Who is Olena Zelenska? Ukraine’s First Lady and Vogue cover star by president’s side as Russia wages war

Architecture graduate and comedy writer, 44, once opposed Volodymyr Zelensky’s political career but now uses her position to champion social and humanitarian causes

Laurie Churchman,Chiara Giordano
Tuesday 01 March 2022 14:23
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<p>First lady Olena Zelenska with her husband Volodymyr Zelenskiy in 2019 </p>

First lady Olena Zelenska with her husband Volodymyr Zelenskiy in 2019

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Olena Zelenska started her career a screenwriter - now, she’s the first lady of a country at war.

Ms Zelenska, 44, used to write for the comedy troupe that catapulted her husband to fame, and eventually into public office.

Now, Volodymyr Zelensky is president of Ukraine as Russia tries to seize control in an invasion that has cost hundreds of lives and left millions of people fleeing their homes.

The first lady was born Olena Kiyashko on 5 February 1978, in Kryvyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine.

Ms Zelensky was born the same year in the same town – but the pair didn’t meet until they were both students at Kryvyi Rih National University.

Ms Zelenska was studying architecture at the time but later turned her attention to writing and now works as a screenwriter for Ukrainian production company Studio Quarter 95.

She wrote for the comedy group that first brought her husband into the spotlight before his most famous role as a spoof politician in the hit Ukrainian TV series Servant of the People.

The couple married in 2003 after eight years of dating and welcomed their daughter, Oleksandra, in July 2004 and their son, Kyrylo, in January 2013.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky speaks while embracing his wife Olena Zelenska as they record a Valentine’s Day message just two weeks ago

Since the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Mr Zelensky has said he is Russia’s “number one” target, and his wife and their two children are a close second.

Ms Zelenska became the first lady of Ukraine on 20 May 2019 when her husband took office and on 18 November that year she appeared on the cover of the country’s edition of Vogue.

She once told a local TV station she “aggressively opposed” her husband’s plans to become president at first “because this is a very difficult move; it's not even a project, it's another direction in life.”

The couple cast their ballots in parliamentary elections in Kyiv in 2019

The first lady also told Ukrainian Vogue she prefers to stay “backstage” and is “more comfortable in the shade” rather than “always on the forefront” like her husband.

“I am not the life of the party, I do not like to tell jokes. It’s not in my character,” she said.

“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.”

But over the last three years, she has used her position to champion social and humanitarian causes, including gender equality and childhood nutrition.

Meeting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in London in 2020

In December 2019, during a speech at the third Ukrainian Women’s Congress, Zelenska initiated Ukraine’s accession to the G7 international initiative on gender equality, the Biarritz Partnership.

She was successful in introducing legislation to improve the nutritional quality and variety of food in Ukraine’s schools, and also started an initiative in June 2020 to promote the Ukrainian language.

Zelenska has often been applauded for her wardrobe, which showcases Ukrainian designers.

And as the bombs have fallen, Zelenska has taken a high-profile role on social media to rally support.

The 44-year-old posted an image of a baby swaddled in blankets on Instagram, writing: “This child was born in the Kyiv bomb shelter.

“This was to take place in completely different conditions, under peaceful skies. It is what children should see.

“But the main thing is that despite the war, there were doctors and caring people on our streets next to her. She will be protected and defended. Because you are incredible, dear compatriots.

“We are the army, the army is us. And children born in bomb shelters will live in a peaceful country that has defended itself.”

The couple (both right) alongside the president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan in Kyiv in early February

In another post she shared a photo of the Ukrainian flag, adding in a message: “My dear people, Ukrainians! I’m looking at you all today: everyone I see on TV, on the streets, on the internet. I see your posts and videos. And you know what? You are incredible.

“I am proud to live with you and in the same country … Today I will not have panic and tears. 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. I love you! I love Ukraine!”

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