The screenwriter and mother of two never wanted her husband to run for president, but now, Olena Zelenska is the brave First Lady of Ukraine, guiding her country through a war.
Olena Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine, is a 44-year-old Ukrainian screenwriter and one-time classmate of President Volodymyr Zelensky. From family life with their two children to her inspiring Insta-presence since the invasion started, this is everything you need to know about the First Lady.
Zelenska grew up in the same city as her husband, Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine’s Russian-speaking area. They had shared friends growing up, but they initially met as students at Kryvyi Rih National University in 1995, where she was studying architecture and he was a law student dreaming of a future in comedy.
Zelenska gave up architecture to pursue a career in screenwriting, going on to write for the comedy troupe that escalated the now-president to public consciousness ahead of his defining role as a spoof politician in Servant of the People. Zelensky’s aspirations to enter politics were apparently ‘aggressively opposed’ by Zelenska, who has made it apparent that she has always enjoyed a life away from the spotlight.
Despite her initial surprise and objection to her husband’s candidacy (“I was not happy”), she has now adjusted and, when the time came for campaigning and canvassing, she stepped up to the plate with grace, faithfully appearing by his side for photo opportunities and speeches. She is now regarded as a First Lady of action, using her position for good causes, while also being admired for her style choices (mostly showcasing Ukrainian designers). She also boasts perfect English and a CV that rivals her husband’s. She has reformed school nutrition in Ukraine, campaigned against domestic abuse, and delivered powerful, policy-changing speeches on gender equality.
In Ukraine, the first lady has no official position or responsibilities. Whether she creates her own duties or not is entirely up to her. Nonetheless, Zelenska told Ukrainian Voge that she “became convinced that making positive changes is real; you just have to sincerely crave something and work hard.”
“The president’s spouse has the opportunity to communicate with those who are close to power,” she told Vogue. “Doors of officials do not close before the first lady. I’m not a politician, and I do not have the right to interfere in the president’s work, but to become an intermediary between people and officials, so that the latter will hear the first, I can and I am really willing to.”
And now – when it matters most – she is at her husband’s side, his closest and most steadfast ally, during the Russian invasion. Like her husband, Zelenska has taken to social media to address her country – and the world – during these war-torn times. “Today I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident,” Zelenska wrote on Instagram the last Thursday of February, the day Russia launched an unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “My children are looking at me,” she went on. “I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.”
Zelenska and her children have remained in the country, the president said last week, despite reports from Ukrainian intelligence that “the enemy has marked me as target number one, my family as target number two.”
Beneath heartbreaking black and white photographs of Ukrainian children who have lost their lives in the war, Zelenska shared on Instagram: “The Russian occupiers are killing Ukrainian children. Consciously and cynically,” adding “at least 38 children have already died in Ukraine. And this figure might be increasing this very moment due to the shelling of our peaceful cities!”
She went on to call for media transparency in its coverage of the war, amid claims that Russia is restricting news and blocking unfiltered access to information and resources in the country. Zelenska wrote: “When people in Russia say that their troops are not hurting the civilian population, show them these pictures! Show them the faces of these children who weren’t even given the chance to grow up. How many more children must die to convince Russian troops to stop firing and allow humanitarian corridors?”
“To NATO countries: close the sky over Ukraine! Save our children, because it will save yours tomorrow!” Zelenska also posted to social media, pleading for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Commentators are split on the proposal, with some arguing that it risks raising tensions and thereby provoking World War Three, while others see it as the most effective way to stand up to Putin.
While in Washington DC last year, Zelenska delivered a powerful interview. ” I believe that today we [countries across the world] share a lot of things in common. Common values, ideas, problems.” She gave a passionate speech about soft power and cultural diplomacy between nations and communities. Right now, it appears to be a speech from another planet and certainly another time; we can only hope that the days of peace and diplomacy will return.
As the invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold in terrifying ways, we are all in a state of shock and horror. As the enormity of the human toll has become obvious, news stories have left many of us reeling.