This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Among my most treasured possessions is my passport from the early 1990s when I was a foreign correspondent in Budapest. Its worn pages, filled with faded stamps, are a mini-chronicle of lost empires, permitting me entry to states that no longer exist such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the German Democratic Republic.
My favourite was issued on 2 April 1992: visa number three from the first post-Soviet Ukrainian embassy, located in the Hungarian capital. The visa and accompanying stamps take up most of a page.
I travelled with Nick Thorpe, the BBC correspondent. Once we entered Ukraine at Uzhgorod it was clear that nobody was really in control. The Soviet Union no longer existed and Ukraine had declared independence, but as history shows, it takes more than words to make a state.
There was an air of anarchy. We took the night train to Lviv, third class. A man in his twenties sat next to me and slowly ran his clenched fist up and down the side of my face, while saying “droozh” — friend in Russian and Ukrainian.
Zelensky is marvellous as Vasily Goloborodko
It quickly became clear that trouble was brewing. Nick walked down the carriage to find some ethnic Hungarians he had been chatting to and came back with Bela and his friends, who were en route to Kyiv to do some kind of deal involving concrete.
Team Bela did not hesitate. They picked up droozh and hurled him down the carriage. Problem solved, we thought.
But not for long. A few minutes later droozh returned, with more droozhes. They surrounded us and the stage seemed set for an almighty bust-up.
Then the most fearsome character of all appeared: the female ticket collector. She took one look, instantly understood what was happening and yelled at everybody to behave and go and sit down. We all did.
The rest of our journey, on to Lviv and Kyiv, passed without incident, but the memories still linger: the extraordinary beauty of Lviv’s Rynok Square with its Renaissance Italianate architecture; waking up on the sleeper train and watching an elderly lady, wrapped and bundled against the cold, trudge through an icy field; the Ukrainian army band playing on the runway as we hitched a lift back to Budapest from Kiev on the Hungarian government plane, the red stars on the musicians’ caps floodlit in the snow.
That was a more innocent age — and yes, also a time of plunder, oligarchs, organised crime and corruption. But no cities were under siege and no Russian shells fell on maternity hospitals. Ukraine was slowly moving forward towards freedom, democracy and prosperity, which is why, in Moscow’s eyes, it had to be stopped.
I’ve read and heard a lot of commentary about how the war in Ukraine, and its human cost, is the worst in Europe since 1945. Well, no, actually. The Russian onslaught follows a very clear Soviet/post-Soviet military pattern, as we saw in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s: besiege cities, target hospitals, agree to open corridors then bombard them, force out waves of refugees, kill civilians, lie outright about the atrocities your forces are committing. The main difference so far is that it took the West more than four years to act in the Balkans and in Ukraine it took about four days.
Pre-war Ukraine is no more. But it lives on in the fine comedy series Servant of the People, now showing on Channel 4.
Kyiv looks wonderful, as the sunshine glints off historic buildings
First broadcast in Ukraine in 2015, Servant of the People features Volodymyr Zelensky, then a well-known comedian, playing a teacher who accidentally becomes president after his rant about dishonest, thieving politicians goes viral.
Four years later, in one of the finest examples of life imitating art, Zelensky won the presidency, running for a centrist party called … Servant of the People.
Zelensky is marvellous as Vasily Goloborodko, a hen-pecked everyman living with his parents and niece, trying to get ten minutes of peace while sitting on the toilet in the morning.
The satire is sharply observed from the outset. When Golodboroko’s father’s car is blocked by a hoodlum, someone warns him to back off with the question “Do you know who that guy’s dad is?”
Meanwhile, sinister oligarchs manoeuvre and the ruling elite, in shock at Goloborodko’s victory, try in vain to tame him with the luxurious trappings of power. Ludicrous functionaries swirl, busily doing non-jobs. The new president has a body double, useful, he is told, for drinks with Lukashenko.
Kyiv looks wonderful, as the sunshine glints off historic buildings and new glass towers alike, as the Dnieper flows quietly on. The series is suffused with a sharp wit, but also a warm humanity. For anyone watching the stream of horror now coming out of Ukraine, Servant of the People is heart-rending viewing. But watch it we must, to preserve the memory of better times and even as a small act of resistance.
An exasperated Goloborodko declares that politicians are mathematicians, concerned only with the numbers of their fortunes. This time, he is wrong. Thankfully for Ukraine, for all of us, Volodymyr Zelensky has proved to be so much more than that.
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