Olena Zelenska: The defiant First Lady of Ukraine
When President Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, the eyes of the world also turned to another man – President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The former comic turned politician has been hailed as a true statesman and leader with his rallying videos and powerful speeches towards his enemy and to governments across the globe.
But another figure, just as defiant, has emerged from the shadows – Olena Zelenska, his wife of almost two decades.
The 44-year-old First Lady – and the couple’s two children – might well be ‘target number two’ on a Russian hit list, according to her husband. Yet the courageous couple are refusing to flee from their native homeland, instead choosing to stand alongside their people.
Watch: Olena Zelenska praises 'incredible' women who are the 'face' of the 'resistance'.
‘Today I will not have panic and tears,’ she wrote on her Instagram, which has more than two million followers, on the day of the invasion.
Posting alongside a picture of the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag she continued: ‘I will be calm and confident. My children are looking at me. I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.’
Few people outside Ukraine had heard of Zelenska before the war broke out. But her social media posts, highlighting the atrocities of Putin on her people have thrust her, reluctantly into the spotlight.
Who is Olena Zelenska?
Zelenska was born Olena Volodymyrivna Kiyashko on 6th February 1978 in Kryvyi Rih, the largest city in central Ukraine.
She and her husband – who is only a couple of weeks older – were at the same school but didn’t know each other until they met again at Kryvyi Rih University in 1995.
She was studying for a degree in architecture while he was studying law but hoping for a career in comedy.
But Zelenska changed her specialism to writing around the same time Zelensky formed his own comedy group Kvartal 95. It is thought that romance blossomed while she was helping him write his comedy.
The couple dated for eight years before getting married on 2 September 2003. The following year, on 15 July 2004, their daughter Oleksandra was born and nine years later on 21 January 2013, they had a son Kyryl.
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Their careers in comedy (she as a writer and he as a writer/performer) went from strength to strength and in 2015, they worked together on the political satire comedy show Servant of the People in which he – ironically – played the President of Ukraine.
Only four year later, Zelensky ran for office in real life and at first, his wife was strongly opposed to it, joking later that she only heard of his intentions via social media. ‘This is a very difficult move,’ she said. ‘It’s not even a project, it’s another direction in life.’
Yet her husband, by now a popular TV personality, went on to win the election by a 73% landslide and Zelenska’s life was to change forever. But she stepped into the role of First Lady with grace and a determination to make a change.
She admitted that she prefers to remain in the background. ‘I’m a non-public person,’ she told Vogue magazine. ‘But the new realities (of being the President’s wife) require their own rules, and I’m trying to comply with them.
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‘I prefer staying backstage. My husband is always on the forefront, while I feel more comfortable in the shade. I am not the life of the party. I do not like to tell jokes. It’s not in my character. But I found reasons for myself in favour of publicity. One of them is the opportunity to attract people’s attention to important social issues.’
Before the invasion, Zelenska was doing exactly that. A powerful advocate for women and children, she campaigned against domestic violence and reformed nutrition in the country’s school meals as well as making policy-changing speeches on gender equality.
Today, under terrifying circumstances she continues to use her position to write powerful posts on her social media. She is highlighting the horror of the invasion and the cost, particularly to the children of the nation.
After the bombing of a maternity hospital she condemned the ‘mass murder’ of Ukrainians, naming the three children who died in the explosion.
While her whereabouts remains a secret, Zelenska is refusing to keep quiet, encouraging her fellow Ukrainians to remain steadfast.
In one of her most recent videos she wrote: ‘This video is for the world to see – we have war. Because of Putin’s attack, Ukrainians lead children to basements every night and fight with the enemy under the walls of their native houses. We are against the war and we did not attack first. But we are not going to give up.’