Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska appears on the digital cover of US Vogue

·Lifestyle Writer, Yahoo Life UK
·5 min read
Olena Zelenska. (Annie Leibovitz//Vogue)
While Olena Zelenska doesn't deny the horrors of the war in Ukraine, she is 'looking forward to victory'. (Annie Leibovitz/Vogue)

Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska has appeared on US Vogue's special digital cover with an accompanying interview.

The wife of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with journalist Rachel Donadio inside the presidential office compound in Kyiv and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

"As the war in Ukraine enters a critical new phase, the country's First Lady, Olena Zelenska, has become a key player – a frontline diplomat and the face of her nation’s emotional toll," British Vogue wrote on Instagram, sharing the story.

Read more: Olena Zelenska: The defiant First Lady of Ukraine

“These have been the most horrible months of my life, and the lives of every Ukrainian,” she told Vogue US, through a translator.

Olena Zelenska. (Annie Leibovitz/Vogue)
Olena Zelenska with female soldiers at Antonov Airport in Hostomel, a city in Ukraine. (Annie Leibovitz/Vogue)

“Frankly I don’t think anyone is aware of how we have managed emotionally.”

But Zelenska added, inspired by her fellow Ukrainians, “We’re looking forward to victory. We have no doubt we will prevail. And this is what keeps us going.”

This comes after her emotional plea to Congress in the US for more defence systems, addressing them "not as a first lady but as a daughter and a mother". She paid homage to Ukrainian children killed in the war in a speech outside Kyiv's Saint Sophie Cathedral, hanging bells in the trees with grieving parents.

Read more: Russia-Ukraine war: How to talk to kids about the conflict

Watch: Olena Zelenska asks U.S. Congress for additional weapons to defend Ukraine

“The bells stood for the voices of the innocent children, so they would ring forever and be heard forever,” Zelenska told the publication. “I was in tears the whole hour I was there.”

She's also leading an initiative to train mental-health practitioners and teach first-line responders to act as counsellors, to help Ukrainians suffering from trauma.

Zelenska opened up to Donadio about having to adapt to her role as First Lady. "I like being backstage – it suited me,” she said. “Moving into the limelight was quite difficult for me.”

Before Zelenskyy became president in 2019, he was an actor, comedian and TV personality, while Zelenska was a screenwriter. He also founded production company Studio Kvartal 95, which produced the popular satirical comedy Evening Kvartal, which he stared in and she was a writer for.

This helps to explain her preference to work more behind the scenes, in more normal circumstances.

Despite originally being hesitant about her husband running for presidency, she said modestly, "I'm trying to do my best."

Olena Zelenska. (Annie Leibovitz/Vogue)
Olena Zelenska and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the presidential office compound in Kyiv. (Annie Leibovitz/Vogue)

Donadio describes Zelenska as a 'subtle promoter of Ukranian designers', wearing an ecru silk blouse with a black velvet bow tied around the neck and black mid-calf skirt on the first day of their meeting, and wide-leg jeans, chunky white sneakers with yellow and blue details, from the fundraising project by brand The Coat, and a button-down shirt, on the second.

With the pair discussing both Ukranian fashion and what Zelenska describes as "a war of extermination" in the same breath, Donadio acknowledges the strangeness of this before adding, 'and yet this is the cognitive dissonance of today's Ukraine'.

Read more: Russia invading Ukraine: anxiety coping tips for events you have no control over

Speaking about her family being targets of the Russian invasion, Zelenska said, "I can't think about it too seriously, because otherwise I would become paranoid."

When the war began in February, Zelenska was at home in the presidential residence in Kyiv with Zelenskyy and their two children Oleksandra, 18, and Kyrylo, nine.

Talking about the early days of the war, with her husband in the limelight, and her and her children moving between safe locations, she said, "My daily schedule didn't have a free moment when I could just sit back and start thinking about bad things."

Aside from her First Lady duties, she helped her son with online schooling despite obvious challenges, played board games and read. During a period of time, she wasn't able to speak to Zelenskyy or her parents.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska attend the funeral ceremony of Ukrainian first president Leonid Kravchuk in Kyiv, Ukraine, May 17, 2022 (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Olena Zelenska at the funeral ceremony of Ukrainian first president Leonid Kravchuk in Kyiv in Ukraine, May 2022. (Getty Images)

On being with her children, she said, “I don’t even know how I would have survived these months if we had been apart.” Meanwhile, Zelenskyy still hasn't been able to see them.

Before her visit to Washington, Donadio had also spoke to the President himself. "Home is also the front line," he said, when told she was there to ask about the home front.

On the importance of his family being role models, he said, "I can do it for one part of our people, for a significant part.

"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."

While he has, of course, "been worried sick" about his family and has "wanted to hug them so much", he's proud of his wife. “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.”

He added, "Of course she is my love. But she is my greatest friend. 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."

Read more: How to help Ukraine: 9 ways you can make a difference from the UK

Coming back to Zelenska, when asked if anything had prepared her for the war, she said, "Nothing. We were living happy lives and we never thought this would happen."

Maintaining some degree of optimism, she then added, "But we have hope."

In the story she wears Ukranian designers, including Bettter, Six, Hvoya, The Coat, Kachorovska and Poustovit, with Julie Pelipas as the fashion editor.

A version of the digital cover story, organised in partnership with the Ukrainian edition of Vogue, will be published in the October 2022 issue.