When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky received an offer to leave the country at the beginning of the Russian invasion, his answer was straightforward: “I need ammunition, not transport.” He decided to stay, but he did not stay alone – his wife stayed too.
The couple stayed with their 17-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son in the country together.
As the president went on to say that his family had become Russia’s next target after him, attention turned to the first lady, whose position remains top secret for security reasons.
Who is Olena Zelenska?
From her refuge, Olena has used her profiles on social media to highlight the suffering of Ukrainians and shed light on the rapidly changing situation in the country.
“At least 38 children have already died in Ukraine, and this number may increase at this very moment due to the bombing of our peaceful cities,” she wrote on Instagram, where she has more than two million followers.
“We need corridors in Ukraine’s most dangerous cities right now! Hundreds of children are dying there in basements without food or medical care,” she said, repeating similar calls from her husband.
(A humanitarian corridor is a temporary route or temporary area that allows the safe movement of civilians or refugees out of conflict areas and the passage of humanitarian aid).
Olena grew up in Kryvyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine, where her husband also grew up.
The 44-year-old studied architecture and law at the National University of Kryvyi Rih.
But then she changed course to devote herself to writing screenplays with her husband, a hopeful comedian and law student.
The couple have known each other since college.
They married in 2003, after dating for eight years, and a year later their daughter was born, followed by their son in 2013.
She worked as a screenwriter for the comedy group that made her husband famous.
Before the invasion, she divided her time between her role as first lady and her work in Studio Kvartal 95, a production company Zelensky co-founded.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky unexpectedly became president, launching her in public. From actor and comedian with no experience in politics, he became the country’s leader.
“But I prefer to stay behind the scenes. My husband is always in the spotlight while I feel more comfortable in the shadows. I’m not the soul of the party, I do not like not to tell jokes,” she told Vogue at the time.
Her role as first lady
Since becoming first lady, Olena has met world leaders and members of the royal family. She fought hard for women’s rights and reformed the country’s school nutrition system.
She has always defended Ukrainian culture by striving to spread the Ukrainian language all over the world.
While her country is at war with Russia, she has used her platform to address the media around the world.
In an open letter on International Women’s Day (March 8), she condemned the “massacre of Ukrainian civilians”, despite Russia’s efforts to portray the war as a “special operation”.
She highlighted the loss of children and mentioned the names of three children who perished in the bombings.
She said Ukraine wanted peace but wanted to defend its borders and identity.
During the invasion, Olena posted messages of support for Ukrainians on social media.
She expressed her admiration for the different roles that women played in the war effort, from those in the front line to those in bomb shelters giving birth or taking care of children.
“I once wrote that there are two million more women than men in Ukraine. It’s just statistics. But now it’s taking on a whole new meaning because it means that our current resistance also has a particularly feminine face,” she wrote.
As the war shows no sign of ending, it is highly likely that Olena will continue to use her platform to address the world’s leaders directly, with a recent post on social media urging the West for help:
“NATO countries: close the skies over Ukraine! Save our children, for tomorrow yours will be saved.”