Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, on Life Under Siege—and How Her Country Is Moving Forward

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Olena Zelenska in 2021.Photo: Stephan Lisowski for Vogue Ukraine

Vogue: Could you describe the earliest days of the invasion? What do you remember most clearly?

Olena Zelenska: I remember the beginning very well. It was a normal working day and evening: the children returning from school, the usual household chores, preparing for the next school day… We had been tense. There had been a lot of talk, everywhere, about a possible invasion. But until the last minute it was impossible to believe that this would happen…in the twenty-first century? In the modern world? I woke up, sometime between 4 and 5 a.m., because of a clunk. I didn’t immediately realize it was an explosion. I didn’t understand what it could be. My husband wasn’t in bed. But when I got up, I saw him at once, already dressed, in a suit as usual (this was the last time I’d see him in a suit and a white shirt—from then on it was military). “It started.” That’s all he said.

I wouldn’t say there was panic. Confusion perhaps. “What should we do with the children?” “Wait,” he said, “I’ll let you know. Just in case, gather essentials and documents.” And he left the house.

Your son is 9 and your daughter is 17. What did you say to them about what was happening?

There is no need to explain anything to children. They see everything, as does every child in Ukraine. Surely, this is not something that children should see—but children are very honest and sincere. You can’t hide anything from them. Therefore, the best strategy is the truth. So, we’ve discussed everything with my daughter and son. I have tried to answer their questions. We talk a lot, because to say what hurts, to not remain silent within yourself—this is a proven psychological strategy. It works.

You have obviously been thinking about the safety of your family–even as you have been seeing violence being done to ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Can you describe your mix of personal and civic feelings?

The war immediately combined the personal and public. And this is probably the fatal mistake of the tyrant who attacked us. We are all Ukrainians first, and then everything else. He wanted to divide us, to shatter us, to provoke internal confrontation, but it is impossible to do this with Ukrainians. When one of us is tortured, raped, or killed, we feel that we all are being tortured, raped, or killed. We do not need propaganda to feel civic consciousness, and to resist. It is this personal anger and pain, which we all feel, that instantly activates the thirst to act, to resist aggression, to defend our freedom. Everyone does this the way they can: Soldiers with weapons in their hands, teachers by continuing to teach, doctors by conducting complex surgeries under attacks. All have become volunteers—artists, restaurateurs, hairdressers—as barbarians try to take over our country. I’ve seen this raise the deepest patriotic feelings in our children. Not only my children, but all the children of Ukraine. They will grow up to be patriots and defenders of their homeland.

How have you coped emotionally? Are there any friends or sources of support you have turned to during this time? How much contact did you have with your husband in those early weeks of the war? And now?

At the beginning there was no time for emotions. It was necessary to take care of the children, their emotional states. So I tried to be confident, smiling, energetic, explaining to them that, yes, it is necessary to go down to the basement and this is why you cannot turn on the light. I tried to optimistically answer their question, “When will we see dad?” “Soon.” In those first days I hoped that we might be able to stay with him. But the president’s office had become a military facility and my children and I were forbidden to stay there. We were ordered to move to a safe place—if, in Ukraine, it is possible to find a safe place now… Since then, we have been communicating with Volodymyr only by phone.

What do you make of the recent moves by the Russian army. Do you see any signs that Russia is willing to de-escalate?

What matters here is not what I think, but what is really happening. Honestly, no one in Ukraine believes any statement of the aggressor. And de-escalation is not yet visible. The Russians withdrew from the Kyiv region, but intensified their attacks in the Donetsk and Odessa regions.

What can ordinary citizens do to help Ukrainians?

The main thing is not to get used to the war—not to turn it into statistics. Continue going to protests, continue to demand that your governments take action. Ukrainians are the same as you, but just over a month ago, our lives changed radically. Ukrainians did not want to leave their homes. But so often they did not have homes left.

Ukrainians have long moved visa-free within Europe—many could travel, and have traveled. Most of our people have been abroad before. But they didn’t plan on being refugees. So: Treat them as one of your own. The main thing these mothers and children dream of is to return home, to reunite their families. So help them adapt, please—home, work, school for children—until they can return.

Also, everyone in the world should know that Russia is conducting a massive information war on the world stage. Any information from them should be treated with caution and critical thinking. In recent days, we have seen several pro-Russia actions in Germany, Greece, and other countries in support of the war. These are being done by Russians. A normal Russian should feel only ashamed of his country’s actions, of the atrocities its army is committing. I never call for violence. But those who support the war must not be trusted.

What is your life like now?

I now live the same way as other Ukrainians. We all have one great desire: to see peace. And I, like every mother and wife, constantly worry about my husband and do everything to keep my children safe.

And what gives you hope?

My family—just like every Ukrainian—and my compatriots: incredible people who organized to help the army and help each other. Now all Ukrainians are the army. Everyone does what they can. There are stories about grandmothers who bake bread for the army just because they feel this call. They want to bring victory closer.

That is what Ukrainians are like. We all hope for them. We hope for ourselves.