How Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s First Lady, became its secret weapon

Exactly where has not been revealed, given the security threat, but most Ukrainians firmly believe they are with him in Kyiv.  And in her posts, the First Lady makes it abundantly clear that she is close to those whose lives are being turned upside down and shattered by the war.

Pictured next to the Ukrainian blue and yellow flag when Russian tanks first rolled into Ukraine, she told her compatriots: “You are incredible. I am proud to live with you in the same country”.

And she donned the mantle of mother of the nation to address the fears of all parents for the safety of their children as Russian bombs and missiles fell on civilians in residential areas. “My children are looking at me. I will not have panic or tears. I will be calm and confident.”

If the Russians, with their vastly superior weaponry and numbers, are struggling to gain an advantage in the battle for Ukrainian cities, the Zelenskys – husband and wife, shoulder to shoulder – are winning hands down the social media war against the cyber-savvy Kremlin disinformation machine. And that may be just as influential in shaping the country’s eventual fate.

Since the invasion began, Zelenska has been very publicly standing by her man and by her nation – or, as she puts it to her 2.3 million Instagram followers, “telling the truth to the world”.

“Ukrainians don’t by nature trust politicians,” reflects Klopotenko, 34, speaking from Kiev, where he has turned his restaurants into food kitchens for soldiers and civilians fighting to save the city, and is posting recipes on social media channels to show Ukrainians how best to use their dwindling supplies to feed themselves. 

 “And so since her husband’s election, they haven’t taken much notice of her either.  But now they are realising that she is real and that she is like them.”

One initial barrier, he suggests, was that – like him – the First Lady was raised in a Russian-speaking home. “Everyone in Ukraine learns Ukrainian in school, but when she first started her public life, you could see how hard it was for her to speak in public in Ukrainian. She would make mistakes, but now she is much better. When this war is over, no-one in Ukraine will want to speak Russian again.”

Olena Kiyashko and Volodymyr Zelensky, 12 days her senior, grew up in the eastern part of Ukraine, attending the same secondary school in the steel town of Kryvyi Rih, north of the Crimean Peninsula, as their country achieved independence in 1991.

But they only got to know each other in 1995 at the city’s university, a former mining college, when she joined a theatre group that included her future husband. It was a slow burn romance, by all accounts, not least because she already had a boyfriend.  

They were, she subsequently recalled, very different characters. “My husband is always on the forefront. I am not the life of the party. I do not like to tell jokes.”  In 2003 they married.

As his career as a performer took off, so too did hers as a screenwriter with acclaimed comedy series such as Liga Smichu (League of Laughter), presented by Zelensky, and How The Cossacks… 

He became a household name with the 2008 film Love in the Big City and its two sequels. The roles flooded in then – including providing the voice of Paddington Bear in the two recent British films of Michael Bond’s classic tales when they were dubbed into Ukrainian.  

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