Screenwriter, First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska has been reluctant to move behind the scenes to the front of the political stage, but since the Russian invasion, she has continued to raise her voice for her people.
Unlike Volodymyr Zelensky, one of the country’s most famous comedians before he was elected president in 2019, his 44-year-old wife has been reluctant to take up public office.
At the beginning of the Russian offensive, she spent several weeks in hiding, moving from one cover to another as troops from Moscow approached Kyiv.
Since then, the graceful, long-haired blonde and reserved, close-to-classic blonde has made a strong comeback with the onslaught of international glamour, addressing the US Congress this week to demand more Western support for Ukraine.
“Help us put an end to this terrorism against Ukrainians,” she pleaded with the American actors at the end of tears by showing them personally photos of disabled children, four months after her husband’s video-intervention.
Ms. Zelenska noted that she was the first wife of a foreign leader to address Congress, to which she was given a standing ovation.
However, the art of diplomacy did not come naturally to him.
“I’ve always been a non-public figure and don’t like the extra attention I’ve been given,” she told Elle magazine a few months before the invasion.
She added, “In my two and a half years as First Lady, many things have changed for me (…) I realize that fate has given me a unique opportunity to connect with people.”
An architecture graduate, Olena Kiachko by her maiden name, grew up in Kryvy Rig, in central Ukraine, where her husband is also from.
The couple met when they were 17, their friendship blossomed and turned into a romantic relationship as they began their career in the entertainment industry, he was a comedian and she is a joke writer.
– ‘I won’t panic’ –
They married in 2003 before moving to Kyiv, and they had Oleksandra, now 17, and younger brother Kirillo, 9.
Unknown to the public about her husband’s election in 2019 and very happy as such, Olena Zelenska confirmed during interviews that her husband did not warn her when he decided to run for president.
She learned the news like no one else: on social media and seemed uncomfortable during official events early in her tenure.
“He’s a duty person,” analyzes Anna Chaplegina, an etiquette specialist. “It’s not Michelle Obama,” much more comfortable in the spotlight, but rather “Kate Middleton making her debut” in the royal family.
“She never dreamed or aspired to be first lady and found herself there by chance – and in the midst of a planetary crisis,” Chaplegwina told AFP.
When she went to bed on February 23, the day before the invasion, Mrs. Zelenska did not know that she would not sleep next to her husband for several months.
While Volodymyr Zelensky was determined not to flee from the Russian forces, his wife hid with the children, suspending her campaigns for better school meals and the promotion of Ukrainian language and culture abroad.
“Today I will not panic and cry. I will be calm and confident,” she told her compatriots in a Facebook post that day. “My kids are watching me.”
– ‘More lives saved’ –
In the ensuing weeks, the family was able to see only Volodymyr Zelensky during his appearances on social media and the media.
Ms. Zelenska returns to the front of the stage during a meeting with US First Lady Jill Biden in western Ukraine on May 8.
Since then, the Ukrainian has filled her schedule with contacts with the wives of French, Israeli, Polish and Lithuanian leaders or even with speeches and interviews.
In the United States, it sparked pictures of lawmakers with pictures of Lisa Dmitrieva, a four-year-old girl she had met who was killed in a Russian raid last week in Vinnytsia, central Ukraine.
For Alyona Gutmanchuk, director of the Center for New Europe, a Kyiv think tank, Ms. Zelenska’s personal touch helped “reinforce the message” about the plight in her country.
“She spoke about humanitarian needs, which is a regular topic for the first lady, but she also showed that in the case of Ukraine, more military aid means more lives saved.”