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More than just a joke: a review of Olga Onuch & Henry E. Hale’s The Zelensky Effect

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s phenomenal rise to power is now becoming the subject of academic research. Such works are beginning to show how the leader’s experiences ultimately represent just one story in a country united in defence of its young democracy.

November 3, 2023 - Nicole Yurcaba - Books and Reviews

Cover of The Zelensky effect. Source: Amazon.com

The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when the US government offered evacuation from Kyiv, reportedly told officials “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Zelenskyy’s bold response not only to those officials, but also to Russian aggression in Ukraine, shocked and inspired the world. While, for the most part, the world continues to rally around Ukraine and find inspiration in the unlikely hero’s response to the war, Zelenskyy has also become a target for not only Russian assassination attempts, but also stereotyping and degradation by far-right politicians in the United States and other countries. Nonetheless, for many, Zelenskyy is an icon, who reflects the hopes and dreams of a democratic Ukraine that has spent the majority of its independence fighting internal corruption, dreaming of joining the European Union and NATO, and establishing itself as a key player not only in modern Europe but also across the globe. In Olga Onuch and Henry E. Hale’s The Zelensky Effect, the authors explore Ukraine’s national history and reflect on the circumstances which led a well-known comedian to become one of the world’s most memorable and bravest leaders.

The Zelensky Effect shows readers Zelenskyy’s unique rise to popularity in a post-Maidan Ukraine, which was frustrated by political leaders who either maintained their ties to oligarchs or pulled Ukraine closer to Russia despite the country’s independence. The book examines how, shortly after becoming president in what the authors describe as a “record-breaking landslide win in 2019”, Zelenskyy faced declining public support. The decline stemmed from multiple factors: COVID-19’s ravaging of the public health system, a struggling economy, and the ongoing war with Russia in Ukraine’s eastern regions. The authors also examine how in the West, prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the “publics knew very little about Zelensky at all,” except as a “curiosity” and a “‘comedian’” who became “best known for his unwitting embroilment in the impeachment trial of American President Donald Trump”. The book does not make Zelenskyy and Ukraine’s small role in Trump’s impeachment a huge focus. However, the incident is mentioned enough that readers can infer that one reason today’s American far-right faction is utterly opposed to aiding Ukraine is because Zelenskyy’s win derailed the “machinations” of Trump’s Hunter Biden witch hunt. Thus, even as president-elect, Zelenskyy became what Onuch and Hale refer to as a “Trump team target”. Zelenskyy’s response to Trump’s bullying revealed his true character – something that would continue to be revealed when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Another fascinating aspect of The Zelensky Effect is that Onuch and Hale assert that Zelenskyy is a Ukrainian “everyperson” in a “way few others could or, crucially, dared to be”. Onuch and Hale discuss how Zelenskyy “laid out a patriotic and Europe-oriented vision for Ukraine”, which the world has witnessed in the many months since the invasion. They assert that above “language, religion, and the Russian threat”, Zelenskyy emphasises “the state, civic duty, shared history, the importance of Ukraine’s diversity” and the “common quotidian experiences” that bind Ukrainians together. Thus, the authors discuss how Zelenskyy managed to play the emotional chords of “sympathy and hope” in Ukrainians via his increasingly frequent social media posts after February 2022. At the same time, he also, “in the face of misery and difficulty”, managed to unite millions across the globe in the same cause – standing with Ukraine against an age-old foe determined to erase the country and its people. Thus, the authors point out that the “civic duty” Zelenskyy exemplified produced “not only Zelensky, but 44 million Zelenskys”. Zelenskyy displayed this civic duty by firstly visiting major western power centres such as the German Bundestag, the US Congress and the UK’s parliament in a virtual capacity. In the time since the book was published, Zelenskyy has made many in-person visits to these places across the West.

First and foremost, what readers need to understand about The Zelensky Effect is that it is a political science analysis. However, it is written with such flair and personality that the dense socio-political examinations are not boring. For example, the book possesses another intriguing element that most political science books would never include – a playlist. In between chapters, readers find a suggested listening blurb. These recommended listening blurbs provide Spotify links in which readers can find proposed songs. Tracks include such Ukrainian post-invasion staples as Probass and Hardi’s “Dobroho vechora (Where Are You From)” and Skofka’s “Chuty Hymn (The Anthem Can Be Heard)”. Along with the playlist, the authors also incorporate snippets from Zelenskyy’s speeches, as well as his usage of lines from Ukrainian poet Lina Kostenko’s verses. Thus, the text becomes a cultural touchstone that is easily accessible, especially for those readers unfamiliar with Ukraine.

While the authors’ examination of Zelenskyy’s effect on both Ukrainian and global politics establishes the book’s core, the authors also successfully establish and defend Ukraine’s right to independence and sovereignty. They also outline the country’s necessary role in both European and global economics and politics. It reiterates for readers that “Ukraine is one of Europe’s largest countries.” At the same time, the book notes how Ukraine’s contributions to grain and sunflower oil supplies have become only fully recognised and appreciated since the Russian attack.

Overall, The Zelenksy Effect offers readers inspiration regarding the power of unity in the face of adversity. The authors state that “When Ukrainians are united, no enemy can tear them apart.” Ukraine has paid, and will continue to pay, a high price for its freedom – that of Ukrainian lives. The words also serve as a muse for others who, in their own home countries, are first-hand witnesses to democracy’s degradation. Volodymyr Zelenskyy no longer plays a fictional history teacher on television. Instead, as Onuch and Hale clarify, “he has become a writer and producer of history in the realest possible sense. Or, more precisely, a co-writer and co-producer.” Consequently, then, The Zelensky Effect is not simply a socio-political examination of a comedian’s unlikely rise to power, but also a people and a nation’s resolve to protect freedoms and democratic expectations that many in the world have never experienced.

Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is Humanities faculty at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in the United States. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.

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