HomeNewsUkraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska on being Russia’s target No 2: ‘When you see their crimes, maybe they really are capable of anything’
Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska on being Russia’s target No 2: ‘When you see their crimes, maybe they really are capable of anything’
June 18, 2022
In the early hours of 24 February, Olena Zelenska became aware of the sound of muffled booms somewhere in the distance. As she drifted towards wakefulness, she realised the sounds she was registering could not be fireworks. Her eyes snapped open; she discovered she was alone in the bed. She jumped up and hurried to the next room, where she found her husband, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, already dressed for work in a suit and tie.
“What’s going on?” she asked him.
“It’s started,” he told her.
“I had the feeling I was inside a parallel reality, that I was dreaming,” Zelenska says, describing the moment when normal life was interrupted, for her family and her country. Soon afterwards, her husband left for the presidential compound in the centre of Kyiv, to chair a security council meeting that would decide on the initial response to Vladimir Putin’s shocking full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He told his wife she should wait for him to call later in the day with instructions.
Left alone, she went to check on the couple’s two children, nine-year-old Kyrylo and 17-year-old Oleksandra. They were already awake and dressed, and they seemed to understand what was happening. Zelenska began to throw together a suitcase of possessions, scurrying down to the basement with the children and their security detail every time the booms got too close. At one point, she was standing on the first floor of the presidential villa and looking out of the window when a fighter jet screamed by, loud and low. She wasn’t sure if it was Ukrainian or Russian.
“It was a surreal feeling … like I was playing a computer game and had to pass certain levels to find myself back at home. But I was also keeping it together, and I had this weird smile on my face all day, because I was trying not to show the children panic. We just followed the orders of security, went where we were told,” she says.
In the evening, she was able to see her husband again, briefly, though she won’t say where. He told her that she and the children would be taken to a safe place. They hugged, but there was no time for tears or sentimentality. It was only later that she allowed the thought to creep in: she might never see him again.
It’s three months later when I meet Zelenska (in Ukrainian, surname endings differ for men and women) and ask her to recount those terrifying first few hours. We are in an office inside the presidential compound in central Kyiv; to get there I have to pass several checkpoints and security posts, and once inside I am searched multiple times. The windows are piled high with sandbags. Shadowy figures scurry through the walkways; small lamps on the floor throw weak light on to the blue carpets that stretch along the corridors. Still, there is not the same level of tension as during the first weeks of the war. The Russian retreat from the outskirts of Kyiv has made the Ukrainian capital a much more relaxed place. Outside, young couples stroll in the city centre in the early summer sunshine, cafes are open and the evening curfew has been extended to 11pm. Air-raid sirens still sound, but most people ignore them.
The calmer situation has also meant Zelenska has been able to return to the capital, at least for a period, but her security guards remain on edge. I’m asked to leave my mobile phone in an anteroom and I’m searched thoroughly once again before being ushered into the room where she is waiting. A bodyguard in military fatigues accompanies me into the room and sits glowering in the corner throughout the interview.
Zelenska greets me with a gentle handshake. “Thank you for coming,” she says in English, before switching into Ukrainian.
Back in those first days of the war, there was a terrifying sense that anything was possible, as missiles rained down on targets across the country and Russian troops advanced on Kyiv from three directions. “According to the available intelligence, the enemy marked me as target No 1 and my family as target No 2,” President Zelenskiy said in one of his early video addresses. His wife does not know what intelligence the assessment was based on, and Zelenskiy never told her about any specific threat to the family. She tries not to think too much about it, “otherwise I’ll get paranoid”. But she was alert to the possibilities that seizing the first family could provide the Russians.
“Of course, it’s possible to exert pressure on the president through his family, and I wouldn’t want him to have to make the choice between his family and his responsibilities as president. So if there is even the smallest chance of that, you have to remove it,” she says. She speaks in a soft voice with carefully enunciated consonants, punctuating her answers with deep sighs.
