She is a screenwriter by profession, but war-torn Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska has emerged from the wings to take centre stage, finding her voice as a powerful advocate for her people.
Initially a reluctant public figure, the 44-year-old spent weeks in hiding at the start of the war, moving with her two children from one safehouse to the next as Russia cut its deadly swathe through her country.
But she has since returned to the spotlight on an international charm offensive, addressing the US Congress this week as part of Ukraine’s outreach for Western support in its struggle for survival.
“Help us to stop this terror against Ukrainians,” she implored lawmakers as she appeared in person to show them images of children maimed by Russia, four months after a virtual appearance by her husband, President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelenska noted she was the first wife of a foreign leader to address Congress in an impassioned appeal that earned her a standing ovation and plaudits from the wider political establishment.
But the diplomacy does not come easily.
“I have always been a non-public person and did not like the additional attention to myself,” she told Elle magazine a few months before the February 24 invasion.
“But in two and a half years as the first lady a lot has changed for me… I understand well that fate gave me a unique chance to communicate with people.”
An architecture graduate, Olena Kiyashko was brought up in Kryvyi Rig, the city of 650,000 in central Ukraine that was also the hometown of her future husband.
The couple met when they were 17-year-olds at the same college and friendship blossomed into romance as they began careers in the entertainment industry, he as a comic actor and she writing his jokes.
‘I will not panic’
They married in 2003 and moved to Kyiv to make a life together, becoming parents to Oleksandra, now 17, and her little brother Kyrylo, who has turned nine.
Largely unknown before 2019 — and happy that way — Zelenska has recalled in interviews how she was “not too happy” when her husband forgot to tell her he was running for the nation’s highest office.
She had to find out like everyone else — on social media.
Anna Chaplygina, a Ukrainian etiquette expert, contrasts Zelenska — a “person of duty” who has “never tried to pretend to please” — with first ladies such as Michelle Obama who were more at home in the limelight.
“She never dreamed and never aspired to become first lady and she found herself there accidentally — and in the midst of a planetary crisis,” Chaplygina told AFP.
It wasn’t until a year after the election that the family moved into the presidential mansion, the president saying he had been persuaded of the need for the kind of security one might expect for the first family of a country threatened by a giant neighbour.
When Zelenska went to bed on February 23, she could not possibly have known she would not sleep alongside her husband again for months.
While the president determined to stay put, the first lady went with the children into hiding, her campaigns for improved school lunches and promoting Ukrainian language and culture abroad put indefinitely on hold.
“Today I will not panic and cry. I will be calm and confident,” she told the people of Ukraine in a message posted to Facebook that day. “My kids are watching me.”
‘More lives saved’
During the weeks that followed, the only glimpses the family caught of Zelensky were his appearances on television and social media, as video calls were out of the question.
Her return to the public spotlight came at a meeting with US First Lady Jill Biden in western Ukraine on May 8, marking the start of her transformation into a sought-after global figure.
Driven by a powerful imperative to make up for those weeks lost on the road, she has packed her schedule, connecting with the wives of leaders in France, Israel, Poland and Lithuania, making speeches and giving interviews.
Other than a brief reunion in May, Zelenska and her husband were apart for her entire time out of Kyiv, giving her insight into the pain of permanent separation felt by those who had lost loved ones.
While she was in the US, the first lady moved lawmakers with images of Liza Dmitrieva, a little girl she had met, who was killed by a Russian strike last week in the central city of Vinnytsia.
Alyona Getmanchuk, director of Kyiv-based think tank the New Europe Center, told AFP Zelenska’s unique personal touch had helped “strengthen the message” of Ukraine’s plight as she “built this bridge” with Washington.
“She spoke about humanitarian needs, which is a normal topic for the first lady,” Getmanchuk said.
“But (she) also showed that in the Ukrainian case more military aid means more lives saved.”