The Zelensky Effect

Part of the New Perspectives on Eastern Europe and Eurasia series
November 2022 9781787388635 424pp
November 2023 9781805260387 424pp
Available as an eBook Available from Oxford Scholarship Online
EU Customers


With Russian shells raining on Kyiv and tanks closing in, American forces prepared to evacuate Ukraine’s leader. Just three years earlier, his apparent main qualification had been playing a president on TV. But Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly retorted, ‘I need ammunition, not a ride.’ Ukrainian forces won the battle for Kyiv, ensuring their country’s independence even as a longer war began for the southeast.

You cannot understand the historic events of 2022 without understanding Zelensky. But the Zelensky effect is less about the man himself than about the civic nation he embodies: what makes Zelensky most extraordinary in war is his very ordinariness as a Ukrainian.

The Zelensky Effect explains this paradox, exploring Ukraine’s national history to show how its now-iconic president reflects the hopes and frustrations of the country’s first ‘independence generation’. Interweaving social and political background with compelling episodes from Zelensky’s life and career, this is the story of Ukraine told through the journey of one man who has come to symbolise his country.


‘A definitive portrait not of a man but of a nation.’ — The Moscow Times

‘[Ukraine] is now led by men and women like Zelensky in their thirties and forties, whom Olga Onuch and Henry E. Hale describe in The Zelensky Effect as the Independence Generation—those for whom the achievement of Ukrainian independence was a formative political experience.’ — Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books

‘[A] deeply researched and well-argued book [that] locate[s] the roots of Zelensky’s ability to captivate and mobilize the imagination of his fellow citizens in the rise of Ukrainian civic identity.’ — Serhii Plokhy, The Washington Post

‘Refreshingly data-driven and convincing on why [Zelensky’s] brand of Ukrainian-ness – emphasising “civic duty, the importance of Ukraine’s diversity, and the common quotidian experiences that bound Ukrainians together” – has such appeal.’ — TLS

‘Onuch and Hale artfully combine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s biography and a chronicle of Ukraine’s post communist development, rich with empirical data and rigorous research.’ — Foreign Affairs

‘Enlightening.’ — Survival

‘Written with… flair and personality.’ — New Eastern Europe

‘Packed with statistical analysis of polling data, social media posts, articles, and speeches, this book answers many questions about how unified resistance on the ground has repelled the mightier Russian military.’ — Foreword Reviews

The Zelensky Effect is a truly enlightening book about Ukrainian national identity and resilience. The West is rightly in awe of the country’s ability to stand-up to naked aggression and unrestrained violence, but reading Onuch and Hale’s book provides a deeper understanding of from where that reserve of strength originates, and the man that has come to embody Ukraine.’ — Diplomatic Courier

‘Smoothly written and engaging enough for anyone who wants to better understand the past year in Ukraine.’ — The Russian Review

‘Thought-provoking … Offers a superb blueprint of the foundational processes that, along with the actions of individuals like Zelensky, will continue to shape Ukraine in the years ahead.’ — Nationalities Papers 

‘The go-to book for grasping Ukrainians’ morale in the face of Russian aggression, and the determination of their president, who has demonstrated atmospheric levels of heroism and leadership—perhaps unlike any other in the world in recent decades.’ — Marc Berenson, Senior Lecturer at King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London

‘This wonderfully written and engaging book documents the emergence of Ukrainian civic national identity, best exemplified by Zelensky. A must-read for anyone wishing to understand contemporary Ukraine and what Ukrainians believe, value and fight for.’ — Eugene Finkel, Kenneth H. Keller Associate Professor of International Affairs, Johns Hopkins University

‘Drawing on years of research on Ukrainian politics and society, this timely study paints a fuller picture of Zelensky and the conditions that made him who he is today, and deserves a wide readership at this critical moment in European history.’ — Gwendolyn Sasse, Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)

‘An essential book for understanding how a critical mass of Ukrainians converged around a vision of Ukraine grounded in democratic ideals, a European future and sovereign statehood.’ — Oxana Shevel, Associate Professor of Political Science, Tufts University, and an associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

‘Furnishing significant insight into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this sheds light as well on one of the most important (and improbable) leaders of the twenty-first century.’ — Michael Kimmage, Professor of History, Catholic University of America, and Visiting Fellow, German Marshall Fund


Olga Onuch is Professor of Comparative and Ukrainian Politics at the University of Manchester.

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

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