Who is Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska?

Wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy writes open letter condemning Russia's invasion of her country

Olena Zelenska, first lady of Ukraine, met her husband while they were studying at university. AFP
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Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska on Tuesday accused Russia of the "mass murder" of civilians, including children, in an open letter to the global media on the Russian invasion.

For the first time since the invasion began, Ms Zelenska wrote to the international community about the effect of the war on the country’s most vulnerable.

What has happened to Ukraine is “impossible to believe”, she wrote in the message which was released on the Telegram app.

She said Russia’s military invasion represented “the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians” despite “assurances from Kremlin-backed propaganda outlets, who call this a ‘special operation’”.

Writing about Russia's President Vladimir Putin, she said he had underestimated Ukrainians, who stand in "unparalleled unity".

Here's what you need to know about Olena Zelenska.

University friends

Ms Zelenska was born Olena Kiyashko in central Ukraine in 1978 and met her now-husband Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Kryvyi Rih National University. She studied architecture and he studied law but a career in comedy was awaiting both.

Ms Zelenska wrote scripts for Mr Zelenskyy's comedy group, Kvartal 95, before going on to write for his hit TV show Servant of the People, in which he played the president of Ukraine. The pair married in 2003 and went on to have two children together, Olexandra, now aged 17 and Kyrylo, 9.

She has said she initially opposed her husband's decision to run for president in 2019, due to the upheaval it would cause to their lives.

First lady Olena Zelenska

Britain's Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge meet Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife Olena Zelenska at Buckingham Palace. Reuters

Despite her reticence, Ms Zelenska has taken to her role as first lady. She has spearheaded campaigns for better school meals, against domestic violence and worked to make Ukrainian a language on audio guides in museums around the world.

She has accompanied Mr Zelenskyy on international trips, meeting Prince William and his wife Catherine in Britain in 2020.

The Ukrainian presidency did not immediately respond to a question as to whether Ms Zelenska is currently in Kyiv.

Speaking up in wartime

Deploring the deaths of children in the war in her post on Tuesday, Ms Zelenskyy named some of those killed by Russian strikes and forces and said there were now several dozen children "who have never known peace in their lives".

“Our women and children now live in bomb shelters and basements,” she said.

“The first newborn of the war saw the concrete ceiling of the basement, their first breath was the acrid air of the underground, and they were greeted by a community trapped and terrorised.”

She said Ukraine’s roads were “flooded with refugees”.

“Look into the eyes of these tired women and children who carry with them the pain and heartache of leaving loved ones and life as they knew it behind,” she said.

“The men bringing them to the borders shedding tears to break apart their families, but bravely returning to fight for our freedom. After all, despite all this horror Ukrainians do not give up."

Ms Zelenska justified her testimony by saying that requests from media outlets around the world to talk about the invasion had overwhelmed her.

"Perhaps the most terrifying and devastating of this invasion are the child casualties. Eight-year-old Alice died on the streets of Okhtyrka while her grandfather tried to protect her. Or Polina from Kyiv, who died in the shelling with her parents,” she said.

"14-year-old Arseniy was hit in the head by wreckage, and could not be saved because an ambulance could not get to him on time because of intense fires."

The first lady called for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and appealed directly to journalists.

Ms Zelenska’s work has focused largely on diplomatic and cultural routes.

She has advocated nutritional reform across schools in Ukraine, as well as pushing for an initiative to spread the Ukrainian language across the world, all while campaigning for a society free of barriers.

Ukraine’s first lady holds an architecture degree from Kryvyi Rih National University.

Updated: March 10, 2022, 5:34 AM
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