By RACHEL DONADIO
July 26, 2022
There is no script for first ladies in wartime, and so Olena Zelenska is writing her own. The wife of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a longtime comedy writer, always preferred to stay behind the scenes, while her husband, a comedian turned politician whose presidency may yet determine the fate of the free world, glowed in the limelight. But ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Zelenska has suddenly found herself center stage in a tragedy. When I met her on a recent rainy afternoon in Kyiv, where cafés were busy even amid frequent air-raid sirens, her luminous face and green-brown eyes seemed to capture the range of emotions coursing through Ukraine today: deep sadness, flashes of dark humor, recollections of a safer, happier past, and a steely core of national pride.
“These have been the most horrible months of my life, and the lives of every Ukrainian,” she said, speaking her country’s language through a translator. “Frankly I don’t think anyone is aware of how we have managed emotionally.” What inspires her, she told me, is her fellow Ukrainians. “We’re looking forward to victory. We have no doubt we will prevail. And this is what keeps us going.”
I met Zelenska—surnames are gendered in Slavic languages—deep inside the presidential office compound, a heavily guarded place I had traveled long hours to reach. With Ukraine’s airspace closed to civilian flights, I took an overnight train from Poland, through landscapes that have seen some of the 20th century’s worst horrors. Once inside the compound, I passed multiple security checkpoints and a labyrinth of blacked-out corridors lined with sandbags and soldiers. Life in wartime.
From the start, this war has been fought both on the ground and in the information space, where Zelenskyy—savvy, telegenic, down-to-earth in his famous olive-drab T-shirts—has excelled. Now, in a crucial new phase, with Ukraine battling for international support and fresh military aid, the first lady’s role is no longer minor or ornamental. After spending the first months of the war in hiding, Zelenska, who, like her husband, is 44, has emerged into public view to become a face of her nation—a woman’s face, a mother’s face, an empathetic human face. If Zelenskyy leads a nation of civilians who overnight turned into combatants, she has visibly carried their emotional toll.
“Of course she is my love,” says President Zelenskyy. “But she is my greatest friend. Olena really is my best friend.” In this story the first lady wears Ukrainian designers such as Bettter, Six, Hvoya, The Coat, Kachorovska, and Poustovit.
In Ukraine, tens of thousands of women have been on the front lines, including in combat, and Zelenska’s role has increasingly turned toward frontline diplomacy. She recently traveled to Washington, albeit on an unofficial, unannounced visit, and met with President Biden, first lady
Dr. Jill Biden, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. There, she also addressed Congress, telling a bipartisan group of lawmakers that she was speaking as a mother and daughter, not just a first lady. She showed pictures of Ukrainian children who had been killed by Russian rockets, including a four-year-old with Down syndrome, before amping it up: “I’m asking for something I would never want to ask for: I am asking for weapons—weapons that would not be used to wage a war on somebody else’s land but to protect one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home.”
That’s a more heartfelt version of the message her husband has been making all along: that the war in Ukraine is about more than Ukraine—it is about who will uphold the values of the West and the postwar rules-based order. If Vladimir Putin can invade a sovereign country to fulfill his ambition to reunite the former Russian empire, where will he stop?
It is not clear whether Zelenska, or her husband, will convince Ukraine’s Western allies to get even more deeply involved in a conflict that shows no sign of clear resolution and is also weighing down the global economy. The same day Zelenska addressed Congress, Russia’s foreign minister said Russia would consider expanding into further territory if Western countries gave Ukraine more long-range weaponry. Zelenskyy, meanwhile, wants to push the Russians back to the pre–February 24 borders, if not further, before considering negotiations with Russia. Ukraine insists victory is possible; Russia seems unlikely to give up any of the territory it has so far claimed. Through it all, Congress and the Biden White House have walked a delicate line: providing billions of military aid to Ukraine but reluctant to permanently antagonize Russia, get tangled up in forever wars, or send too many arms to a Ukrainian military that may not be trained to use them or to keep them from falling into Russian hands. At the same time, major European countries, notably Germany, have been heavily dependent on Russian gas, effectively funding Russia’s war effort even as they offer Ukraine military and technical support.
