A Lady, First: Get to Know Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska
Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska一an architecture graduate turned screenwriter turned First Lady一is now a wartime heroine, showing the whole world the true essence of womanhood and girl power
Life doesn’t come with a script, and even though she is a former screenwriter, Ukraine’s strikingly beautiful and extraordinarily brave First Lady Olena Zelenska could never have foretold the plot twists and turns her life has taken.
She has often said that she much prefers being behind the scenes, saying in her cover story for Vogue Ukraine, “I can’t say that publicity or communication with the public is stressful for me. But I prefer being backstage. I feel more comfortable in the shade. I am not the life of the party, I do not like to tell jokes.” And she was very happy to let her husband, former comedic actor and trained lawyer Volodymyr Zelensky bask in the spotlight. But now that her country is at war, she has used her very public platform, and she now updates her almost 3 million (and counting!) followers on Instagram to inspire them to rise up as fellow activists and peace advocates.
In her most recent post, she writes movingly of how a concert at the Vatican Embassy in Turkey can keep the flame of peace alive. “The music is against the war. All the cultures in the world are against death and destruction… Invite friends from all over the world一let’s join our efforts for the fastest victory of Ukraine.”
In addition to her Instagram, she set up a Telegram channel to provide advice on “how to act and live in wartime.” As soon as Russia encroached upon Ukraine, she called on her fellow First Ladies to help children with cancer escape the bombing in her country and be moved to hospitals in other countries. “There are young cancer patients from Ukraine. Just yesterday, they were hiding from the shelling in the basements of clinics. Now they are crossing the Polish border on the way to find safety, and most importantly, to continue their treatments. No aggressor in the world can prevent them from winning the battle against the disease… When Russia attacked Ukraine and our people began to search for a safe place, I asked for the support of the first ladies of the world. My call has been heard. I would like to thank all the Europeans who now help our people一who house, feed, encourage. I imagine it’s hard for you too. Like us, you weren’t ready for this. So many traumatized people in your countries. But the way you reacted… It deserves the collective Nobel Peace Prize! Ukrainians are very wonderful and very grateful people. Our children will never forget what you do for us.”
In an interview with the French magazine Le Parisien, she praised French First Lady Brigitte Macron and Polish First Lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda for heeding her pleas to help Ukrainian children afflicted with cancer be sent to hospitals that can treat them. But her pen’s praise is not for the high and mighty, but for the war’s most vulnerable, most helpless victims.
In an open letter to the mothers of Russia, she wrote: “‘Dead and children.’ These two words refuse to stand side by side. As a mother, I know it’s impossible to even utter them. It means broken hearts, broken families and broken destinies. Now, I have to tell the world about Alice from Okhtyrka. She did not live to be eight years old. She was killed during the shelling of her city, along with her grandfather, who covered her with his own body. I have to tell you about 18-month old Kirill from Mariupol, whose parents raced him to the hospital under fire一but where doctors could not do anything to save him. About Polina from Kyiv, killed by the shelling on the streets along with her parents and brother. About 14 year old Arseniy, who was struck in the head by a projectile. Under heavy fire, the ambulance simply could not reach him and he bled to death. These names must not become statistics. Behind figures unknown to you are the lives of children cruelly cut short.”
On the cover of a magazine
As the mother of a teenager, 17-year-old Aleksandra and nine-year-old boy Kiril, Olena had truly made children the focus of her work as First Lady. Her first official trip as First Lady was to Japan, where she and her husband President Volodymyr Zelenska attended the enthronement of Emperor Akihito. She was inspired that Japanese schools each had a resident nutritionist and she set about reforming the school meals in Ukrainian schools. Of her causes as First Lady, she said, “I sourced numerous ideas and became convinced that making positive changes is real, you just have to sincerely crave something, and work hard.”
