She is the number two target of the Russians in the war against Ukraine: Olena Zelenska, wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyj. Despite warnings from news services such as the United States, she revealed that she did not expect a Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I couldn’t believe this was going to happen. I didn’t even have my passport with me,” Selenska said in an exclusive interview with British newspaper The Guardian.
On February 24, the day the war broke out, Zelenska, who takes her husband’s feminine surname in Ukrainian, awoke to the distant hum of war to find her husband fully dressed in the room next door. “It’s started,” he said.
“I thought I was in a parallel universe or that I was dreaming,” says Selenska, who has lived relatively withdrawn since the beginning of the war. She doesn’t want to leave the Ukraine, she insists. However, she has moved several times with her children, 17-year-old Oleksandra and nine-year-old Kyrylo.
When her husband set off for the center of Kyiv on February 24, she packed her suitcase herself. Whenever the roar of bombs or fighter jets came too close, she and her children would seek safety in the basement. “It felt surreal. As if I was playing a computer game and had to get through every level to get back home,” says the 44-year-old, who became Ukraine’s First Lady in 2019.
She smiled hard all day so the children wouldn’t see her panic. In the evening the family saw each other again. The couple hugged, but there was no time for tears or sentimentality. Selenska and the children should be taken to a secret place. It wasn’t until later that evening, she says, that she let on the feeling that she might never see him again.
She doesn’t think too much about the danger she and her children are in all the time, “otherwise I would just get paranoid,” says Selenska. Her husband never told her about certain threats either. But she was warned that the Russians could benefit from kidnapping the family.
“Of course, pressure on the president can come from his family and I wouldn’t want him to have to choose between his family and his duties as president,” says Selenska. To prevent this from happening, an arrest should not be allowed in the first place. Selenskyj therefore had his family brought to safety. He himself has not followed the recommendations of western heads of state and has stayed in Kyiv.
Selenska does not say where the family has been in the past two months. “The less I say, the safer I am.” However, she has moved several times with the children and continues to insist on staying in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s first lady also offers an insight into family life during this difficult time. The children were very quick and obedient in everything. “Later we spent most of the time waiting. We watched the messages and waited for calls. The television was on the whole time.” That’s how she often saw President Zelenskyy’s emotional speeches. “It was real, he really had the feelings for sure.”
She could only sometimes talk to her husband on special devices, the days were long and lonely. She is also no longer allowed to use social networks. In order to keep busy, she set herself a precise schedule for each day. “That way you always have something to do and don’t get lost in bad thoughts,” says Selenska.
As far as her husband is concerned, she has not noticed any changes in his mood in the past few weeks. “I’m not worried about his mental health, I’m worried about his physical condition. After difficult times, he always gets sick,” explains Selenska. “As soon as he has time to rest, he will catch a virus or something.”
Although the president’s family could still be a target for Russian attacks, they spend some time in Kyiv – Zelenska does not reveal where exactly, of course, but does not live with her husband. From time to time the children also see their father. Most of the time, however, it is only fleeting encounters between her and her husband.