Whether Zelenska’s visit to Washington yields real results, it was a reminder of the power of image-making. And images matter. Tetyana Solovey, a London-based former editor at Vogue Ukraine, says Zelenska’s emergence has been critical. “The female voices in this war need to be heard, need to be represented,” she says. Zelenska is “the first to speak about the human experience of the war.” And the first lady has helped Ukraine assert its own voice. At the start of the war, “the whole media landscape was: ‘Biden said,’ ‘Boris Johnson said,’ ‘Olaf Scholz said something.’ What the bigger players are thinking about Ukraine, what Putin wants,” she says. “Her presence in the media helps give this sense of agency to Ukraine as a country which has a right to be heard, to speak, to be considered relevant.”
In early June, in one of her first public appearances since the invasion, Zelenska paid homage to some 200 Ukrainian children killed in the war, giving a speech to a crowd that included grieving parents outside Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral, its gold domes reaching to the early summer sky. (A month later, the number had risen to 300 children, she told me.) “The whole country knows your stories, and you are not alone,” she said that day. “You should know that you are important. You were the most important people for your children. So take care of yourself for them. They would like that.” Zelenska and the parents hung bells in the trees, one for each child. “The bells stood for the voices of the innocent children, so they would ring forever and be heard forever,”
she said to me. “I was in tears the whole hour I was there.” With Russian missiles falling on civilian targets, Zelenska has also started an initiative to help attend to Ukrainians suffering from trauma. She’s leading an effort to train mental-health practitioners and teach first-line responders, including teachers, pharmacists, social workers, and police officers, to act as counselors. “More generally this initiative looks to improve mental health in the nation,” she said. It’s a modern response to an old-school war of aggression, a response that looks beyond simple survival to the longer-term effects.
“The first weeks after the war broke out we were just shocked,” she said. “After Bucha we understood it was a war intended to exterminate us all. A war of extermination.”
Being first lady is not a role Zelenska ever wanted to play. “I like being backstage—it suited me,” she told me. “Moving into the limelight was quite difficult for me.” She and Zelenskyy met in high school, started dating at university, and had a full life in the entertainment world before he won the presidency in 2019 in a landslide on an anti-corruption platform. Protective of their family life, she hadn’t wanted him to run. But like so many of her fellow Ukrainians in this war, Zelenska has risen to the occasion with grace and grit. “I’m trying to do my best,” she said. She has always been a diligent student.
In our two conversations in Kyiv, Zelenska was forthright, dignified, elegant, a subtle promoter of Ukrainian designers. On one day she wore an ecru silk blouse with a black velvet bow tied around the neck and a black mid-calf skirt, her ash-blond hair swept up in a loose bun. The next day, it was wide-leg jeans, chunky white sneakers with yellow and blue detailing, a nod to the Ukrainian flag and a fundraising project by the brand The Coat, her hair loose on her shoulders, and a rust-colored button-down shirt. I couldn’t help but think the shirt had the same rusty hue as the burned-out Russian tanks that I saw lining roads in Irpin and Bucha, suburbs of Kyiv where Ukraine pushed back the Russians. In Bucha, the site of a now infamous mass grave, investigations are underway to determine if Russia committed war crimes. I asked Zelenska how news of Russian atrocities in Bucha had changed the game. “The first weeks after the war broke out we were just shocked,” she said. “After Bucha we understood it was a war intended to exterminate us all. A war of extermination.”
It is strange to talk about Ukrainian extermination and Ukrainian fashion in the same conversation, and yet this is the cognitive dissonance of today’s Ukraine, where designers and professionals of all kinds are mobilizing at home and abroad to support their country. That cognitive dissonance is especially true in Kyiv, where you can sip a matcha in a café and then drive an hour to Bucha to visit a mass grave. It is hard to get one’s head around it all.
For all Zelenska’s grace under pressure, it was clear the war had taken a toll on her. She was at times anxious and on edge, as if locked in a semi-permanent state of fight-or-flight. Her eyes would fill with sadness, especially when speaking of dead children, and at times she’d stare out the window and cross her hands across her stomach, a gesture of self-protection. It’s no wonder. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelenskyy became target number one, and she and their children target two. This cannot be easy. “I can’t think about it too seriously, because otherwise I would
become paranoid,” she said, casting a wary glance at an aide, when I asked, as gingerly as possible, how it all felt.