So while Zelenskiy ignored suggestions from western leaders that he should leave Kyiv and set up a government-in-exile in western Ukraine or Poland, he did send Zelenska and the children away to relative safety. She is understandably cagey about exactly where she spent those two months – “The less I say, the safer I am” – but says she moved regularly, and insists she remained inside Ukraine the whole time. At times, she could hear the air-raid sirens that have become the background soundtrack for many millions of Ukrainian lives. Oleksandra and Kyrylo never left her side.
“The children were ideal,” she says. “Usually you have to tell them things a million times, but that first day they did everything super-quickly and obediently. We were in some kind of changed state, of course. Then, afterwards, we had this long waiting period. We were watching the news, waiting for calls. We had the television on the whole time.”
“Aha – so you did have a television,” I say.
“I see you’re trying to get some clues out of me. Yes, we had a television. I wasn’t underground, or underwater,” she says with a smile.
One night early in the war, when the Russians were trying to storm Kyiv, she saw footage on television of a Russian tank in the Obolon district, outside a block where she used to live. Other evenings, she would see the video clips of her husband, no longer in the civilian suit he was wearing when she last saw him, giving stirring addresses to the Ukrainian people and appealing to international leaders. “I could see that it was all very emotional for him,” she says. “Knowing him, I think he used all the emotional levers he could to get the message across. But it wasn’t manipulation, it was genuine – he would really have these feelings, for sure.”
Sometimes she was able to speak to her husband, though not on any of her normal devices. She was told by the security detail to leave behind all her electronics and not to log into any of her social networks. The days were long and lonely; she passed the time by helping Kyrylo with his schoolwork. She tried to map out daily schedules to keep herself occupied. “You have to plan things for your hours and minutes, to make sure you have stuff to do and don’t end up getting lost in your thoughts.”
Olena and Volodymyr first met as children, long before any of his various career incarnations as actor, producer, president and war leader. They have always been very different. He loves to perform, she prefers quiet and privacy; he laces his words with emotions and gestures, she comes across as steady and reserved. She rarely gives interviews, but has agreed to meet me to discuss how the months of war have affected her and her family, and her husband’s transformation into an icon of resistance to Putin’s Russia.
She was born Olena Kiyashko, in 1978, in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine. Her mother was head engineer in a factory and her father taught construction at a technical university. They grew up speaking Russian but felt proud of being Ukrainian, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, she says, the family welcomed Ukrainian independence. “I remember a feeling that it was the right thing to do, that we are separate, and we have our own culture and language,” she says.
She and Zelenskiy were in the same year at school in Kryvyi Rih, but in different classes. Even then he was always joking, and he loved attention. She remembers him performing in the school plays, but they did not speak much. “Our classes were rivals – it was like the Montagues and the Capulets. But then we met again in university and, of course, all that silliness has passed and you’re actually happy to see people you remember from school. So first we started being friends and then started dating,” she says. Now that we’re off the topic of the war she has relaxed, and is speaking warmly with the occasional smile.
During the years they dated, Zelenskiy and a group of friends had formed a comedy troupe called Kvartal 95, named after one of the districts in Kryvyi Rih. They performed in competitions across the former Soviet countries. In 2003, the same year they married, Kvartal started making television programmes. Zelenska began work as a scriptwriter, part of a team drafting comedy sketches Zelenskiy and others would perform. She continued in this role for years, even at times pitching in with scripts after Zelenskiy was elected president.
What was home life like for a comedy writer and comedy performer – endless jokes? “Yes, endless jokes. But sometimes I get tired of this messing about. And he never does,” she says, with an affectionate smile. In her telling, the pre-war Zelenskiy sounds almost pathologically good-humoured. “He could always think of funny things. If we were arguing, I would come to work and be thinking about this argument all day. He’d come to work, turn off the drama switch and turn on the comedy one, and spend the day working hard and then come home in a great mood. I’d be like, ‘Why are you not suffering like me?’”
