Before the war, she’d already become an advocate for the vulnerable, especially children with special needs, and also worked to raise awareness and fight domestic violence. She brought in a renowned Ukrainian chef to overhaul public school cafeteria nutrition, introducing more fruits and vegetables to a diet largely of meat and potatoes, and helped negotiate the introduction of Ukrainian-language audio guides at major international museums. Zelenska has continued this work, not least because millions of Ukrainians are now living abroad, especially in Europe. The schools initiative has shifted because the question is now whether children can go to school at all—Russia has been bombing schools and not all have adequate bomb shelters—or have enough to eat. In her speech to Congress, Zelenska compared Russia’s strategy in Ukraine to The Hunger Games.
That speech showed Zelenska’s style: a tough message with a soft look. Her family had long projected a youthful, future-oriented image of an independent Ukraine to the rest of the world. No longer was this a country of oligarchs and kleptocrats of the post-Soviet years. “She keeps it modern, she keeps it real,” says Julie Pelipas, a London-based Ukrainian designer who helped style the images accompanying this story. “She’s very precise with what she wears, but she gives space to experiment,” Pelipas says. “When she’s wearing a trouser suit, she’s not afraid to be looking too masculine next to the president. This is also a sign of a modern woman in Ukraine—we’re not afraid to show that we’re stronger, that we’re equal with men.”
Not long before Zelenska’s visit to Washington, I asked President Zelenskyy about his wife, and how she was helping the cause. When I reached his office in the presidential compound in Kyiv, past a gauntlet of security, it took me a minute to realize that I’d arrived. There was an ornate parquet floor. I recognized his desk, flanked by a flag of Ukraine, from his video messages. He wore an olive sweater and pants, and sat at the head of a giant long table. Zelenskyy was slight, with a several days’ beard, and looked tired. We shook hands. I told him I was there to talk about another front in the war: the home front. “Home is also the front line,” he said in his gravely baritone, in English before switching to Ukrainian. He told me he understood why millions of Ukrainians had fled the country, but that those who remained needed to be role models, starting with his family. “I can do it for one part of our people, for a significant part,” he said. “But for women and children, my wife being here sets an example. I believe that she plays a very powerful role for Ukraine, for our families, and for our women.”
The war has now entered a crucial, transitional phase. Large swaths of Ukraine’s east and south are under Russian occupation. Zelenskyy wants more military support for defense and to claw back territory Russia has seized since February, if not since 2014, when Russia first invaded Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. International attention has been flagging, while inflation and gas prices are on the rise worldwide. When I asked him about this, Zelenskyy was direct. “I will be very honest and maybe not very diplomatic: Gas is nothing. COVID, even COVID is nothing when you compare it to what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said. “Just try to imagine what I’m talking about happening to your home, to your country. Would you still be thinking about gas prices or electricity prices?” The battle, he said, goes beyond Ukraine. “We are fighting for things that could happen in any country in the world,” he told me. “If the world allows this to happen, then it is not upholding its values. That’s why Ukraine needs support—significant support.”
I asked Zelenskyy how the war has affected his own family. “Like any ordinary man, I have been worried sick about them, about their safety. I didn’t want them to be put in danger,” he said. “It’s not about romance. It’s about horrors that were happening here in Kyiv’s outskirts and all those horrors that are happening now in our country, in occupied territories,” he said. “But of course I’ve been missing them. I’ve wanted to hug them so much. I’ve wanted to be able to touch them.” He’s proud of Zelenska, he said, for coping. “She has a strong personality to start with. And probably she is stronger than she thought she was. And this war—well, any war is probably bound to bring out qualities you never expected to have.”
If Zelenskyy was a bit stiff—telling me Zelenska is a great mother who takes her responsibilities as first lady very seriously—he warmed up immediately when asked about her human qualities, their shared past, what people should know about her. “Of course, she is my love. But she is my greatest friend,” he said. “Olena really is my best friend. She is also a patriot and she deeply loves Ukraine. It’s true. And she is an excellent mother.”
The couple first met in high school in their hometown of Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in southeast Ukraine. When they started dating, it wasn’t love at first sight. He was first drawn to her looks: “You look at someone’s eyes, and lips,” he explained. Then they got to talking. “That’s when you cross the distance from like to love. That’s what happened for me,” he said. (“Probably, humor was this mutual chemistry between us,” she said when I asked about their origin story.) Did Zelenskyy try out his jokes on her? He smiled. “Yes, of course. My jokes don’t always go over well with her. She is a very good editor.”
Zelenska was born Olena Kiyashko. Her mother was an engineer and manager in a construction company and her father a professor in a technical school. Both she and Zelenskyy are only children. Both were raised in Russian-speaking households and learned Ukrainian later. They were 11 when the Berlin Wall fell, and in junior high school when Ukraine gained its independence, in 1991. Aerosmith and The Beatles were her adolescent soundtrack. “We were teenagers in the last days of the Soviet Union,” she said. “The world started to open up for us.” That’s another reason why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is such a shock. “When someone starts telling us that there are no Ukrainians and a Ukrainian is just a bad Russian, we don’t buy it,” she said. “People who were born in independent Ukraine are now in their 30s. It’s a new generation. So nobody in Ukraine can understand their pretext or reasons for invading us.”