When the war began early that February morning, Zelenska was at home in the presidential residence in Kyiv, with the president and their two children: Oleksandra, 18, and Kyrylo, 9. For months, the Biden administration had shared intelligence with Ukraine and Europe warning of an imminent Russian invasion. Still, no one, not even Zelenskyy, actually expected it to happen. When it did, he put on a suit, went to the office and declared martial law. As Russian tanks barreled toward Kyiv, he changed into military garb and won the undying support of Ukrainians and the admiration of the world by not fleeing the country, as one of his predecessors, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, had when faced with the Maidan Square popular uprising in 2014. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelenskyy said, apparently, at the time (a line that may be apocryphal but lives on).
On day two of the war, Zelenskyy filmed a now famous handheld video of himself and his team outside the presidential compound. His message—“We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine”—inspired Ukrainians to do the same. Since then, his daily video briefing to the nation has also helped boost morale. Before becoming president, Zelenskyy had not only been a popular comedian, a film and television star, the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear in the recent films, and a winner on his country’s version of Dancing With the Stars, he also cofounded one of the biggest television and film production companies in the post-Soviet sphere, Studio Kvartal 95. Zelenska worked as a writer and editor on its leading prime-time satirical comedy show and on a spinoff aimed at women. Once in office, Zelenskyy brought many television colleagues and friends into the administration. This has led to challenges—most notably accusations of institutional incompetence (he recently fired a childhood friend whom he had appointed head of Ukraine’s security services). But there is no doubt that Zelenskyy and his team have orchestrated brilliantly effective communications. The president is ready for prime time, even if the country’s institutions may not be. The hard work of reform looms for Ukraine if it aspires to join the European Union, a lengthy process.
But while at the start of the war Zelenskyy was visible on screens across Ukraine and worldwide, imploring the United States and Europe to send weaponry and aid, Zelenska and the children had vanished from view, moving between secure locations. In those difficult days, Zelenska stayed busy, and sane, by keeping up with her official first lady duties, conducting written interviews, trying to reshape some of her initiatives for wartime. “My daily schedule didn’t have a free moment when I could just sit back and start thinking about bad things,” she said. She helped her son with online school, which was challenging because they weren’t able to be online in real time. They played board games and read. She reread George Orwell’s 1984. “It’s a horrible coincidence. It’s a picture of what is happening in Russia these days.”
For a while Zelenska wasn’t able to communicate with her husband, or with her parents. Before the war, she’d spoken to her mother on the phone every day. “I don’t even know how I would have survived these months if we had been apart,” she said of the children. The president has not yet been able to see the children, for security reasons. “He’s having a much harder time in this regard. He suffers. And then my kids do, too, because they can’t see each other,” she said. Like
so many Ukrainian families, the first family has been separated. Some 9 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the war began, most of them women and children. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to stay and encouraged to serve in territorial defense forces. An estimated 5,000 Ukrainian civilians have died, probably more, and at peaks in the fighting the administration estimated it was losing 200 soldiers a day.
When Zelenska finally emerged into public view, appearing with first lady Jill Biden to visit a shelter for displaced people in western Ukraine on May 8, Mother’s Day, it sent a strong message: She was in the country and working for the common good. This marked a new phase of the war and of Zelenska’s role as first lady—a beacon to her citizenry and a player in Ukraine’s battle for hearts and minds.
Before the war, she’d already become an advocate for the vulnerable, especially children with special needs, and also worked to raise awareness and fight domestic violence. She brought in a renowned Ukrainian chef to overhaul public school cafeteria nutrition, introducing more fruits and vegetables to a diet largely of meat and potatoes, and helped negotiate the introduction of Ukrainian-language audio guides at major international museums. Zelenska has continued this work, not least because millions of Ukrainians are now living abroad, especially in Europe. The schools initiative has shifted because the question is now whether children can go to school at all—Russia has been bombing schools and not all have adequate bomb shelters—or have enough to eat. In her speech to Congress, Zelenska compared Russia’s strategy in Ukraine to The Hunger Games.
That speech showed Zelenska’s style: a tough message with a soft look. Her family had long projected a youthful, future-oriented image of an independent Ukraine to the rest of the world. No longer was this a country of oligarchs and kleptocrats of the post-Soviet years. “She keeps it modern, she keeps it real,” says Julie Pelipas, a London-based Ukrainian designer who helped style the images accompanying this story. “She’s very precise with what she wears, but she gives space to experiment,” Pelipas says. “When she’s wearing a trouser suit, she’s not afraid to be looking too masculine next to the president. This is also a sign of a modern woman in Ukraine—we’re not afraid to show that we’re stronger, that we’re equal with men.”
