Ukraine's First Lady Takes a Stand amid Russian Invasion: 'I Will Not Have Panic and Tears'

Olena Zelenska is reportedly in an undisclosed location in Ukraine as her husband, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, says she and their kids are also targeted by Russian invaders

Olena Zelenska
Olena Zelenska. Photo: GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP via Getty

While war rages in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has shown his mettle in the eyes of many supporters by remaining in the country despite being a "prime target for Russian aggression," according to a U.S. State Department spokesperson.

"The enemy marked me as target No. 1, my family, as target No. 2," Zelenskyy said Thursday, before reportedly turning down an opportunity from the U.S. to be evacuated from Kyiv, the Ukraine capital, amid Russia's invasion of his country.

While Zelenskyy stands his ground, so does his wife, Olena Volodymyrivna Zelenska, who is reportedly also still in Ukraine — though the president declined to say where she and their two kids are weathering Russian attacks.

"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," Ukraine's first lady said in an Instagram post on Friday.

Zelenska, 44, married her husband in 2003. The couple met at Kryvyi Rih National University, where she studied architecture and writing. They have two children, Oleksandra, 17, and 9-year-old Kyrylo.

In addition to her duties as first lady of Ukraine, Zelenska remains a screenwriter for Kvartal 95 Studio, a production company founded by her husband, who was a popular comedian and actor before winning the presidency in 2019.

Zelenska was "not too happy" when she learned of her husband's political ambitions, she told Vogue Ukraine in 2019.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Olena Zelenska
PressOffice of Ukrainian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty

"I am a non-public person. But the new realities require their own rules, and I'm trying to comply with them," she said then in an interview for the magazine's cover story. "I can't say that publicity or communication with the press is stressful for me. But I prefer staying backstage. My husband is always on the forefront, while I feel more comfortable in the shade. I am not the life of the party, I do not like to tell jokes. It's not in my character."

Zelenksa, who like her husband grew up in Kryvyi Rih (the two were reportedly schoolmates but didn't meet until they attended the same university), told Vogue Ukraine she was thoughtful in picking issues to highlight in her public role as Ukraine's first lady.

"I have been living in this country all my life, and I understand how many problems we have got," she said. "But if I'm going to grab onto everything, it won't work, so our team decided to focus on specific tasks: children's health, equal opportunities for all Ukrainians and cultural diplomacy."When she joins her husband on trips abroad, Zelenska is also deliberate when it comes to her fashion choices, selecting garments made by fellow Ukrainians.

"I am pleased when they ask me in New York or Paris who is the designer of my outfit. And they do ask me," she said. "And it wouldn't be as exciting to name a major Western brand, which they already know there, but how nice it is to promote Ukrainian designers to the world."

Those trips, Zelenska added, were an opportunity for her to learn and gather information that she takes back with her to Ukraine.

"In Japan, for example, there is a nutritionist in every school that pays special attention to the nutrition of children with allergies, and the kitchens in schools are completely separated and sterile, like an operations room," she said. "I sourced numerous ideas and became convinced that making positive changes is real, you just have to sincerely crave something, and work hard."

Olena Zelenska
Pavlo_Bagmut/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty

With her country now under attack, hundreds of people have already been reported dead or wounded, including more children.

But Zelenska is focusing on Ukrainians' resilience, as many take up arms to defend their country or seek protection underground from falling Russian munitions.

"This child was born in the Kyiv bomb shelter," she wrote on Instagram over the weekend in a caption for a photo of a newborn baby. "This was to take place in completely different conditions, under peaceful skies. 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."

Though initially reluctant, Zelenska told Vogue Ukraine in 2019 that she has found reasons to embrace the political spotlight.

"One of them is the opportunity to attract people's attention to important social issues," she said, though she remains protective of her family's privacy. "At the same time, this does not concern the publicity of my children: I have not posted their photos on social networks before, and now I will not either."

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after the country invaded on Thursday, with forces moving from the north, south and east.

Details of the attack and the fighting change by the day, but this is the first major land conflict in Europe in decades. In addition to those who've died and were wounded in the war, thousands more people have fled or tried to escape Ukraine amid warnings of a possible "refugee crisis."

"You don't know where to go, where to run, who you have to call," Liliya Marynchak, a 45-year-old teacher in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, told PEOPLE recently of the moment her city was bombed.

"This is just panic," she said.

The invasion, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn widespread condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

Various countries have also pledged aid or military support to Ukraine as Zelenskyy pleaded for peace talks and urged his country to resist.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the interest of so-called "peacekeeping."

"The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine," President Joe Biden said as the invasion began in force.

Related Articles