Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, declared that despite the next winter’s cold and the Russian missile blackouts, Ukraine will persevere and continue to wage what she refers to as a “war of world views” since “without victory, there would be no peace.”
We meet in a historic city where the winter air is biting, the attractive street lamps are dimmed, and the buildings are turning cold and gloomy due to blackouts caused by Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine’s power supply. The Ukrainian people have received praise for resisting Russia’s ferocious attack. However, this is just another trying test of perseverance.
Olena Zelenska declares as we settle down in a strongly guarded enclosure hidden behind a maze of Kyiv buildings covered in sandbags, “We are ready to suffer this.”
Blackouts are hardly the worst thing that has happened to us because we have faced so many horrible difficulties, witnessed so many deaths, and experienced so much destruction. She quotes a recent survey in which 90% of Ukrainians stated they would be willing to put up with electricity outages for two to three years if it meant having a chance to join the EU.
She is aware that it appears like a very long, cold road.
When you know how many kilometers are involved, running a marathon is simple, she observes. However, in this instance, the Ukrainians are unaware of the required running distance. She admits that it can be really challenging at times. However, certain fresh feelings support our ability to hang on.
The first lady of Ukraine stoically asserts that everyone in Ukraine will grow stronger as a result of this conflict.
Our in-depth interview, which lasted almost an hour and was taped for the BBC’s annual 100 Women season, took place in the iconic House of Chimaeras, which is fronted by 10 Bankova Street, the Ukrainian equivalent of 10 Downing Street, and is adorned with elephant-head gargoyles and sculptures of mythical creatures. The structure served as the setting for President Zelensky’s well-known speech to rally Ukrainians on February 26. The speech was recorded on his phone two days after Russian tanks crossed the border. “Here I am. We won’t surrender our weapons, “He announced.
He had stated in another selfie video the previous evening that “I have been designated as target number one, and my family has been designated as target number two” in one of his nightly addresses.
Olena Zelenska recounts, her words hardly masking the immense stress that her family, like all Ukrainian families, are suddenly torn apart, is experiencing. “And so it was from the first day and it continues now,” she says.
President Zelensky works nonstop, just a few sandbag barriers and security checkpoint ring away. So near yet so far away. When they last ate dinner together with their kids, Oleksandra, 18, and Kyrylo, 9, she won’t specify a specific day. “These days, it is exceedingly uncommon. quite uncommon, “she claims.
She says, “My spouse lives at work and I reside separately with my kids. Most of all, we miss the ability to sit for as long as we wish without checking the clock.
Every Ukrainian’s life has been flipped on its head, from engineers to ballerinas who are now fighting on the front lines to the eight million people who were compelled to leave their homes and start over in other countries.
The lives of the president and first lady have always been intertwined. High school sweethearts who later collaborated in a comedy troupe and TV studio, with the serving as the scriptwriter behind the scenes while he played the funny. She made it obvious that this wasn’t the life she desired when he ran for president three years ago. However, this war has catapulted her into the global spotlight.
After Russian 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”.
President Zelensky, who hasn’t traveled since Russia’s invasion, wasn’t at the platform when the US Congress twice gave a standing ovation to a Ukrainian leader in July; instead, it was his wife. Furthermore, the first foreign first lady to be given the opportunity to address the US Congress never enjoyed speaking in front of an audience.
She says, “I was afraid. However, I was aware of the mission; it was difficult to pass up this opportunity.
As she regularly does, she emphasized the extreme hardship endured by Ukrainian children while denouncing Russia’s “hunger games.” She then took it a step further and requested weaponry from the US Congress.
Had a first lady who lacked formal authority overstepped the mark? She claims, “It was not politics; it was what I had to say. “I requested weapons, not for the purpose of attacking, but rather to stop our children from being murdered in their homes.”
Olena Zelenska had previously started the Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen the year before these historic months. Today, a strong global network has aided in the evacuation of Ukrainian children in need of cancer treatment and has helped create chances for education. In the nations that have taken in millions of Ukrainian women and children who were forced to flee—without their husbands, who are prohibited from leaving during a period of war—it has provided access to Ukrainian publications.
As this crisis drives up energy and food prices internationally, I ask her if she now detects a certain “weariness” in other capitals. “They do not, in my opinion, tire of us. They are all aware that this conflict extends beyond Ukraine. It is a battle of ideologies.”
Her prominent position makes her the most recognizable representative of a fractured society in which women are assuming new responsibilities everywhere, from leading as sole parents to fighting on the front lines. Any UN report on pre-war Ukrainian society will include terms like “patriarchal,” “traditional,” and “with women’s responsibilities constrained by gender.”
Olena Zelenska is sure that Ukrainian society is changing faster than it was before the war engulfed the country. “Church, kids, and the kitchen are no longer relevant in today’s culture. A lady who has experienced this will not retreat.”
Olena Zelenska: We will endure https://t.co/wj16tG9O4G
— Boabeng Kwadwo Gerrald (@bhraquajuo) November 25, 2022
She recently established Olena Zelenska Foundation addresses the most difficult issues, such as domestic violence and mental health. While fighting might make people more resilient, it can also rip people apart.
She says, reflecting the hardening public opinion as claims and proof of Russian war crimes continue to surface and entire cities and towns are being razed to the ground: “We cannot betray those who are currently residing in occupied areas. People who are awaiting independence cannot be abandoned.”
She quickly adds: “The president or the government do not hold this to be their political position. The position of Ukrainians is this.”
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
The first lady is definitive, navigating this political minefield with caution. “We are all aware that peace cannot exist without victory. It wouldn’t endure long and would be a false calm.”
How does she define “victory”?
She responds without delay. A return to normal life can sometimes make it appear as though everything has been placed on hold. That also entails a different way of living for her and her husband. “We go beyond being spouses. We are truly the best of friends, “she claims.
“How are you?” was the first thing I asked the first lady. She said that “We are holding on” was the universal response among Ukrainians.