Who is Olena Zelenska?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s family came to the spotlight last week when he said that their enemy had marked them as “target number 2” following him. The proclamation drew attention to the plight of his family, first lady Olena Zelenska, and the couple’s two young children, Aleksandra and Kirill.

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Olena, who is a scriptwriter, has been by the side of her husband, who has been leading the fight against Russia from the frontlines. The 44-year-old and the President have become the global faces of Ukraine’s resistance, with their picture-perfect family providing a sharp contrast to the isolated and forbidding images of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There is no formal office for the First Lady in Ukraine, but Zelenska has carved out a role as the war progressed.

“Today, I will not panic or (shed) tears. I will be calm and confident. My kids are watching me. I will stand by them, by the side of my husband and together with you,” Zelenska posted a week ago, as Russia attacked Ukraine. Her latest effort has been to announce the launch of a special Telegram channel with verified information on communication and traffic movement, how to help war efforts, and how to evacuate and get psychological support, among others.

Olena’s early life

In April 2019, when Zelensky, an actor and comedian, swept the presidential elections, few outside Ukraine’s entertainment circuit had heard of Zelenska. “I am a non-public person…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,” she told Vogue, Ukraine.

Zelenska was born Olena Kiyashko in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in central Ukraine where the President was raised, speaking predominantly Russian. The two had a number of common friends but it was only at the Kryvyi Rih National University, where she was studying architecture and he law, that the two first met. She, reportedly, had a boyfriend at the time and he was busy trying to make a career in comedy.

It was comedy that united them. Zelensky is one of the founders of Kvartal 95 or Studio Quarter 95, a leading provider of entertainment TV content in the country, and he got Zelenska on board as the scriptwriter. “Our ambitious objective is to make the world a better place, a kinder and more joyful place with help of those tools that we have , that is humour and creativity. We are moving towards this goal, trying to conquer the whole world, of course,” Zelensky, who is also the creative producer of Kvartal 95, had said. The two married in September 2003.

One of the studio’s most successful shows was “Servant of the People”, in which Zelensky played the role of a schoolteacher, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, who finds himself becoming the President of the country by accident. Zelenska was one of the writers of the show. Life would imitate art for Zelensky, propelling him into a world of global politics, but Zelenska, despite being the First Lady, kept going to office at Kvartal 95 to create stories. “I write the scripts as before. However, now you need to divide your day between the President’s Office and the ‘Quarter’, and follow the timing,” Zelenska had told Vogue.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with his wife Olena Zelenska. (Photo: Instagram)

Life as the First Lady

As First Lady, Zelenska has been proactive in areas such as children’s nutrition and helped reform the school nutrition system. In a social media post, she shared that she began to eat healthy only after the birth of her daughter when she, like many women, turned out to be a little heavier and wider than before”. “I decided that regular sports will quickly fix things and I will look in the mirror again with pleasure. I didn’t change the diet and ate everything I wanted. After a year, I was tired of working out and had lost motivation and some weight,” she wrote. She consulted an expert, who put her on a dietary regimen that yielded the desired results — 10 kg lost in three months.

In another post, she celebrated the Parliament’s passing of a Bill that allowed men to get an additional 14-day paid leave for three months after the birth of their child. “Personally, I have been waiting for this bill to be passed. This is the first important legislative step for the development of responsible parenting in Ukraine,” she said.

Her role during the war

As the Russian aggression continues, Zelenska has been drawing attention to the plight of women and children. “Ukrainians have to take their children to the basement every night and fight the enemy beneath the walls of their homes. Ukraine is a peaceful country. We are against war and did not attack first. But, we are not going to give up. The whole world, look: We are fighting for peace in your countries as well,” she posted on her Instagram page.

Her two children, Aleksandra, a teenager who has acted in films, and Kirill, are among the most vulnerable in Ukraine. The President had announced that “the enemy has marked me down as the number one target”. “My family is the number two target,” he had said. On Valentine’s Day, the husband-wife had recorded a video about love, telling people, “Let’s love each other and let’s love Ukraine. We are at home, we are in Ukraine”.

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