As a former screenwriter who co-founded her husband’s production company, she has a natural affinity for languages, and she began to promote the Ukrainian language internationally. She also worked with UNICEF on an essay competition and art project with the theme of “SCIENCE is SHE,” to promote the role of young females in STEM specialities. And as most First Ladies are noticed for their style, with her striking movie star looks and innate, distinctive confidence, she made the perfect model and ambassador for Ukrainian fashion. She told Vogue Ukraine: “I am pleased when they ask me in New York or Paris who is the designer of my outfit. And it wouldn’t be as exciting to name a major Western brand, which they already know there, but how nice it is to promote Ukrainian designers to the world.”
For her Vogue Ukraine shoot, she rocked Prada, in strong colors, and an immaculate white shirt dress by ELENAREVA. Donning white head to toe has become a signature look for Olena, and as white is the color of peace, it is only right that this becomes her trademark.
For her first big trip, she wanted to show much respect and meticulousness. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a protocol note to the President’s office, which elaborates all the protocols and nuances of the office. Olena chose the designer Ivan Frolov and he revealed to Vogue Ukraine: “Our team got well prepared we studied the Japanese ceremonial protocol. The cardinal rule was that the color should be appropriate to the season, so we settled on a pastel yellow outfit for the day ceremony, and a pastel blue for the dinner.” These colors of the Ukrainian flag have now been proudly worn by women such as Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and US First Lady Jill Biden, to express sympathy and solidarity with Ukraine.
The feminine face of war
In the epic movie Troy, the character of wily Ulysses, played with cunning and detached guile by Sean Bean, tells the impetuous and imperious Achilles, brought to life by Greek god-like Brad Pitt: “War is old men talking and young men dying.” But he forgot that war is also the wailing and weeping of women. In her same interview with Le Parisien, Olena paid tribute to the women of Ukraine: “Our resistance, as our future victory, has taken on a particularly feminine face. Women are fighting in the army, they are signed up to territorial defense units, they are the foundation of a powerful volunteer movement to supply, deliver, feed… they give birth in shelters, save their children and look after others’ children, they keep the economy going, they go abroad to seek help.”
So, knowing that women may not start wars, but they can end them, thus begins a nation’s rebirth. Olena reserves her strongest words and biggest challenge to the mothers of Russia: “My question for Russia’s mothers: How do you feel that your sons are slaughtering our children? That they throw bombs at them, shred them with mortars? No mother would ever wish for her son to be a child-murderer. Not even for the generous rewards promised by Putin. “But so far I have heard only a deafening silence from Russia’s mothers. Are they intimidated or indifferent? I don’t even want to imagine, because I don’t know which is worse.
“How many more children must die to convince Russian troops to stop firing? How many more children must be killed by Russian soldiers before their mothers march against this war?”
It is a tad ironic that March is designated Women’s Month since marching is such a traditionally masculine movement. But maybe the month will prove to be prophetic, and that it is women marching forward that can truly change the world.
To end her special letter to Russia’s mothers, Olena pays special tribute to a woman who is the very definition of a strong woman: “As a mother, I try to inspire my children. As Ukraine’s First Lady, I hope to inspire my country’s children. But it is I who am inspired by the children and mothers of Ukraine. The other day, volunteers from the Ukrainian town of Beregovo—on the border with Hungary—helped a refugee from Mariupol cross the border to safety. Her name was Svitlana and she was a teacher. After weeks of constant shelling in the basement of her home, this exhausted woman was carrying no fewer than four children. Only one of them was her own.
“The second child was her sister’s son. Her sister had run out of the house looking for water and did not return. The third child belonged to neighbors who had also been killed. The fourth was an orphan Svetlana had picked up on the streets as she ran to the evacuation buses.
“Thanks to Svitlana, four Ukrainian children are alive.
“That’s what a real mother is—and I bow to her.”
As the whole world bows to Olena, and all the women and mothers of Ukraine, may they all live to see a new day for their children and their land.
Lead photos from @olenazelenska_official