Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska tells the BBC that Ukraine will endure this coming winter despite the cold and the blackouts caused by Russian missiles, and will keep fighting what she describes as a war of world views, because “without victory there can be no peace”.
We meet in a storied city where a winter’s chill is biting, where charming street lamps are dimmed, where buildings are going dark and cold in the midst of blackouts as Russia keeps striking Ukraine’s energy grid. The Ukrainian people have won plaudits for standing their ground against Russia’s blistering assault. But this is yet another painful test of fortitude.
“We are ready to endure this,” Olena Zelenska asserts when we sit down in a heavily secured compound tucked inside a sandbagged labyrinth of buildings in Kyiv.
“We’ve had so many terrible challenges, seen so many victims, so much destruction, that blackouts are not the worst thing to happen to us.” She cites a recent poll where 90 % of Ukrainians said they were ready to live with electricity shortages for two to three years if they could see the prospect of joining the European Union.
That seems like an awfully long cold road, and she knows it.
“You know, it is easy to run a marathon when you know how many kilometres there are,” she says. In this case, though, Ukrainians don’t know the distance they have to run. “Sometimes it can be very difficult,” she says. “But there are some new emotions that help us to hold on.”
All Ukrainians will become stronger because of this war, Ukraine’s first lady stoically predicts.
Our wide-ranging almost hour-long interview, recorded for the BBC’s annual 100 Women season, takes place in the iconic House of Chimaeras, adorned with elephant-head gargoyles and sculptures of mythical creatures, facing 10 Bankova Street – Ukraine’s version of 10 Downing Street. The building formed the backdrop for President Zelensky’s famous 26 February speech to rally Ukrainians, filmed on his phone two days after Russian tanks rolled across the border. “I’m here. We won’t lay down our arms,” he declared.
The night before, in one of what became nightly addresses, he had announced in another selfie video that Russia “has designated me as target number one, and my family as target number two”.
“And so it was from the first day and it continues now,” Olena Zelenska recalls, her words barely hiding the enormous strain that her family, like all Ukrainian families now ripped apart, are going through.
A few walls of sandbags and circles of security checks away, President Zelensky carries on, around the clock. So close and yet so far. She won’t give an exact date for when they last had dinner together with their children, 18-year-old Oleksandra and nine-year-old Kyrylo. “It’s very rare nowadays. Very rare,” she says.
“I live separately with my children and my husband lives at work,” she explains. “Most of all, we miss simple things – to sit, not looking at the time, as long as we want.”
Every Ukrainian’s life has been turned inside out – from engineers to ballerinas now fighting on front lines, to some eight million, mainly women and children, forced to flee into new lives across the border.
The president and first lady’s lives have long been entwined. High school sweethearts, they went on to work together in a comedy troupe and TV studio, he a comic actor and she, backstage, a scriptwriter. When he ran for president three years ago, she made it clear this wasn’t a life she wanted. But this war has thrust her into the spotlight, on a global stage.
After Russia missiles started whistling into Kyiv in the early hours of 24 February, Olena Zelenska spent months in hiding in secret locations with her children. She emerged on 8 May – Mothers’ Day this year in Ukraine, and many other countries – when she joined the US First Lady Jill Biden at a shelter for the displaced in the relatively safe western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Now she keeps popping up in speeches on zoom, or at times in person, with her smartly styled hair and classic shirts or jackets, with a shy smile which gives way to strongly worded speeches which come from “a mother, a daughter, a first lady”.
When the US Congress gave a standing ovation, twice, for a Ukrainian leader in July, it wasn’t President Zelensky at the podium – he hasn’t travelled since Russia invaded – it was his wife. And the first foreign first lady granted the privilege of addressing the US legislature never liked public speaking.
In an exclusive interview in Kyiv, Ukraine’s first lady talks to the BBC’s Lyse Doucet about the impact of war on mental health, the new roles Ukrainian women are taking on, and what victory would look like.
“I was scared,” she admits. “But I understood this mission… it was impossible to miss this chance.”
She emphasised, as she always does, the profound suffering of Ukrainian children, condemning what she called Russia’s “hunger games”. Then, she went much further, asking the US Congress to send weapons.
Had a first lady, without official powers, crossed a line? “It was not politics, it was what I had to say,” she says. “I asked for weapons, not to attack, but to prevent our children from being killed in their homes.”
The year before these momentous months, Olena Zelenska had already established a Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen. Now it’s a powerful global network which has helped evacuate Ukrainian children needing cancer treatment and provide opportunities for education. It has arranged access to Ukrainian books in the countries that have welcomed millions of Ukrainian women and children forced to flee – without their husbands, who are barred from leaving in a time of war.
I ask whether she now senses a certain “fatigue” in other capitals, as this crisis pushes up energy and food prices beyond the borders. “I don’t feel they are tired of us. They all understand that this is not just a war in Ukraine. It is a war of world views.”
Her prominent role makes her the most visible face of a shattered society where women are taking up new roles everywhere, from fighting on front lines to taking charge as single parents. Check any UN document about Ukrainian society pre-war and it uses language like “patriarchal”, “traditional”, with women’s roles limited by gender.
Olena Zelenska is adamant that Ukrainian society was changing even before war overwhelmed everything, and that this change is now accelerating. “Kitchen, children, church – this is not for our society any more. A woman who has lived through this will not take a step back.”
Her newly formed Olena Zelenska Foundation deals with the toughest of challenges including mental health and domestic violence. As much as war can toughen individuals, it can also tear them apart.
In a reflection of the hardening public view as allegations and evidence of Russian war crimes keep emerging, as entire cities and towns are pummelled to the ground, she insists, “We cannot betray those who are now in occupied territories. We cannot leave people who are waiting for liberation.”
She hastens to add: “This is not a political position of the president or the government. This is the position of Ukrainians.”
Heart breaking photo. Missile destroyed this couple’s home. It took away their happy carefree future. But there is something Russia could not take away from them. Each other. I am often asked about where do I find strength to fight daily. There is only one answer: in our people. pic.twitter.com/LY04J06V1p
— Олена Зеленська (@ZelenskaUA) November 18, 2022
Carefully stepping through this political minefield, the first lady is categorical. “We all understand that without victory, there will be no peace. It would be a false peace and wouldn’t last long.”
And what does “victory” mean to her?
She answers without hesitation. “A return to a normal life… sometimes it seems we have put everything on pause.” That includes a different kind of life with her husband. “We’re not just spouses. I can safely say we are best friends,” she says.
My first question to the first lady had been, “How are you?” She replied that, for all Ukrainians, their answer was, “We are holding on.”
But, for how long? It’s a question no-one can answer.
Olena Zelenska is one of the BBC’s 100 Women for 2022 – the others will be announced at the launch of the season on Tuesday 6 December