Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, on Life Under Siege—and How Her Country Is Moving Forward

Vogue: Could you describe the earliest days of the invasion? What do you remember most clearly?

Olena Zelenska: I remember the beginning very well. It was a normal working day and evening: the children returning from school, the usual household chores, preparing for the next school day… We had been tense. There had been a lot of talk, everywhere, about a possible invasion. But until the last minute it was impossible to believe that this would happen…in the twenty-first century? In the modern world? I woke up, sometime between 4 and 5 a.m., because of a clunk. I didn’t immediately realize it was an explosion. I didn’t understand what it could be. My husband wasn’t in bed. But when I got up, I saw him at once, already dressed, in a suit as usual (this was the last time I’d see him in a suit and a white shirt—from then on it was military). “It started.” That’s all he said.

I wouldn’t say there was panic. Confusion perhaps. “What should we do with the children?” “Wait,” he said, “I’ll let you know. Just in case, gather essentials and documents.” And he left the house.

Your son is 9 and your daughter is 17. What did you say to them about what was happening?

There is no need to explain anything to children. They see everything, as does every child in Ukraine. Surely, this is not something that children should see—but children are very honest and sincere. You can’t hide anything from them. Therefore, the best strategy is the truth. So, we’ve discussed everything with my daughter and son. I have tried to answer their questions. We talk a lot, because to say what hurts, to not remain silent within yourself—this is a proven psychological strategy. It works.

You have obviously been thinking about the safety of your family–even as you have been seeing violence being done to ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Can you describe your mix of personal and civic feelings?

The war immediately combined the personal and public. And this is probably the fatal mistake of the tyrant who attacked us. We are all Ukrainians first, and then everything else. He wanted to divide us, to shatter us, to provoke internal confrontation, but it is impossible to do this with Ukrainians. When one of us is tortured, raped, or killed, we feel that we all are being tortured, raped, or killed. We do not need propaganda to feel civic consciousness, and to resist. It is this personal anger and pain, which we all feel, that instantly activates the thirst to act, to resist aggression, to defend our freedom. Everyone does this the way they can: Soldiers with weapons in their hands, teachers by continuing to teach, doctors by conducting complex surgeries under attacks. All have become volunteers—artists, restaurateurs, hairdressers—as barbarians try to take over our country. I’ve seen this raise the deepest patriotic feelings in our children. Not only my children, but all the children of Ukraine. They will grow up to be patriots and defenders of their homeland.

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