At university, Zelenska graduated with a degree in architecture and Zelenskyy studied law, but soon both changed course to dedicate themselves to satirical comedy. At first she had her doubts about making a living in comedy. But the comedy troupe anchored by Zelenskyy had already won a hugely popular competition. “So there was a good foundation,” she said. The troupe would go on to win multiple times, and in 2003 Zelenskyy and friends, including Zelenska, started Kvartal 95, a production company that became one of the largest in the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking world. They named it after the district of Kryvyi Rih where they grew up.
Kvartal 95 produced a popular satirical program, Evening Kvartal, where Zelenskyy was a star and Zelenska a writer for years. She was often the only woman in the writers room, which she enjoyed. “For me it’s easier to deal with men than with women,” she said. Then she hedged: “The doors to the humor world for women are open as wide as they are for men. But fewer women venture in. It takes some courage to take up this path.” The show mocked the region’s politicians and mores, a more mainstream and less edgy version of Saturday Night Live. It helped make Zelenskyy a household name in Ukraine. Evening Kvartal was “a unique thing: the only theater of political satire in the former Soviet Union,” says Alexander Rodnyansky, a film and television producer who has known Zelenskyy for years and whose son is an economic adviser in his government. Rodnyansky was head of the Ukrainian television network that put the show on prime time. “He was doing a very important thing in the social and political process of the country,” he says.
In 2015, Zelenskyy raised his profile even more by starring in a television series, Servant of the People, in which he played a high school teacher who criticizes the ruling class for cronyism and corruption—and finds himself elected president of Ukraine. A few years later, Zelenskyy would—a little uncannily—make this a reality, winning the presidency by defeating Petro Poroshenko, a businessman who had been in power since the first elections after the 2014 Maidan uprising that pushed Ukraine closer to Europe and farther from Russia. Rodnyansky recalls talking to Zelenskyy just before he won. “He said, ‘It’s going to be just one term, we will try to change the country for the better, and then I’ll go and I’ll become a producer again and I’ll do the movie based on my experience and I’ll win the Oscar.’ That’s what he said to me. I was laughing.”
When Zelenskyy decided to run for office, Zelenska was upset. “I respected his choice and I understood that this was an important step for him to make. At the same time, I felt that my life and the life of my family would change quite radically. The change would be long-lasting and quite complex,” she told me. “I knew there was going to be a lot of work for me, and I was right.” Zelenska’s most relaxed moments in our conversations came when she recalled the years before the war and before the presidency. Going to an Adele concert in Lisbon. Driving with friends to Kraków to see Maroon 5. Traveling to Barcelona for a weekend. Watching movies as a family. (They’ve watched Forrest Gump “millions of times,” and she loves Legends of the Fall and The Bridges of Madison County.) Like everyone in Ukraine, she wants a normal life again.
I asked her if anything had prepared her for the war. “Nothing,” she said. “We were living happy lives and we never thought this would happen. But we have hope.” The more I spoke to Zelenska, the more I felt for her, and sensed her isolation, her fear. “It’s true, I feel isolated,” she said. “I can’t freely visit what I want to. Nowadays going shopping is a dream that cannot be realized.” But she was holding it together, for her country, to meet all those expectations. “It’s a difficult task because you feel this burden of responsibility constantly.”
Her efforts are paying off. On my last morning in Kyiv, before another long train ride back to Poland, the rain had stopped and I took a walk through Maidan Square. I stopped to ask people what they think of Zelenska. The responses were all positive. “She’s humble and she’s more contemporary and more modern,” said Antonina Siryk, who proudly told me she works in the state office that designs postage stamps, including a famous new one issued by Ukraine that says “Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself.” I chatted with a couple, Svitlana and Sergiy Karpov, who were living in Kyiv but hoped to return to their home in the Donbas region, now under Russian occupation. Both said they admired Zelenska. “First of all, she’s pretty,” says Sergiy, an excavator operator. “We like their family,” his wife, who works in insurance, added. “They look like they really love each other. You can feel it.”
Back in her office, before I said goodbye to Zelenska, she gave me a book about the city of Kharkiv, which Russia had pounded with artillery. That day, Russia had also fired missiles into Vinnytsia, a city southwest of Kyiv, far from the front lines—sending the message that nowhere is safe. Zelenska was clearly shaken. With an aide’s phone she showed me an image of a dead child there. It was all so much to bear. The war machine, the media machine. She was doing a job she never signed up for and doing it well. As I left, we shook hands, and then I ventured a brief hug. She walked me to the door. I told her I hoped her family would soon be able to have dinner together again at the same table. So many separated families. So many lives lost. “I dream about that,” she said.
This article originally appeared in Vogue on July 26, 2022.