For more than a year, the world has been captivated by the resistance of the Ukrainian people and President Volodymyr Zelensky—initially regarded as a pushover by the Kremlin and underestimated by much of the Western world—to Russia’s brutal invasion.
The “Zelensky Effect,” a book launched Tuesday at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, seeks to answer what lies at the heart of the resourcefulness of the Ukrainians and Zelensky.
Robert Orttung, a research professor for international affairs at the Elliott School, moderated the event with the book’s co-authors Henry E. Hale and Olga Onuch. The GW Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and its Petrach Program on Ukraine co-sponsored the book launch with the Elliott School.
The “Zelensky Effect,” Onuch explained, tells the history of the so-called independence generation—people like Zelensky, now mostly in their 40s, who have a memory of life under the Soviets and came of age during a series of revolutions and an intense period of nationalization involving ethnically diverse groups, including Poles, Hungarians and Crimean Tatars who engaged in civic protests and rallied for democracy at a time that Zelensky had not yet become involved.
The turn of events in Ukraine did not come entirely as a surprise to Onuch, a University of Manchester professor of comparative and Ukrainian politics, and Hale, a professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliott School.
“Some were surprised by the response by ordinary Ukrainians with tractors and their bare hands trying to stop tanks and engaging in the war en masse. That shouldn’t have been a surprise,” said Onuch, who has studied democracy across Eastern Europe and had not previously seen such a sharp rise in support for democracy in a population.
Part of the mistake in assessing Zelensky’s role in Ukraine’s fight for independence, Hale said, is that it is not widely known that before he became a comedian and politician, he wanted to become a diplomat, attended a special school to study English and has degrees in international law and economics.
“The answer was not simply [Zelensky was] some hero leader who rescued the nation,” Hale said. “Instead, the argument is Zelensky is reflective of the country as a whole.”
“Once he went into entertainment, he was a very political guy, not just because of what he was saying in the political messages and satire but also becoming a media businessperson,” said Hale. “He rose all the way to the top, becoming general producer of Ukraine’s most popular television station.”
This was a highly political position that required him to navigate Ukrainian politics at a time when orders for how to handle news came from leaders who were moving away from democracy. There was growing disillusionment among Ukrainians in elections that followed the Orange Revolution that led ultimately to the Maidan uprising in 2014 and conflict in eastern Ukraine, which Hale said Russia tried to take advantage of by annexing Crimea. Though Zelensky continued to engage in political satire he recused himself from dealing with news at the television station, for which he was often criticized and wound up leaving the station prior to the 2014 revolution.
Onuch described Zelensky as a man who was transformed from a popular fictional character on Ukrainian television into “the fearless, earnest, Russian target number one—the man in the green T-shirt” who “captured the global imagination” and who declared from the besieged Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, as Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, 2022, “I am here.”
“The reason for his success is not that Zelensky’s special leadership traits set him apart from his country but rather that what is making him extraordinary in war comes from his very ordinariness as a Ukrainian,” she said. “He inherits a tradition of dissent and fierce civic sense that is baked into the country’s identity.”
Zelensky’s election campaign in 2019 was initially regarded as frivolous, with him “continuing his concerts, continuing performing and continuing to appear on television, playing a president on TV,” and not participating in debates, said Hale, who characterized his campaign strategy as that of a “virtual incumbent.”
“The way his campaign progressed, was sort of like incumbents…who don’t like to appear like politicians because their best strategy is to appear presidential,” Hale said.
In the meantime, Hale said, Zelensky relied on his performances and social media to communicate “a very clear message about Ukrainian identity…one that is very inclusive of all Ukrainians. It’s based more on the common experience of all Ukrainians.”
Apart from the war, Zelensky has had to deal with the problems leaders normally get bogged down with in running governments and has seen his popularity, up until the invasion, suffer.
His first big lesson, according to Hale, in having campaigned on a peace platform as someone who could sit down and reason with Putin to end the killing, was realizing that was naïve and “there is no reasonableness coming out of Moscow.”
The overall assessment, Hale continued, is that Zelensky has done “pretty well” contending with COVID, corruption and the usual run of things. At times, he has stepped in to assume a more central control and removed local leaders because of the war that runs the risk in the future of “being a countervailing influence” on mass mobilization and local mobilization which has been so effective in fending off the Russians.