Ukraine’s Olena Zelenska tells of war’s impact on family life

In a highly personal interview, Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska has told the BBC of the emotional impact the war has had on her family.

“This may be a bit selfish, but I need my husband, not a historical figure, by my side,” she said.

She also spoke of the family missing spending time together.

“But we stay strong, we have strength both emotionally and physically. And I am sure we will handle it together,” she added.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Olena Zelenska spent months in hiding in secret locations with her children.

She described her emotional state at the beginning of the invasion as “a constant feeling of adrenaline”. As time passed, she found it was “necessary” to calm herself and start living life in “the existing conditions”.

After emerging from hiding last year, the war thrust the former comedy scriptwriter into the spotlight, and she has since travelled the world to meet leaders and give speeches.

There is no doubt about the toll the war has taken on her and her family, like it has for millions of Ukrainians, and she becomes emotional when asked about her children.

“We don’t live together with my husband, the family is separated,” Olena Zelenska told the BBC. “We have the opportunity to see each other, but not as often as we would like. My son misses his father.”

The uncertainty of living in war has also come at an emotional cost for her children, she said.

“It pains me to watch that my kids don’t plan anything. At such an age, young people. My daughter is 19. They dream of travelling, of new sensations, emotions. She does not have such an opportunity.

“There are limitations in time in what you can allow yourself, they exist, and we somehow try to live within them.”

When suddenly air-raid sirens begin to wail in the middle of our interview, she remains poised and unflinching – patiently waiting for it to end. This is very much daily life now for Ukrainians right across their country.

She is also all too aware who is at the top of the list of the Kremlin’s targets – her husband, her children and herself.

The first lady and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky were high-school sweethearts who went on to work together in a comedy troupe and TV studio – him as an actor and her as a scriptwriter.

Now, she reflects that she never dreamt of her husband becoming the “historical figure” he is today, saying she has missed him and needed him to stand by her side as her husband.

Despite what she said may be a “selfish” longing, Olena Zelenska said the president “really does have the energy, the will power, inspiration, and stubbornness to go through this war”.

“I believe in him. And I support him. I know that he has enough strength. For any other person I know, I think, it would be much harder this situation. He really is a very strong and resilient person. And this resilience is what we all need right now.”

Her recent work as first lady has focused on helping Ukrainians deal with the psychological impact of war, and she is preparing to co-host a summit in Kyiv that will focus on mental health and resilience. British actor and writer Stephen Fry – a prominent activist on mental health issues – is the other co-host.

“I really hope that I can inspire someone, can give someone hope or advice, or prove with my own example that we live, we work, we move forward,” Olena Zelenska said.

“No-one can know what awaits them. After all, no-one could have imagined that in the 21st Century, such a war would be unleashed in the middle of Europe, that it would be so cruel. A bloody war. So I never imagined that I would be in this role at this time.”

Ukrainians cannot be sure about tomorrow or have confidence in the future, she explained – but they have hope.

“We have huge hope for victory, but we don’t know when it comes. And this long wait, constant stress, it has its toll.”

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