What does it mean to be the first lady of Ukraine? Not what it means in America, certainly, where (Dr.) Jill Biden still has to watch what she calls herself and keep any untoward ambition of her own to herself.
In Ukraine, any questions First Lady Olena Zelenska might have had about her role as the wife of President Volodymyr Zelensky were answered by Vladimir Putin. In the past few weeks, Olena has inspired her fellow Ukrainians to keep holding on until the cavalry arrives. The former television writer gives daily advice on how to survive in wartime on Zelensky’s channel on Telegram—an essential source of verified news—and posts with Trump-like velocity (before the Putin-smooching president was banned, that is). She has 2.6 million followers on Instagram, which is one reason Putin plans to shut it down this week.
When we spin the roulette wheel and marry, for better or for worse, no one thinks the “worse” part includes genocide. Olena met her husband when she was in high school, though they were just acquaintances. They started dating seriously after Volodymyr wooed her away from her then boyfriend, but he waited eight years to propose. Olena graduated with a degree in architecture but never touched a blueprint, instead writing scripts for her husband-to-be at Kvartal 95, the entertainment company she and Volodymyr built. They married in 2003, and in 2019 he decided to run for president, a small matter he “forgot” to mention to his wife, according to Vogue Ukraine, perhaps because he knew she feared “how everything would change, and what difficulties we would have to face.”
She had no idea. Volodymyr won the presidency in a landslide, and Olena, now 44, was thrust into the public eye. She colored within the traditional lines of first lady projects, including school nutrition, literacy, and women’s rights, more Hillary and Michelle than Melania, whom she eerily resembles physically but not in other ways. She has her own words and need not borrow Hillary’s. She wears off-the-rack jackets without the message “I don’t really care, do you?” She very much cares. In the tradition of Clinton, Olena convened the Kyiv Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen with the theme “Soft Power in New Reality,” with the goal of combining the efforts of first spouses in the fields of health, education, and equal opportunity.
In a barrage of social media postings, Olena alternates between dark warnings to the West about the assault on democracy and inspiring stories about those who have nothing helping people who have even less. As missiles and bombs rain down on the nation of 41.5 million (minus the some 3 million the UN estimates have fled), she writes that “our cities, towns, and villages were full of life,” but no longer, as Putin commits “the mass murder of civilians.” To convince the U.S. to send Polish MiG jet fighters, she predicts that what’s happening in Ukraine won’t stay in Ukraine: “The war in Ukraine is not a war ‘somewhere out there,’ but in Europe.” Ukraine, she says, is just the first, and is “stopping the force that may aggressively enter your cities tomorrow.”
When Putin called Ukrainians “too emotional” for accusing him of killing children, her reply was stark. “When Russia says that it is ‘not waging war against civilians,’ I call out the names of these murdered children first,” she wrote. “Alice, Polina, Arseniy.” About the youngest, Olena wrote, “What newborns see as they come into this world is the concrete ceiling of the basement, their first breath the acrid air of the underground, greeted by a community trapped and terrorized.” These are just three of the 97 children her husband says have been killed. She is a mother herself, of a 17-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son.
She also spreads the joy of small victories to cheer those weak with hunger and exhausted by sleepless nights in subway stations rocked by bombs. Two weeks ago, she posted photos of young cancer patients who had been ripped from their hospital beds when the shelling started; she replaced them with pictures showing the children crossing the Polish border to resume treatment. “No aggressor in the world will prevent them from winning the battle against the disease!” she wrote.
Exclamation points can’t compensate for besieged cities like Mariupol, the southern port where things are going from worse to worse. The wounded pregnant woman carried out on a stretcher after a maternity hospital was attacked, whose photograph was widely circulated worldwide, has died. More than a thousand Mariupol residents have fallen, many buried in mass graves, evoking the horror of Babi Yar in Kyiv, where Nazi Germany’s forces, during its campaign against the Soviet Union, lined up, shot, and pushed 34,000 Jews—dead and alive—into a ravine in what may be the largest two-day massacre in history.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used rhetoric to rally their citizens in the darkest days, Olena has to hope that her pen proves mightier than MiGs. The country’s hopes are buoyed by arms from the West, but citizen-soldiers are still crafting handmade Molotov cocktails while the Russians deploy Sukhoi-57 aircraft and ballistic missiles.
Olena has no weapons — just a camera, a voice, and the truth that comes from remaining in the middle of the war with the millions of Ukrainians she connects with every day. When her husband said, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” Olena agreed and hunkered down. For security reasons, the government, such as it is, won’t say where she and her children are, only that they remain in Ukraine.
Ukrainians have held off the Russians for almost three weeks, with a first lady whose efforts have made her Target No. 2 for assassination, as her husband said in one of his televised appeals for more munitions. Yet, she persists. “If we don’t stop Putin now,” she warns from her bunker, “there will be no safe place in the world for any of us.”
First ladies are generally more popular than their husbands because they stay out of politics. Under siege, like her country, Olena finds herself revered at home and abroad for her rallying of Ukraine with Churchillian determination. But Olena and Volodymyr have done something Winston and Clementine, and Franklin and Eleanor, never did. They’ve mobilized the nation not while the barbarians were at the gates, but after they had already entered the house. Lincoln just missed getting shot when he visited Fort Stevens in the nation’s capital, but that’s not the same as the Confederates winning Gettysburg and laying siege to Washington. We don’t know if three months from now the couple will be in prison in Moscow, under a pile of rubble, or still leading their nation. Olena is convinced—and convincing—that it will be the last one.