Meet the Author | Olga Onuch and Henry E. Hale

'There are 44 Million Zelenskys'

President Volodymyr Zelenskyi on the occasion of the Defenders Day in Kyiv on 14 October 2022. Ukrainian President Press Office

This year a lot of books on Ukraine got published. How does ‘The Zelensky Effect’ fit into the current landscape of literature on Ukraine?

Olga Onuch: We use Zelensky as an exemplary figure of the so-called independence generation, those people who were young when Ukraine became independent, have a living memory of life under communism, experienced the turmoil of the 1990s and 2000s, and then lived as adults through those key moments of people power: the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan. We show Zelensky's development over time as an ordinary Ukrainian.

Henry Hale: We argue for a large sense of continuity, in the person of Zelensky, but also in the historical development of Ukraine. Even in his entertainment work, Zelensky is oftentimes a mirror of the Ukrainian citizens. You cannot understand Zelensky without understanding the history of Ukraine. Ukrainians do not just become these impressive people stopping tanks in 2022. We really show that Ukrainians had this very strong sense of civic duty and attachment to the state throughout.   

What is the Zelensky effect?

Olga Onuch: This is not the story of Zelensky. It is the story of the Ukrainian nation that made Zelensky and how Zelensky was then able to rally the nation he is part of. The Zelensky we know today is born out of the civic nation in Ukraine, where ordinary citizens, despite multiple crises over time, see themselves as the main actor in their politics. Zelensky places an emphasis on the same things that made him who he is: an inclusive civic identity where there is unity rather than division from east to west and between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. 

Henry Hale: Our argument is not that Zelensky caused all of this. Instead, he both reflects and amplifies a cluster of values that characterise the vast majority of Ukrainians and have developed over the years and that shaped him and that he came to shape once he personified them.

Olga Onuch: We say a few times in the book that there are 44 million Zelenskys. Because Zelensky comes from the same civic nation, and that is what makes him the Zelensky we know today. We talk about how Ukrainians and Ukraine made Zelensky and only a few times do we talk about what Zelensky was able to do in terms of rallying some segments of the Ukrainian population.

What is a civic national identity, how did it develop and is it a phenomenon exclusive to the independence generation?

Olga Onuch: Over time, Ukrainians came to identify what it meant to be Ukrainian as more about a civic attachment to the state of Ukraine than an ethnolinguistic identity. They see their Ukrainianness as being about the state, democracy, and the role that they play in it. This is civic identity. When people say they are Ukrainian, they might be native speakers of Russian or Hungarian, they might be Russian, Polish or Jewish, but they are saying ‘I am a citizen engaged in this democracy, and that is my primary identity as a Ukrainian.’

Henry Hale: Understandably perhaps, the independence generation feels this most strongly, because all their politically active life was as part of an independent Ukraine. But this kind of identity has much deeper roots. There was a strong dissident tradition in Ukraine during the Soviet times. These dissidents very much identified with Ukraine, and they often came from Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine. From this attachment to a Ukraine defined by statehood rather than ethnolinguistic characteristics comes a sense of civic duty towards that state and a sense of activism. Zelensky reflects the idea that citizens should take responsibility for their own lives.

How did a sense of civic identity and the independence generation develop in other post-Soviet countries compared to Ukraine?

Olga Onuch: Unlike in Ukraine, the same independence generation in other post-Soviet countries did not live through multiple mass mobilisations in which they were central players. This would have a differential effect on how they view themselves as citizens. I am looking forward to seeing what happens in Belarus with the generation that is currently experiencing a really impressive moment of mass mobilisation there.

Henry Hale: In pretty much all of the countries of the former Soviet Union, there is some tension between an ethnic definition of the nation and a more civic definition of the nation. A lot of the identity-related conflicts in Ukraine are spurred on not by the people but by elites trying to gain a political advantage for their own purposes. They resort to this when they cannot deliver on a lot of the basics like the economy; they run on issues where you hope to divide people. In Ukraine, they resort to it time and time again, and it has failed. One of the most important things Zelensky did was to really capture the sentiment that we do not need this in Ukraine.

What have been the critical junctures in the development of Ukraine, the post-independence generation and a Ukrainian sense of identity?

Olga Onuch: In the lead up to independence, there is an often overlooked mass mobilisation event. Then independence becomes this important critical juncture, followed by the wild 1990s, the complete chaos that is kind of an interim period that gets us up to the Orange Revolution, which is a major juncture, like the Euromaidan and, of course, the war that begins in 2014. The 2019 elections are a critical juncture in Ukraine and a political watershed moment because it is the first time ever that a party wins an all-out majority in parliament. It is a moment of unity for a very large proportion of the population. The all-out Russian invasion in February 2022 is the latest critical juncture.

The interview was conducted by Henri Koblischke, student assistant in the Communications department at ZOiS.

Olga Onuch is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester.

Henry E. Hale is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Olga Onuch & Henry E. Hale: The Zelensky Effect. London: Hurst Publishers, 2022.