Zelenskiy went on to play the role of an everyman who becomes president in the television series Servant of the People, and then, at the end of 2018, he announced he would run for president in real life, having registered a party named after his show. Zelenska found out about his decision from the news; he claimed he just forgot to tell her. It seems like a remarkable omission. Was she angry? Amused? Resigned? “The whole range of emotions,” she says, diplomatically.
She is clear, though, that she was never keen on the exposure of political life, and has minimised public appearances and interviews since her husband became president in his landslide election win in 2019. Indeed, she says one of the few upsides of her wartime isolation, and the ban on using her mobile devices or social media accounts, was being disconnected from unwanted feedback. “You aren’t waiting to see what people’s reactions will be after every single thing you do,” she says. “I found this emotionally difficult during the two-and-a-half years before the war.”
President Zelenskiy has been through more surprising life twists in the past five years than most people experience in a lifetime. When I interviewed him in February 2020, he was desperate to change the topic from Donald Trump, after spending his first year in office dragged into Trump’s impeachment. But he outlasted the Trump drama and he is doing his best to overcome Putin, too. Even the president’s bitterest political rivals, who feared that a comedy actor was not the right person to take on Putin in Ukraine’s hour of need, have conceded that this wartime leadership has been both courageous and inspirational.
Zelenska claims she is not surprised by how impressive her husband has been. “He’s someone who, more than anyone I know, whenever there were situations where everyone says it’s impossible, he always saw it through and got it done, and was able to inspire others, too.”
I ask for an example and she tells a story about how, once, her writing team had to compose a song for him to sing as part of a sketch. The shooting was the next day, and they had nothing. At 10pm she went to Zelenskiy and told him that probably they’d have to abandon the idea of having a song. “He said, ‘Fine, you go home.’ And he sat down to write it himself, and two hours later it was done. And it wasn’t bad! He just never gives up, even when all around him do.”
It’s hard to take the comparison seriously: writing a song for a comedy sketch hardly seems like preparation for leading a country through an invasion by the second largest army in the world. But, clearly, she is right that something in her husband’s character has turned him into an unexpectedly competent wartime leader. Part of it is certainly his communication skills. “He remembers texts very quickly, and can say them confidently,” she says. “He knows how to work with cameras. He is not acting – he just has the skills to do that well. For me, I find it incredibly difficult to speak in public, I get stressed every time, but for him it’s natural.”
Another ingredient is discipline. Because of his jokey manner and her more austere bearing, people often assume she is the disciplinarian in the relationship while he is the chilled creative. “But, actually, discipline is his middle name,” she says. “The alarm goes off and he gets up, brushes his teeth, gets dressed and leaves, and it takes him five minutes, whereas I’m rolling about for half an hour. He has these qualities, psychologically, to withstand stress and to keep discipline.”
She claims, rather surprisingly, that she has not noticed any difference in his mood over the past months. Does that mean he’s bottling it all up? Is all the stress going to take its toll after the war is over? “I’m not worried for his psychological health, but his physical health – he always gets ill after difficult periods. He relaxes, and then he goes and picks up a virus or something. I am trying to look after him in this regard but, like all men, he doesn’t like to check his temperature or his blood pressure. But I try to get through to him by making a scene.”
“First Lady” is a strange role, she admits: a position defined by the job of her husband, with no formal power, and coming with constant judgment about her looks and dress. Nonetheless, she believes it’s worth harnessing the soft power it provides, and last year even organised a “Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen” in Kyiv. Ten first ladies made the trip, including Emine Erdoğan and Michelle Bolsonaro, but this year she hopes to repeat the summit in an online format. With so many countries keen to show solidarity to Ukraine, there may be a bigger showing.
