Olena Zelenska: from screenwriter to Ukraine’s first lady

Wife of Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy famously opposed his 2019 presidential bid

Olena Zelenska
Olena Zelenska ‘spent decades out of the spotlight’, unlike her actor-turned-president husband
(Image credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

While Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defiant response to the Russian invasion has propelled the Ukrainian president into the global spotlight, his first lady has largely confined her public role to morale-boosting social media posts.

But that changed on Tuesday evening, when Olena Zelenska published an almost 1,000-word letter “to the global media” on her husband’s official website.

Zelenska’s “testimony from Ukraine”, published on International Women’s Day, described the “horrific reality” of life in her country as Russia’s invasion intensifies. “Our women and children now live in bomb shelters and basements,” she wrote, naming three of the Ukrainian children who have been killed in Russian attacks. Dozens of newborn children “have never known peace in their lives”.

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The first lady also repeated her husband’s calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a request so far refused by Western leaders amid fears that the conflict could escalate into a global war. “Close the sky, and we will manage the war on the ground ourselves,” she wrote.

‘Decades out the spotlight’

The 44-year-old first lady has “spent decades out of the spotlight”, in contrast to her former actor-comedian husband, said the Daily Mail. The pair went to the same school in Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, but did not meet until they were both students at the city’s National University. She was training to be an architect, while Zelenskyy was a law student – though neither of them ended up with careers related to their degrees.

They married in 2003, when the future Ukraine leader also founded a television production company, Kvartal 95 Studio. Zelenska worked there as a scriptwriter on programmes including Servant of the People, a satirical comedy show starring her husband about a school teacher who becomes president.

Olena Zelenska with her husband Volodymyr

Olena Zelenska with her husband at a summit in Kyiv last year
(Image credit: Mohammad Javad Abjoushak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

She was famously against her husband’s real-life decision to run for president, telling a local television station “that she was ‘aggressively opposed’ to the ‘project’”.

“This is a very difficult move, it’s not even a project, it’s another direction in life,” she added.

Despite her doubts, Zelenska learned via social media on 1 January 2019 that he had announced himself as a presidential candidate. Months after he won the election, she told Vogue that “when I asked, ‘why didn’t you tell me?’, Vladimir answered: ‘I forgot’”.

“My husband knows how to surprise,” she quipped, adding that “we had been discussing this issue for a long time, and I said that I would always support him”.

True to her word, “when the time came for him to campaign, Olena dutifully appeared by his side for photo ops and campaign speeches”, said the Daily Mail.

‘Non-public person’

In the three years since Zelenskyy’s landslide election victory, Zelenska has accompanied him on a string of international engagements, visiting countries including France and Turkey. In October 2020, the couple met Prince William and Kate Middleton at Buckingham Palace, during a two-day official visit to the UK.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife Olena meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

The Ukrainian president and first lady with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace in 2020
(Image credit: Jonathan Brady/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Zelenska has also steered her own course in public life, however, despite being uncomfortable in the spotlight. “I am a non-public person,” she told Vogue shortly after becoming first lady.

“But the new realities require their own rules, and I’m trying to comply with them,” added Zelenska, who appeared on the cover of the fashion magazine.

She revealed that one of her ambitions in her then new role was to reform school nutrition. “The sooner children are educated to eat healthy, the easier it is to explain later that broccoli is better than sausage,” she said.

Zelenska has also spearheaded the launch of dozens of shelters for domestic violence victims and has promoted the Ukrainian Women’s Congress, which works towards gender equality.

Change of focus

The Russian invasion has forced Ukraine’s first lady “into a new position”, said The New York Times. She is now using her platform to “raise awareness of crimes against children and the elderly, and reaching out beyond her country’s borders to call for help”.

For security reasons, the current location of Zelenska and her two children with the president – 17-year-old Oleksandra and nine-year-old Kyrylo – is unknown. Zelenskyy told Channel 4 News on 2 March that he had only seen his family once since the conflict began.

But the first lady has been raising public morale through regular posts on social media.

“I will not have panic and tears,” Zelenska wrote to her 2.5m Instagram followers shortly after Vladimir Putin launched the Russian invasion, on 24 February. “I will be calm and confident. My children are looking at me. I will be next to them.

“And next to my husband. And with you.”

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Kate Samuelson is the newsletter editor, global. She is also a regular guest on award-winning podcast The Week Unwrapped, where she often brings stories with a women’s rights angle. Kate’s career as a journalist began on the MailOnline graduate training scheme, which involved stints as a reporter at the South West News Service’s office in Cambridge and the Liverpool Echo. She moved from MailOnline to Time magazine’s satellite office in London, where she covered current affairs and culture for both the print mag and website. Before joining The Week, Kate worked as the senior stories and content gathering specialist at the global women’s charity ActionAid UK, where she led the planning and delivery of all content gathering trips, from Bangladesh to Brazil. She is passionate about women’s rights and using her skills as a journalist to highlight underrepresented communities.

Alongside her staff roles, Kate has written for various magazines and newspapers including Stylist, Metro.co.uk, The Guardian and the i news site. She is also the founder and editor of Cheapskate London, an award-winning weekly newsletter that curates the best free events with the aim of making the capital more accessible.