels in a crosswalk adjacent to a playground. Vasya and his staff get off the bus and ask him questions. The man explains that the street is dangerous and the lighting is cheap, but he has not been able to persuade local officials to install it; Vasya listens thoughtfully while gazing up at one of his nearby campaign billboards.
The following morning, the team discovers the campaign is suddenly out of funds. Television news reports that Vasya donated all of his campaign money to install crosswalk lighting around the country. Essentially Zelenskyy is insinuating that he will commit his resources in pursuit of a bright path through the darkness for Ukraine, bringing to mind part of Vasya’s dream in Episode 3. Outraged at the impulsive expenditure, Vasya’a staff members chase him, but he escapes on a bicycle — a reminder that the illuminated crosswalks are a mark of progress in saving lives.
I will end the story arc here to avoid giving away the plot twists in Season 3, which explores weighty subjects at the national level and has some bleak moments for Vasya. By the time the final episodes aired in 2019, Zelenskyy had declared his candidacy. Besides making a case for him as a candidate, the show allowed Zelenskyy to address some of Ukraine’s fears (short of the current situation with Russia) and maybe some of his personal ones in seeking office. Who laughs at pictures of their own apparent assassination? Zelenskyy demonstrates that humor can help get us through even the worst situations.
Bonus Easter Egg
In a scene during Tolik and Dima’s trip to the arcade, there is a white stuffed bear perched on a pull-up bar; the red curtain is positioned to draw attention to it. This Easter egg refers to the Kvartal 95 logo; the pull-up is also part of one of Zelenskyy’s signature studio skits.
Dear Kvartal 95, thank you for all the laughs.
Dear Ukraine, we are ready.
1This line, which is in the Kvartal 95 translation on YouTube, is a dark joke referring to the death of Julius Caesar, who was first stabbed in the neck according to Plutarch’s Lives: “It was Casca who gave [Caesar] the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; … “
2This line is in the Netflix translation and evokes the imagery in the poem “Moonlight Night” by Ukrainian poet Mykhailo Petrovych Starytsky (1840-1904). Starytsky’s cousin Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912) composed a famous Ukrainian folk song based on the poem.