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Recap: Olya Onuch on The Zelensky Effect

February 8, 2024

On January 26, 2024, the European Studies Council and the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program welcomed Olya Onuch at the Yale MacMillan Center for her recent co-authored book- The Zelensky Effect. Marci Shore, Professor of History (Yale) and Director of Graduate Studies for the European & Russian Studies MA Program introduced the book as a “coming of age book for a nation” as it unravels the meaning of civic identity and the Independence Generation for recent Ukraine, after which the co-author had the chance to present her years of research on Ukraine’s social and political environment and what she called “the Zelensky Effect.” 

She began her talk by outlining the international reception of Zelensky’s involvement in the war—how he was perceived by the international community as a “push-over.” However, she continued, if one studies the long history of civic resistance in Ukraine, it becomes clear that this is the dominant identity of Ukrainians—Zelensky symbolizes more than anything else fearless resistance.

By framing recent Ukrainian history in terms of the Independence Generation, co-author Olya Onuch also defined what made Zelensky so popular. The Independence Generation are all of those people who were just becoming young adults when Ukraine gained its independence from the USSR, the people who “were old enough to understand the seriousness of the situation but too young to do anything about it,” Prof. Onuch explained. To a large extent, this has been Zelensky’s early life as well, which helped him understand what everyone of his generation had gone through. He connects with his audience, and his audience recognises him because he is one of them.

In the end of her presentation, Prof. Oluch managed to summarize her research and to capture the essence of “the Zelensky Effect” with one powerful sentence: “There are 44 million Zelenskys, but people are paying attention to the one on the screen.” Since 16% of the population switched towards voting for Zelensky and his party, now more than ever Ukrainians as a whole seem to support Zelensky and what he stands for: democratic values, openness to the world, and resistance.

After concluding her lecture, Prof. Oluch fielded questions from audience members.

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