Reluctant First Lady, Olena Zelenska, aged 64, is living the life she didn’t want, as wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Olena was an architect, screenwriter and former model. Now she holds a high-profile role in the midst of a brutal war, and has said, being the First Lady of Ukraine is “A life I did not want.”
Olena’s mother was the head engineer of a factory and her father taught construction at a technical university. Young Olena was not trained for the vital role she would eventually come to fulfil.
Volodymyr and Olena dated for eight years, before they married in September 2003. Volodymyr is reported as a secular Jew, with no attention given to the Jewish rituals, so he had no difficulty in marrying a gentile girl.
Olena and Volodymyr founded one of the biggest television entertainment production companies in Ukraine, before going into politics. She was always happier remaining in the background.
Olena Zelenska Reluctant Public Speaker
Olena Zelenska says she was uncomfortable with public speaking, yet in Dec 2019 she spoke at the third Ukrainian Women’s Congress. There she initiated Ukraine’s accession to the G7 international initiative on gender equality. Olena also spoke at the fourth and fifth Women’s Congress. International public figures, government officials, politicians, experts and opinion leaders called for equal rights for both men and women.
In 2020, Olena started an initiative to spread the Ukrainian language around the world. She introduced Ukrainian-language audio guides in the largest museums in the world and other public places overseas. Olena launched an online questionnaire in May 2020, discussing a barrier-free society. In 2021, Olena initiated the Kyiv Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen, with the theme ‘Soft power in new reality’. Now it’s a powerful global network.
Prior to the war with Russia, Olena used her position to improve quality, nutrition and safety of food in schools, besides the provision of resources to schools. The new food standards were adopted on 1st September, 2021.
Number Two Target
Following the Russian invasion in 2022, Olena became Russia’s number two target, behind her husband. Despite this, Olena has travelled on behalf of the Ukraine. It was impossible for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to safely travel.
Olena has focused her war efforts on obtaining humanitarian aid and involved in the evacuation of children with disabilities through Poland. She was also involved in importing incubators to hospitals in the war zone areas. Olena made her first public appearance since the Russian invasion, in May 2022, with a meeting with First Lady, Jill Biden, at a shelter for the displaced.
The reluctant First Lady of the Ukraine spoke at the State of the European Union. The EU Commission President paid homage to Olena’s courage.
In November 2019, Olena first appeared on the cover of Vogue in a formal portrait with her husband. This was not long after Volodymyr Zelenskyy was made president. Michele Obama was on the cover of Vogue three times, Kamala Harris has appeared once, while Melania Trump never made it to the cover. Yet, Olena’s second appearance in July 2022 caused a huge controversy.
Olena’s casual portrait was titled, ’Portrait of Bravery’ and stirred up a storm, for and against the image of the First Lady. She was in casual gear, sitting on the steps of the palace, staring fixedly ahead. Many claimed she had weaponized Vogue. She explained, “Millions read Vogue, and to be able to speak to them direct, that was my duty. I believe it is more important to do something and be criticized for it than to do nothing.”
Others said the cover and article in Vogue was a piece of brilliant battle strategy, with the aim of keeping the suffering and pain of the Ukraine-Russian war in the eye of the public.
United States and England
Olena visited the United States in July 2022 and addressed the US Congress. She became the first First Lady of a foreign country to speak to the US Congress and was twice given a standing ovation.
Olena called for more military aid. “So that our children do not die in their homes.” She dedicated the opening of her speech to the families and children impacted by the war in the Ukraine. “I appeal to you on behalf of those who are still alive and those who wait for their families to come back from the front. I am asking for weapons that would not be used to wage war on somebody else’s land, but to protect one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home.” Around eight million Ukrainians, mainly women and children, have been forced to flee into new lives across the border.
In September 2022 Olena attended the state funeral in London, of Queen Elizabeth II on behalf of all Ukrainians.
Olena expressed the Ukrainian determination in a recent interview with the BBC, conducted in a heavily secured compound, tucked inside a sandbagged labyrinth of buildings in Kyiv. The reluctant First Lady is one of the BBC’s 100 Women for 2022.
“We’ve had so many terrible challenges, seen so many victims, so much destruction, that blackouts are not the worst thing to happen to us.” She cited a recent poll where 90 % of Ukrainians said they were ready to live with electricity shortages for two to three years if they could see the prospect of joining the European Union.
Olena admitted that it was very rare that her husband, and best friend, was able eat with her and 18-year-old Oleksandra and nine-year-old Kyroylo. “I live separately with my children and my husband lives at work.” Olena and her children often hide in secret locations. This wife, mother, and First Lady keeps popping up in speeches on zoom, or at times in person. She is smartly dressed, but her shy smile gives way to strongly worded speeches.
A War of World Views
The reluctant First Lady has stepped nervously onto the world stage, stating, “This is not just a war in Ukraine. It is a war of world views.” Ukrainian women are taking up new roles, from fighting on the front lines to taking charge as single parents. Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine society was described as ‘patriarchal’ and traditional, where women’s roles were limited by their gender.
Olena says, “Kitchen, children, church – this is not for our society anymore. A woman who has lived through this will not take a step back.” She states she is not political, merely Ukrainian.
While Moscow glows brightly in the night, by comparison, Ukraine is dark. “We face a long hard winter with little light. All Ukrainians will become stronger because of this war.” Yet, for the Ukrainians, peace can only come with victory.
Women Step Up
As was the case in World War I and World War II, women stepped into roles they had not been previously permitted to hold or wanted to hold. Olena Zelenska has proved once again, that women have far more ability, determination and inner fortitude than most societies attribute to them, as they place severe limitations on the ‘fairer sex’.
Women have long had to strive to get their voice heard, yet when it comes time to face tragedy, or adversity, it is the women who have to stand and be counted. Olena never thought in her wildest dreams that she could possibly fill the role of First Lady and a First Lady with a voice that counts. Continue to pray for her safety and endurance as she stands for the people of her nation and has reluctantly become the face of resistance.
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Wendy is an inspirational writer, for which she has a strong passion. She is also very passionate about her garden and family. She says life is too short to waste, so live it to the fullest.