In recent weeks, Zelenska has been speaking often with some of the contacts she made then, as well as with other first ladies. She first appeared in public, 10 weeks after the war started, to meet Jill Biden, and the pair toured a school in the far west of Ukraine, meeting those who had fled the conflict in the east. “It was brave of her to come. She was extremely empathic and very interested in the stories people had to tell,” Zelenska says. Other conversations have taken place by telephone. Brigitte Macron has offered to help rebuild a school. Before we meet, she has a video call with Queen Mathilde of Belgium, who is also a psychology professor and has some advice about rehabilitation programmes.
“Ukrainians are not used to asking psychologists for help,” Zelenska says. “We are liable to ignore depression or anxiety. We need to have a major advertising campaign to tell people that it’s not their fault if they need mental help.” It’s something she was focused on before the war, and while some of her other projects – such as introducing healthier school meals – seem to have become less pressing when survival is at stake for millions of Ukrainians, the issue of access to mental health services has never been more relevant.
Compared with many Ukrainians, Zelenska has had it easy over the past months, but the war has taken its toll on the first family, too. “My son said to me, ‘Mum, you know, I just want to see my friends. I haven’t seen them for so long. For three months I’ve been playing only with dogs and bodyguards.’” Her daughter has kept up with her studies and hopes to start at university in September, but she, like millions of Ukrainians, has missed out on school, with the war coming after two years of Covid disruptions.
“Every Ukrainian is under a huge psychological burden now,” Zelenska says. “Half of our population are living apart from their families. Of course, the majority of us have never lived in these conditions before.” For now, the focus is on beating the Russians, but when the war is over, there will need to be a major programme to heal the nation. “Nobody needs a country that has won, that has fought for its territory, but that is populated by people who can’t live, function or bring up their children normally. There are big dangers ahead of us.”
We’ve been speaking for more than an hour, and before we finish I want to go back to those days before the war, when American intelligence was making ever more alarmist announcements about Putin’s intentions and Zelenskiy was telling Ukrainians not to panic. Did he feel under pressure in those days? Was he coming home tormented by the feeling that perhaps he should be warning Ukrainians to prepare for war? “No, of course not. There was different information from all sides,” she says, a little irritably. “Of course, nobody shared any military secrets at home with me.”
The fact that the president and his wife were sleeping at home on the night of the invasion says a lot, though. Did they really not think war was possible, despite all the warnings? “Honestly? No. I couldn’t believe it would happen. I didn’t even have my passport ready.”
On 23 February, the day before, she remembers she held a meeting in her office with teenagers about mental health. It was also Yaroslav’s birthday that day, she says.
“Yaroslav … is your son?” I ask, momentarily confused.
“Oh, no, that’s the bodyguard,” she says, laughing, and pointing at the burly man in fatigues, who I had forgotten was sitting behind me. I look over, also with a smile on my face. Yaroslav does not smile back.
On that last day before the war, she tells me, some people in the office were discussing packing emergency suitcases in the event that war really did break out, and she made a mental note to do so the next day. In the end, that’s what she did, throwing a single case together while the booms went off outside.
Zelenska now feels able to spend some time in Kyiv, but it’s far from certain that the president’s family is no longer a target for the Russians (“When you see the appalling crimes they have committed, you think maybe they really are capable of anything”). She is therefore evasive about where she is living now. “Of course,” she says, she is not able to live with her husband, but at least they now get to see each other. She describes their first meeting, after all those weeks, in typically understated terms. “We hugged, said hi, and asked each other how we were. The children were here and they clung on to him for some time. Now we can see each other, and they can physically touch their dad, it makes things a bit easier.”
Later, as Zelenska poses on the stairs of the administration building, the president materialises, clutching a handful of documents and flanked by soldiers, rushing to a meeting. He stops to exchange a few words and gives her a brief kiss. As he pulls away, they hold each other’s arms for a moment, and then he is on his way again. These are the sort of fleeting interactions that they have now.
“We hoped that soon we could see each other more, but for now I don’t see this possibility,” she says. While Putin’s war continues, her family, like millions of other Ukrainian families, is destined to remain split in two.