Ukraine's First Lady Speaks Out in Rare Interview amid Invasion, Praising Courage of Her Country's Women

“Our resistance, like our future victory, also has a particularly feminine face,” Olena Zelenska said in an interview with a French paper published this week

Olena Zelenska
Photo: Pavlo_Bagmut/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty

Speaking recently from an undisclosed location inside Ukraine, First Lady Olena Zelenska expressed admiration and gratitude for the other women who, she says, are playing a crucial role in her country's resistance against the Russian invasion.

"In Ukraine there are 2 million more women than men. These days, this statistic takes on its full meaning," Zelenska, 44, told French newspaper Le Parisien in an interview published Monday, according to a translation. "Our resistance, like our future victory, also has a particularly feminine face."

"Women are fighting in the army, they are signed up to territorial defense, they are the foundation of a powerful volunteer movement to supply, deliver, feed," continued Zelenska, who married Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2003.

She listed the ways fellow Ukrainian women are holding up the country since Russia attacked on Feb. 24. Even pregnant women, who may not be able to fight or work, have been displaying remarkable feats of bravery, she said.

"Since the start of the war, we have had over 4,000 babies," she told Le Parisien. "They were born in basements, in the subway, in bomb shelters … and sometimes in bombed out maternity wards — as happened in Mariupol," a Ukrainian port city that has been the site of intensive fighting.

"Others are simply doing their jobs, in hospitals, pharmacies, shops, transport, public services," Zelenska added, "so that life continues."

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

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Though President Zelensky, 44, has said that he and his family — including Zelenska, their daughter, 17-year-old Oleksandra, and 9-year-old son, Kyrylo — are being targeted by Russian forces, the first lady has remained inside Ukraine's borders and engaged in diplomacy with her counterparts in Europe.

France's First Lady Brigitte Macron was one of the first to respond, Zelenska told Le Parisien, after she reached out early in the war on behalf of Ukraine's now more than 3.5 million refugees, according to The Guardian, which translated portions of Zelenska's interview.

"When Russia attacked Ukraine and our people began to search for a safe place, I asked for the support of the first ladies of the world," she told Le Parisien. "My call has been heard. I would like to thank all the Europeans who now help our people — who house, feed, encourage. I imagine it's hard for you too. Like us, you weren't ready for this. So many traumatized people in your countries. But the way you reacted … It deserves the collective Nobel Peace Prize! Ukrainians are wonderful and very grateful people. Our children will never forget what you do for us."

Reiterating a message she has expressed on social media since the violence began nearly a month ago, Zelenska said this week that while she and the women of Ukraine are heartbroken, they are equally determined to remain strong and defend their country for as long as it takes.

Olena Zelenska
Olena Zelenska. GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP via Getty

"The tears were and are there when I see our victims, dead children, families shot or buried under the rubble of their own homes. We can't help it," she told Le Parisien. But there is no panic. Panic happens when you don't know what to do. And I know perfectly well what we have to do, and the Ukrainian people know it too. Our plan is to protect Ukrainians and win."

Part of that effort includes working with France's Macron and Agata Kornhauser-Duda, the wife of Polish President Andrzej Duda, to evacuate sick children in need of medical care.

"When it became clear that it was impossible to treat children with cancer in the bomb shelters, we immediately sought a solution," she said.

The first ladies launched what Zelenska called a "convoys of life" and a "real rescue operation," bringing young patients to Lviv in western Ukraine, where their medical records are translated into various languages and they are treated by doctors before being safely transferred out of the country.

"Some will stay in Poland, others will be redirected to France, Italy, Germany, the United States, Canada," Zelenska said. "I'm glad I was able to be helpful in the process. In particular, I am happy that our agreement with Mrs. Macron has allowed us to bring small patients to France."

Asked whether she has a message for the Russian people, Zelenska again focused on women, saying she preferred to "address the mothers of Russian soldiers."

"Your sons are killing civilians in Ukraine — women, children, entire families. They came here for this and consistently carry out orders from their leadership," she said. "They did not come for a 'special operation.' They came for the extermination of the people. Russian soldiers are dying here, cursed by our mothers. Putin promised you compensation for the dead, I don't know what compensation can replace a child. For those who agree, I have nothing to say to them."

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