Not long before Zelenska’s visit to Washington, I asked President Zelenskyy about his wife, and how she was helping the cause. When I reached his office in the presidential compound in Kyiv, past a gauntlet of security, it took me a minute to realize that I’d arrived. There was an ornate parquet floor. I recognized his desk, flanked by a flag of Ukraine, from his video messages. He wore an olive sweater and pants, and sat at the head of a giant long table. Zelenskyy was slight, with a several days’ beard, and looked tired. We shook hands. I told him I was there to talk about another front in the war: the home front. “Home is also the front line,” he said in his gravely baritone, in English before switching to Ukrainian. He told me he understood why millions of Ukrainians had fled the country, but that those who remained needed to be role models, starting with his family. “I can do it for one part of our people, for a significant part,” he said. “But for women and children, my wife being here sets an example. I believe that she plays a very powerful role for Ukraine, for our families, and for our women.”
The war has now entered a crucial, transitional phase. Large swaths of Ukraine’s east and south are under Russian occupation. Zelenskyy wants more military support for defense and to claw back territory Russia has seized since February, if not since 2014, when Russia first invaded Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. International attention has been flagging, while inflation and gas prices are on the rise worldwide. When I asked him about this, Zelenskyy was direct. “I will be very honest and maybe not very diplomatic: Gas is nothing. COVID, even COVID is nothing when you compare it to what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said. “Just try to imagine what I’m talking about happening to your home, to your country. Would you still be thinking about gas prices or electricity prices?” The battle, he said, goes beyond Ukraine. “We are fighting for things that could happen in any country in the world,” he told me. “If the world allows this to happen, then it is not upholding its values. That’s why Ukraine needs support—significant support.”
I asked Zelenskyy how the war has affected his own family. “Like any ordinary man, I have been worried sick about them, about their safety. I didn’t want them to be put in danger,” he said. “It’s not about romance. It’s about horrors that were happening here in Kyiv’s outskirts and all those horrors that are happening now in our country, in occupied territories,” he said. “But of course I’ve been missing them. I’ve wanted to hug them so much. I’ve wanted to be able to touch them.” He’s proud of Zelenska, he said, for coping. “She has a strong personality to start with. And probably she is stronger than she thought she was. And this war—well, any war is probably bound to bring out qualities you never expected to have.”
If Zelenskyy was a bit stiff—telling me Zelenska is a great mother who takes her responsibilities as first lady very seriously—he warmed up immediately when asked about her human qualities, their shared past, what people should know about her. “Of course she is my love. But she is my greatest friend,” he said. “Olena really is my best friend. She is also a patriot and she deeply loves Ukraine. It’s true. And she is an excellent mother.”
The couple first met in high school in their hometown of Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in southeast Ukraine. When they started dating, it wasn’t love at first sight. He was first drawn to her looks: “You look at someone’s eyes, and lips,” he explained. Then they got to talking. “That’s when you cross the distance from like to love. That’s what happened for me,” he said. (“Probably, humor was this mutual chemistry between us,” she said when I asked about their origin story.) Did Zelenskyy try out his jokes on her? He smiled. “Yes, of course. My jokes don’t always go over well with her. She is a very good editor.”
Zelenska was born Olena Kiyashko. Her mother was an engineer and manager in a construction company and her father a professor in a technical school. Both she and Zelenskyy are only children. Both were raised in Russian-speaking households and learned Ukrainian later. They were 11 when the Berlin Wall fell, and in junior high school when Ukraine gained its independence, in 1991. Aerosmith and The Beatles were her adolescent soundtrack. “We were teenagers in the last days of the Soviet Union,” she said. “The world started to open up for us.” That’s another reason why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is such a shock. “When someone starts telling us that there are no Ukrainians and a Ukrainian is just a bad Russian, we don’t buy it,” she
said. “People who were born in independent Ukraine are now in their 30s. It’s a new generation. So nobody in Ukraine can understand their pretext or reasons for invading us.”
At university, Zelenska graduated with a degree in architecture and Zelenskyy studied law, but soon both changed course to dedicate themselves to satirical comedy. At first she had her doubts about making a living in comedy. But the comedy troupe anchored by Zelenskyy had already won a hugely popular competition. “So there was a good foundation,” she said. The troupe would go on to win multiple times, and in 2003 Zelenskyy and friends, including Zelenska, started Kvartal 95, a production company that became one of the largest in the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking world. They named it after the district of Kryvyi Rih where they grew up.
