Paris, France – A screenwriter by training in 2019 Zelenska became First Lady of Ukraine. In the role, she has championed social and humanitarian causes – and now, she is showcasing all the star qualities of bravery and resilience, as she stands by her husband on the world stage.
During this shattering moment of upheaval in Ukraine, the world’s lens has honed in one person specifically. That person being: President Zelensky, the leader of the country. A former comic who has stepped up in true statesman – like fashion to fight for and defend his home from the Russians, while simultaneously garnering admiration across the world. In a serios of broadcasts, Zelensky, who appears increasingly ashen – faced, emphasised that we are facing the enemy together, describing himself as the invaders’ ‘target No.1’; his wife and their two children, aged 17 and 9, as ‘No.2’.
But who is his wife, and by default, Ukraine’s first lady? She is Olena Zelenska, 44, a Ukrainian screenwriter and onetime classmate of Zelensky. While she was reportedly once opposed to his political aspirations, she now – when it matters – is at his side, his closest and most steadfast ally, during the Russian invasion. Widely popular, Zelenska, whose English is flawless, is considered one of Ukraine’s most influential women by virtue of more than just her job title. A dynamic – and diplomatic – power house, in December 2019, during a speech at the third Ukrainian Women’s Congress, Zelenska initiated Ukraine’s accession to the G7 international initiative on gender equality, the Biarritz Partnership. Then there’s been her work for Ukrainian culture, a reform of the school nutrition system and an initiative to spread the Ukrainian language across the world, all while campaigning for a barrier – free society.
Zelenska – whose maiden name is Kiyashko – originally embarked on a career in architecture, studying the subject at Kryvy Rih National University, begore changing her specialism to writing. It was at the university that she met Zelensky (despite them having crossed over at school and having mutual friends), while he was a budding comedian and law student. Zelenska then went on to write for the comedy troup that escalated the now president to public consciousness ahead of his defining role as a spoof politician in Servant of People. When Zelensky first voiced plans to pivot into politics, Zelenska was reportedly ‘aggressively opposed’having lived a life, prior to that point, away from the spotlight.
Despite initial reluctance, when the time came for campaigning and canvassing, she stepped up with aplomb, dutifully appearing by his side for photo ops and speeches. These days, she is held up as a First Lady of action while being revered for her style of choices (mainly a showcase of Ukrainian Vogue. In the interview to accompany the Vogue shoot, she admitted: ‘I am a non – public person. But the new realities [being First Lady] require their own rules, and I’m trying to comply with them’.
She sensitively added: ‘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’. Busy by any estimation, Zelenska juggles her job as a screenwriter at Studio Quarter 95, a Ukrainian production company, with the business of state.
And like Zelensky, Zelenska has taken to social media to address her country during these war torn times. In a post on Friday, written alongside an image of a gleaming Ukrainian flag, she said: ‘My dear people, Ukrainians! I’m looking at you all today: everyone I see on TV, on the streets, on the internet. I see your posts and videos. And you know what? You are incredible. I am proud to live with you and in the same country…Today I will not have panic and tears. 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. I love you! I love Ukraine!’
In a second statement since the conflict began, Zelenska posted an image of a baby swaddled in blankets. She wrote: ‘This child was born in the Kyiv bomb shelter. This was to take plase in completely different conditions, under peaceful skies. It is what children should see. But the main thing is that despite the war, there were doctors and caring people on our streets next to her. She will be protected and defended. Because you are incredible, dear compatriots. We are the army, the army is us. And children born in bomb shelters will live in a peaceful country that has defended itself’.
In September last year, Zelenska gave a powerful interview while she was in Washington DC. She spoke poignantly about her role as First Lady saying: ‘I believe that today we [countries across the world] share a lot of things in common. Common values, ideas, problems.’ She spoke rousingly about soft power and cultural diplomacy between nations and societies. Certainly, right now, it seems a comment from a different world and a different time, but we are with her and hope that those days of peace and diplomacy can be revisited very soon.