Ukraine’s first lady was little known outside her country until a few days ago – but her posts on the war and the suffering of children have thrust her into the spotlight.
As the president claims his family is “target No 2” on a Russian hit-list, exactly who is Olena Zelenska? How did the couple meet, and what has she been doing since becoming first lady?
The 44-year-old was born in February 1978 in the same city as President Zelenskyy, Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine.
They went to the same school and had mutual friends but didn’t properly get to know each other until their university years in the city.
She studied architecture, while her future husband – who’s just a few weeks older – was doing a law degree.
Ms Zelenska changed her specialism to writing and around the same time Mr Zelenskyy formed his own comedy group, Kvartal 95.
Image: The couple have two children, nine and 17-years-old. Pic: Olena Zelenska/ Instagram
She wrote for the group and the couple would eventually marry in September 2003 and move to the capital, Kyiv.
More on Ukraine
They now have two children – a 17-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son.
Who is President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – Russia’s ‘number one target’?
TV shows and national fame followed for the future president and his comedy production company, leading in 2015 to his hugely popular role in Servant of the People, in which he plays a teacher who becomes president.
Discovered presidential bid ‘on social media’
Ms Zelenska said they had talked about him possibly running for leader, but that she found out from social media that he was going ahead.
Image: The couple casting parliamentary votes in 2019 – Ms Zelenska has since campaigned on many issues. Pic: AP
“I was not too happy when I realised that those were the plans. I realised how everything would change, and what difficulties we would have to face,” she told Ukrainian Vogue in 2019.
She said she is by nature a private person who prefers “staying backstage”.
“I am not the life of the party, I do not like to tell jokes. It’s not in my character,” she told Vogue.
“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,” she said.
Before the war, she campaigned on a range of issues: providing more nutritional school meals, fighting domestic violence, closing the gender pay gap, supporting Paralympic athletes, and getting Ukrainian language audio guides in foreign museums.
As Ukraine continues to dominate the 2020 news cycle, here’s First Lady Olena Zelenska on three covers of the December issue of Ukrainian Vogue pic.twitter.com/tPMbSGs7eV
— Katerina Ang (@katerinareports) November 11, 2019
“I believe that today we share a lot of things in common. Common values, ideas, problems,” she told the Diplomatic Courier during a visit to Washington last year.
“We should care about the issues that concern the whole world – health, education, gender equality.”
‘The way you dress speaks for you – and your country’
Globetrotting meetings with world leaders have become part of her life since her husband’s landslide election win in May 2019.
Image: Prince William and Kate met the couple in London in October 2020. Pic: AP
Ms Zelenska – who speaks fluent English – met the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace in 2020, the Pope at the Vatican, and just a few weeks before the war welcomed the Turkish president and first lady to Kyiv.
She’s also been praised for her style, and often wears clothes by Ukrainian designers to show off homegrown talent.
“The way you dress and the way your present yourself, not only speaks for you, but for your country and what you are trying to accomplish,” she told the Diplomatic Courier.
Image: She hosted the Turkish first lady in Kyiv, just a few weeks before the war. Pic: AP
In June 2020, she was hospitalised with COVID and had “moderate” pneumonia, but did not need oxygen. Her husband and children tested negative.
The devastating events of the past two weeks have seen the first lady take a powerful stand on social media, using her 2.4 million Instagram following to highlight the human toll of the war.
Russia ‘consciously and cynically’ killing children
The change is stark: last month, when some thought the Russian troop build-up was a bluff, she shared a carefree Valentine’s selfie with her husband.
Now she posts messages of defiance and hope, as well as heartbreaking images of children being killed “consciously and cynically” by Russian troops, and young cancer patients forced to flee.
“Show these photos to Russian women – your husbands, brothers, compatriots are killing Ukrainian children!” said Ms Zelenska.
“Let them know that they are personally responsible for the death of every Ukrainian child because they gave their tacit consent to these crimes.”
In an open letter, she said Russia was conducting “mass murder of Ukrainian civilians” but that President Putin had underestimated the “unparalleled unity” of Ukrainians who “do not give up”.
“While Kremlin propagandists bragged that Ukrainians would welcome them with flowers as saviours, they have been shunned with Molotov cocktails,” she said.
The location of Olena Zelenska and her children is currently unknown.
However, her husband said at the weekend his family was still in the country – and she indicates this in her letter which she calls “my testimony from Ukraine”.
Source : Sky News