Kvartal 95 produced a popular satirical program, Evening Kvartal, where Zelenskyy was a star and Zelenska a writer for years. She was often the only woman in the writers room, which she enjoyed. “For me it’s easier to deal with men than with women,” she said. Then she hedged: “The doors to the humor world for women are open as wide as they are for men. But fewer women venture in. It takes some courage to take up this path.” The show mocked the region’s politicians and mores, a more mainstream and less edgy version of Saturday Night Live. It helped make Zelenskyy a household name in Ukraine. Evening Kvartal was “a unique thing: the only theater of political satire in the former Soviet Union,” says Alexander Rodnyansky, a film and television producer who has known Zelenskyy for years and whose son is an economic adviser in his government. Rodnyansky was head of the Ukrainian television network that put the show on prime time. “He was doing a very important thing in the social and political process of the country,” he says.
In 2015, Zelenskyy raised his profile even more by starring in a television series, Servant of the People, in which he played a high school teacher who criticizes the ruling class for cronyism and corruption—and finds himself elected president of Ukraine. A few years later, Zelenskyy would—a little uncannily—make this a reality, winning the presidency by defeating Petro Poroshenko, a businessman who had been in power since the first elections after the 2014 Maidan uprising that pushed Ukraine closer to Europe and farther from Russia. Rodnyansky recalls talking to Zelenskyy just before he won. “He said, ‘It’s going to be just one term, we will try to change the country for the better, and then I’ll go and I’ll become a producer again and I’ll do the movie based on my experience and I’ll win the Oscar.’ That’s what he said to me. I was laughing.”
When Zelenskyy decided to run for office, Zelenska was upset. “I respected his choice and I understood that this was an important step for him to make. At the same time I felt that my life and the life of my family would change quite radically. The change would be long-lasting and quite complex,” she told me. “I knew there was going to be a lot of work for me, and I was right.” Zelenska’s most relaxed moments in our conversations came when she recalled the years before the war and before the presidency. Going to an Adele concert in Lisbon. Driving with friends to Kraków to see Maroon 5. Traveling to Barcelona for a weekend. Watching movies as a family. (They’ve watched Forrest Gump “millions of times,” and she loves Legends of the Fall and The Bridges of Madison County.) Like everyone in Ukraine, she wants a normal life again.
I asked her if anything had prepared her for the war. “Nothing,” she said. “We were living happy lives and we never thought this would happen. But we have hope.” The more I spoke to Zelenska, the more I felt for her, and sensed her isolation, her fear. “It’s true, I feel isolated,” she said. “I can’t freely visit what I want to. Nowadays going shopping is a dream that cannot be realized.” But she was holding it together, for her country, to meet all those expectations. “It’s a difficult task because you feel this burden of responsibility constantly.”
Her efforts are paying off. On my last morning in Kyiv, before another long train ride back to Poland, the rain had stopped and I took a walk through Maidan Square. I stopped to ask people what they think of Zelenska. The responses were all positive. “She’s humble and she’s more contemporary and more modern,” said Antonina Siryk, who proudly told me she works in the state office that designs postage stamps, including a famous new one issued by Ukraine that says “Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself.” I chatted with a couple, Svitlana and Sergiy Karpov, who were living in Kyiv but hoped to return to their home in the Donbas region, now under Russian occupation. Both said they admired Zelenska. “First of all, she’s pretty,” says Sergiy, an excavator operator. “We like their family,” his wife, who works in insurance, added. “They look like they really love each other. You can feel it.”
Back in her office, before I said goodbye to Zelenska, she gave me a book about the city of Kharkiv, which Russia had pounded with artillery. That day, Russia had also fired missiles into Vinnytsia, a city southwest of Kyiv, far from the front lines—sending the message that nowhere is safe. Zelenska was clearly shaken. With an aide’s phone she showed me an image of a dead child there. It was all so much to bear. The war machine, the media machine. She was doing a job she never signed up for and doing it well. As I left, we shook hands, and then I ventured a brief hug. She walked me to the door. I told her I hoped her family would soon be able to have dinner together again at the same table. So many separated families. So many lives lost. “I dream about that,” she said.
Editor’s note: A version of this digital cover story, which was organized in partnership with Vogue UA, will be published in our October issue.